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What’s in a name? Building types and their insults

Will Wiles

Will Wiles considers the critical comparisons given to buildings and wonders where accusations of abattoir, sewage works and electricity substation take us

Clearing house Sampson House from Blackfriars Bridge in London.
Clearing house Sampson House from Blackfriars Bridge in London. Credit: Tristram Compton/Emporis

Some years ago, this magazine was based at Ludgate House, on the south bank of Thames in London. It offered a fantastic panorama of the river and central London, prominently including its near-neighbour, Sampson House, just across the Thameslink train lines. 

Sampson House, a brutalist ziggurat in concrete and dark metal, was in dock next to Ludgate House’s ocean liner. From our elevated position in the tower next door, it had a heavily-serviced, industrial feel. It was hard to love, but undeniably charismatic, and like all charismatic buildings it generated stories and myths. Its basement was eight, 12, 20 levels deep, depending on who you talked to – everyone agreed it was deep. There was, of course, a nuclear bunker in there, or command centre, or whatever. And – this was the best – it was where your cheques went to be incinerated, assuming they didn’t get bounced back to you.

This last story was the best because it was true, or at least true enough. Sampson House was a cheque-clearing and financial data centre for Lloyds Bank, where numbers scrawled in ballpoint became electronic ones and zeros. Whether they were burned afterwards, I don’t know, but I hope they were. It’s so much more romantic that way, a flash of cleansing flame at the end of the ant-work of everyday finance, a Viking funeral for your fulfilled promises. 

But did Sampson House look like an incinerator? It had a proper chimney stack which lent credence to the story – and added to its nautical appearance – as did the industrial ruggedness of its materials and suggestion of menace. How much of the gossip about incinerators and bunkers was simply subconscious anti-brutalism? It recalls Prince Charles’s attempt, years ago, to malign John Madin’s brutalist Birmingham Central Library as ‘a place where books are incinerated, not kept’. 

In my last column I said the popular discussion of architecture often resorts to ‘a tatty list of derogatory clichés’ and promised to return to the subject. And here we are. Though not threadbare enough to be a cliché on its own, the incinerator belongs on the list with the abattoir, sewage works and electricity substation, all of which make appearances when the intention is to compare a building to a utilitarian and drab place with an unpleasant or noisome function. But the ‘big three’ clichés are the alien spacecraft, prison and airport.

How many wicker spaceships are there? And what’s so bad about spaceships?

The alien spacecraft is literally anything that appears out of place, with bonus points if it is raised up on pilotis. I was moved to write this column when I saw that objectors had used the analogy for aLL Design’s Will Alsop-esque student accommodation proposed for Cambridge. It’s a baffling comparison – out of place it might be, but its cladding of scattered battens made it more like a picnic basket or a birdwatching hide. How many wicker spaceships are there? And what’s so bad about spaceships? Very advanced bits of kit, they are.

‘Prison’ makes sense as an insult – an ugly place of confinement, where no one would choose to be. But it’s generally used to describe concrete modern buildings, which makes me wonder how many people have actually looked at real prisons. They are either gloomy Victorian brick or cheapo post-80s PFI brick. If there’s a distinctive modernist prison anywhere in the country, I’m unaware of it. What new prisons actually resemble is out-of-town warehouses, which I suppose is what they are. 

Confusion really takes flight with the airport, intended to evoke an impersonal scale, and a restless absence of place. Euston Station is often disparaged with this comparison, for its large booking hall, now cluttered with retail, and tunnel access to trains. But arguably the reconstructed St Pancras is now more airport-like, with its subterranean departure lounge reached via shopping mall, and people love it. But did it ever look like a railway station? Prince Charles criticised the British Library, next door, as looking more like a terminus than its neighbour. Think on it too long and you start to question what anything looks like. 

Will Wiles is an author



Condemnation by comparison isn’t new, of course, it just changes with the ages, as styles and tastes and scales shift. Yesterday’s insults won’t cut it – people rarely compare things to stables any more. But some stick in the mind, such as Horace Walpole’s sneering about Robert Adam’s ‘gingerbread and sippets of embroidery’.