I was walking through Stockholm, with a few hours to kill before taking a plane, when I was stopped in my tracks. I don’t know if an independent observer would have seen my jaw drop in a literal manner, but I feel that it did. Now, Stockholm is perhaps not the world’s most beautiful city, but it certainly isn’t bad. Architecturally it is very consistent, with a definite recognisable style. It hasn’t been ruined by British 1960s “town planners” or by visits from 1940s Luftwaffe pilots. There is plenty of ornament on buildings, a tasteful palette of colours, an efficient enclosing of volumes, and the build quality of the structures is generally good. The building I saw at that moment was, I suspect, the ugliest building in Stockholm, but can you guess what it is?
It won an award, but that tells you nothing because most astonishingly-ugly modern buildings win awards. It is not domestic housing. My main clue for you is that the building’s identity is somewhat ironic. This building is so ugly that it is even worse than most modern buildings in Britain, and that’s saying something.
Its skyline is an utterly uninspiring flat line. It is grey. It is oh so very grey. Grey can be a nice colour. It can be gentle and silvery. a graphite pencil drawing in grey can look good, as can a misty day. But here you see no filigree details picked out by an artist, no subtle shading of grey vapours, nor any silvery gleams. You see, I suggest, a flat, inhospitable, dull, dirty, depressing, abrasive wall of grey.
The windows are impressively bad. The windows are the eyes of a building, and each of these is an expressionless, dead, shark’s-eye. Could they have been made to look less friendly, or more dull, or more cheap? Look at the way they are spaced out. Is the spacing random? Can you detect a pattern? Every floor, and even every little section of each floor avoids symmetry. I look for pattern or symmetry or character to recognise a face, and this building has no face.
Imagine walking past this building. What is the view of it to the man walking along the pavement? Where are the doors and windows at ground level? There are none. Instead, the citizens of this city are presented with a blank wall, just partly broken up by some foliage. I wonder if that greenery was on the architect’s sketches. I have been told that there was a plan to cover up the building with ivy, but that this was foiled because the concrete contained too much toxin for the ivy to grow.
Now study the entrance. To get to the small, dim and dismal door, one has to climb either a staircase or a long ramp. These two routes have been constructed in the meanest way. The stairs are the narrowest the builders could get away with, and since they come across the building rather than lead towards it, there is no feeling of approaching the front, but instead the visitor is too close to the building to see it on his right as he climbs. I was especially struck by the meanness of the roof over the staircase, which was the smallest it could possibly be, and would only shelter someone on the steps if the rain were falling perfectly vertically on a calm day. Presumably the designers would proudly state that words such as generosity, magnificence and beauty are old-fashioned things that no longer deserve consideration or admiration.
Perhaps I should show you the immediate surroundings while you formulate your guess.
Here you see the building across the street in one direction. It has ornament, colour, proportion, symmetry, interesting and varied nice windows, and a throws a shape against the sky.
Across the street the other way is this building. It is nothing marvellous, I admit, but it is solid and fitting.
Down the street pictured in the last photograph is the next door building, pictured here. Note the nice brickwork, the confident roof-line, and the assemblage of turret-like extensions with their individual roofs in pleasant copper-green, and red pantiles. See also the grey flat mass of our mystery building, looming on the left.
The Lloyd-stopping building fronts onto a big junction. Another road leading away from that junction is this one, through an archway. The only thing wrong here I see is the wire aerials on the rooftops.
So, have you had time enough now to think, Dear Reader? What is the most singularly inappropriate thing for this building to be used for?