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Did you say eyesore?

Hugh Pearman

How to spot an architectural philistine

Dear Hugh,  

I suspect that my friend may be an architectural philistine, but is there a sure-fire way I can prove this?  I’d hate it to spoil our relationship.

Yours anxiously,  ‘Spacemaker’


Dear ‘Spacemaker’, 

As it happens there is an infallible test for architectural philistinism, and it is this. Does he or she employ the term ‘eyesore’? If so, unfriend them now, while there is still time.

Best,  Hugh


Dear Hugh, 

I feared as much. Before I delete all social media connections with my former chum, could you explain both why we are communicating in this antiquated epistolatory format, and why the word ‘eyesore’ carries such significance?

Confused, ‘Spacemaker’


Dear ‘Spacemaker’,

I’m afraid I have invented you as a character purely to make a point in my column, after which you will cease to exist.  This is why you find yourself wearing a smoking cap and  writing with a steel-nibbed dip-pen on laid vellum paper.  As for the matter of ‘eyesore’, let me explain: It’s a lazy way to dismiss something you happen at the moment not to like – a building, say, or a wind turbine farm. If challenged on this, the usual response is to claim that it is ugly. 

‘Ugly’ is often more interesting than ‘beautiful’. Ugly has character. Beauty is often vapid

There are several things wrong with this way of seeing the world. For a start, it assumes everything must be ‘beautiful’, but beauty is only apparent by way of contrast with what is not beautiful. Moreover, ‘ugly’ is often more interesting than ‘beautiful’.  ‘Ugly’ has character. ‘Beauty’ is often vapid. Elegance can veer into brittle dandyism.  But above and beyond this is the fact that – surprise, surprise – opinions on what is ugly and what is beautiful change over time. And here, dirt – always the developer’s friend – comes in.  In the 1950s and 60s it was normal to dismiss High Victorian buildings with their fussy turrets and dormers and hard brick and tilework as not just ugly but dirty too. Somehow the buildings were to blame for their dirt, which implied lack of hygiene – the mantra that gave rise, via sanatoria, to modernism. Dirty ugly buildings got demolished.

Today nobody is quite so naïve, surely? Oh yes, they are. In the campaign to get the great Preston Bus Station listed, those opposing used the same terminology as the demolishers of the 1950s and 60s. It was an ‘eyesore’. It was ‘ugly’. It was dirty, stained, smelt of urine, etc etc. Now it’s listed and a comprehensive plan has been put in place to re-use and upgrade it. I dare say it will be cleaned.

As I write this, demolition is getting under way on John Madin’s former Birmingham Library despite an active campaign to save it. This has always been the way: what survives from any era is a lottery.  But one thing you may be sure of: if anyone uses the word ‘eyesore’, their minds are firmly closed.

Apologies for now terminating your fictional existence, ‘Spacemaker’. You and your friend have outlived your usefulness.