Log 27, Spring 2013
An "ugly feeling" such as anxiety emerges not from explicit causation but from the layered stimuli of a given situation, and is further induced by the lingering proximity of its source, condensing and confusing the interlaced causes and elements of the situation rather than apportioning them clearly as would the sharp emotion of anger. The ugly feeling provoked by the South Bank Arts Centre thus summarizes several different instances of a felt antipathy into a generalized but vivid mood: irritation. And the passive manner of irritation, or any ugly feeling, can only be overcome by a complete transformation of the situation from which that feeling emerges. In the absence of that transformation, irritation persists as a simultaneous pulling-together and pushing-apart of person and architecture.
This persistent irritation enables ugly architecture to participate dynamically in the mutable experiential configurations of the city. The diffuseness of the affect and its concomitant lack of narrative resolution are a sharp contrast to the didactic performance of buildings that offer legibility through form or style, and for that reason remain viable during the inevitable evolution of the city. The person who experiences irritation at the South Bank Arts Centre is not the solitary individual, not Pevsner as he skirts puddles to navigate labyrinthine passages. Irritation is the experience of the metropolitan body politic, personified by the man on the omnibus, that standard of reasonableness who figures a sequence of probable choices and outcomes, or to put it more generally, a course of anticipation through a given situation.
At the South Bank Arts Centre, the customary legal formulation that the man on the omnibus "would have anticipated that . . ." meets with the frustrating deferrals of an ugly architecture indeterminate in form and appearance. The social function of the man on the omnibus is not to provide summary judgment
but to define a measurement of expectation
. The temporal orientation that he brings is not in-the present but rather in-the-future, or more precisely a future anteriority, a future expectation drawn into the decisive context of the present. His irritation does not cast an aesthetic judgment, but proposes expectation, the certainties of the future anterior, and it is these that are disconcerted by the ugliness of the South Bank Arts Centre. Here is a social potential worthy of elaboration, because in its capacity to synthesize different dimensions of vagueness--the irregular form, the stained surface, the irritating affect--ugly architecture is neither unconditionally affirmative nor self-exhaustive, a consequence that solicits a subjective engagement with the mutability of the city.
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