How We Hate on Architecture Now

Bold projects, like Zaha Hadid's stadium in Qatar, have to be ready for nasty nicknames.

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Neoscape

Thankfully, the vagina stadium controversy appears to have faded from the news cycle already.

Zaha Hadid has made her definitive defense, telling Time how ridiculous it was that her proposed Qatar World Cup stadium would be likened to female anatomy, as it was by Jon Stewart and the snickering denizens of Facebook and Twitter.

"What are they saying? Everything with a hole in it is a vagina?" she asked, a rhetorical question that is surely headed for the history books of architects attempting to explain their designs.

I was sympathetic, and not just because I sensed some comeuppance for someone who has become the "it" girl for contemporary architecture. Though it's all too common, it feels unfair that a building would be willfully misinterpreted (in this case, the reference was supposed to be to a Middle Eastern dhow, a kind of local fishing boat).

It all also reminded me of how architecture is so routinely pilloried, and with such imaginative comparisons, delicious takedowns, and clever labels. The nicknames come from comedians and critics, rivals and urban legend.

London is clearly current headquarters for this business, beginning with Norman Foster’s Swiss Re tower, all but officially renamed the Gherkin, as in the pickle (just think – if somebody came up with it first, it could have been the pine cone). Then there’s the Cheese Grater and the Walkie-Talkie (the Leadenhall Building and 20 Fenchurch Street, respectively), handily skewered side by side in this review in The Guardian.

The Swiss Re building, aka the Gherkin. Image via Sundar/Wikimedia Commons

(left); The 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie Talkie. Image courtesy of the architects. (right).

In the case of Rafael Vinoly’s Walkie-Talkie building, the playful label didn't just stick. It got worse. Because of sunlight reflecting intensely off the concave glass curtain wall, it is now the Walkie Talkie Death Ray building, or Walkie Scorchie, the Fryolater, take your pick. Inevitably, a journalist fried an egg on the sidewalk subject to the intense reflection, which had damaged cars and caused carpeting to smolder.

When I first moved to Boston, I quickly learned the nicknames for this city's mid-century modernist structures, a whole lingo of landmarks. The Federal Reserve was the "refrigerator building"; 100 Federal Street, bubbling out near the base, was the "pregnant building." (Aha! Another lady parts reference).

Mockery, of course, is nothing new. It’s just been on a steady incline throughout the 20th century.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum was derided when it opened in 1959. Robert Moses likened it to an "inverted oatmeal dish." Another critic called it an "indigestible hot cross bun."

The Carpenter Center at Harvard, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (left); A blueprint for the building (right).

Critics blasted Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard, which turned 50 this year, as a "white whale on stilts," and, my personal favorite, "two pianos having sex." But at least the attacks had softened. The chapel at Ronchamp was merely “an ecclesiastical garage” (good one!) and his proposed 100,000-seat stadium of the late 1930s, according to none other than Picasso, a "cup without a saucer" (snap!).

This is a lot of fun, and the list could go on. A master at this game is doomsayer James Howard Kunstler and his Eyesore of the Month feature. San Francisco's new transit center? "Man-eating amoeba." Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library? "Highway overhang." Next?

The San Francisco Transit Center. Image courtesy of the architect.

Skeptics would say the pillorying parallels the ludicrous forms that star architects feel they must create to outdo each other, and accordingly the way contemporary architecture has lost its way. Much more urgent needs – affordable, efficient housing, the revitalization of places like Detroit, planning the urban expansion of cities in the developing world – should be occupying the design profession, the argument goes.

Part of the super-charged, everybody's-a-critic dynamic is clearly due to, what else, the Internet and social media, which has expanded architectural criticism to new audiences and put it into hyperdrive. Scrutiny that was once confined to the neighborhood zoning hearing is now blasted out via a design blog, shared on Facebook, and chewed over in hundreds upon thousands of comments. "Yeah, that definitely looks like a vagina. LOL."

It certainly puts the pressure on, and steps up the need to plan ahead against the possibility of a nasty nickname. Neoscape, the company that did the computer-generated renderings for AECOM and the Zaha Hadid stadium, has suggested that technology is making renderings increasingly vivid. Renzo Piano’s tower on the Thames, The Shard, beat the public to the punch, turning a potentially negative concept into an exercise in branding. Image-conscious Beijing essentially did the same thing with its Olympic stadium, such that it was the most natural phrase in the world to say, "Meet me at the bird's nest."

I'm not sure that’s a viable option for the Qatar facility.

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