The World's Ugliest Buildings
In downtown Portland, OR, stands an imposing 15-story edifice that’s one of the most hated buildings in America. The façade is an off-putting hodgepodge of faux classical columns, strange and useless decorative elements, and penitentiary-like small windows, with a depressing color scheme (throwing in some tacky blue glass for good measure). “It’s all gaudy imagery with no tie to the location,” says Jason Fifield, an associate at Ankrom Moisan Architects in Portland. The interior isn’t much better—it’s been described as dark and claustrophobic.
Designed by famed architect Michael Graves, the Portland Building is an icon (for better or worse—mainly worse) of postmodernism, which was a major design trend in the 1980s, when the structure went up, but has since fallen from favor. And that’s a primary reason there’s not much enthusiasm for anything erected in that decade.
But these aren’t the only buildings that spur resentment, and even rage, in those who set eyes on them. Professional and amateur critics alike disparage structures from many eras and in many countries. Of course, different people have different criteria for what makes a structure unappealing. “The ugliest buildings are the anonymous ones,” says Christopher Bonanos, who edits architecture criticism at New York magazine. “Even if an experimental, high-profile building doesn’t quite deliver, at least the architect is trying something. A boring building is a warehouse in the middle of New Jersey.”
For Jason Fifield, what makes a building ugly “is when the design isn’t generated by real reasons but rather by arbitrariness, just for the sake of creating an image.”
To compile our list of the world’s ugliest structures, we consulted with architects and design experts as well as the general public. Pretty much everybody had something to say. For instance, there aren’t many admirers of the spherical houses on long pole “stems” planted, like so many mushrooms, in the Netherlands. (The architect was given free rein courtesy of a Dutch subsidy for experimental housing.) Then there’s the midwestern corporate headquarters that takes the form of a huge picnic basket. Sure, it’s funny from the outside, but probably not for the employees of Longaberger, in Newark, OH, who have to go work in a hamper every day.
Many designs around the world inspire love and hate in equal measure. A prime example would be the glass-and-metal pyramid I. M. Pei designed as a new entrance for the Louvre Museum in the 1990s. “Your pyramid is magnificent,” protagonist Robert Langdon tells a Parisian official in The Da Vinci Code. “A scar on the face of Paris,” the man retorts.
The jury is still out on this kind of building. And to be sure, sometimes a design that’s disdained and misunderstood in its infancy eventually becomes a loved and admired attraction. “In 1959, the Guggenheim honestly looked like it had fallen in from Mars,” points out Bonanos. “Of course, now New Yorkers love it.”
Still, we doubt that any of the buildings on our list will find favor anytime soon.
The Ryugyong Hotel,Pyongyang, North Korea
With its concrete sides sloping at sharp 75-degree angles, this stark 1,083-foot-tall, not-quite-finished hotel looks threatening and out of place on the Pyongyang skyline. Its history is odd, too: the country ran out of money for the project in the early 1990s, and it was airbrushed from photos at the time. After a 16-year hiatus, construction began anew last year—that squiggle at the pinnacle is not an ornament, but a crane.
The Ugly Truth: Supposedly the 3,000-room hotel is an attempt to outdo South Korea when it comes to impressive skyscrapers. It’s undoubtedly emblematic of the ruling dictatorship’s hubris.
Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) Building, London
It’d be easy for James Bond to hide on that roof: he’d have his pick of hulking concrete slabs, characterless green glass, and jagged rotundas behind which to suavely crouch. (In fact, the ‘80s-wedding-cake-meets-fortress does appear briefly in a few 007 films.)
The Ugly Truth: While designing the intelligence headquarters, which opened in 1995, British architect Terry Farrell had to deal with extensive government requests, like removing windows and adding moats (yes, really). So the many eyesores supposedly exist for safety reasons, with cameras lurking behind every nook and cranny.
Harold WashingtonLibrary, Chicago
If buildings came with footnotes, this one, named for a beloved former mayor who deserved better, would have pages worth of citations. Neoclassical references collide with a glass-and-steel Mannerist roof; throw in some red brick, granite, and aluminum—and a bad sense of scale—and you’ve got way too much architecture class for one day.
The Ugly Truth: Opened in 1991 and designed by the firm Hammond, Beeby, and Babka, the Chicago public library has a helter-skelter application of motifs and styles that’s “locked in the postmodern era,” says Peter Koliopoulos of Circle West Architects in Scottsdale, AZ.
The Obelisk, Puerto Maldonado, Peru
In an area that looks straight out of Romancing the Stone—a dusty Peruvian town in the Amazon jungle—Incan ruins might make sense, but not this lumpy lookout, which features a mismatched trio of elements: curved base, futuristic middle, Middle Ages top. “Notice the sculptural elements at the base, crawling up the tower like a fungus,” says Roel Krabbendam, director of design at ABA Architects in Tucson, AZ, who used to live in the town.
The Ugly Truth: The fungus-like stuff highlights the region’s history. Then there’s the view—except tourists can’t see much from the too-short top. “The world is full of these self-celebratory eyesores,” says Krabbendam.
Longaberger Home Office, Newark, OH
If you worked here, you’d be conducting business in a 9,000-ton copy of a woven-wood basket. Its stucco-over-steel construction was an award-winning feat, apparently; the synthetic plaster received a prize. But it’s as if, in 1997, a giant-size Little Red Riding Hood set down her seven-story hamper on a flat section of Ohio.
The Ugly Truth: True, the company purveys handcrafted baskets. And founder Dave Longaberger’s dream headquarters was a replica of his favorite basket. But hey, Crate & Barrel employees don’t schedule meetings in a 10-story sofa.
The Portland Building, Portland, OR
Let’s break out the government-building checklist. Small, boring windows? Check. Humdrum off-white masonry? Yes. Terracotta pilasters and shiny blue glass? That, too. The first three levels of the squat, 15-story municipal-services structure are covered in dark green tiles, adding to the bewildering gaudy-meets-tedious tone.
The Ugly Truth: Michael Graves won a competition to design the building in 1982. Postmodernism was all the rage in the ’80s, which explains the randomly-stuck-on historical motifs. “Many buildings from that decade look fake,” says architect Stephen R. Connors, who has his own firm in Warwick, NY.
The Fang Yuan Building, Shenyang, China
This 25-floor office building, finished in 2001 in the northeastern capital of Liaoning Province, is a weird mishmash of ideas. One is a reference to old Chinese coins, which have square cutouts—just like the structure’s square center. Other parts of the design are like a garden-variety corporate building, with a concrete base and, on the sides, steel rims with glass grooves.
The Ugly Truth: Princeton-educated Taiwanese architect C. Y. Lee, who designed Taipei 101 (the world’s tallest building until last year), wanted to meld East and West. In this creation, urban concrete-and-steel commercial structure meets ancient Chinese currency.
Bolwoningen Houses, Hertogenbosch, Netherlands
If Lewis Carroll’s Alice wandered into a 1960s sci-fi flick, she might have come across something like these bulbous houses. The residents live inside bizarre-looking bubbles (small ones, at 18 feet across) with UFO-like windows.
The Ugly Truth: In the late 1970s, the Dutch government offered subsidies for experimental housing, and the architect—one Dries Kreijkamp—certainly complied with the directive. The 50 bolwoningen (bol = sphere, woningen = houses) sprouted up in a city that seems to infect artists with a fantastical streak; it’s the hometown of Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th-century painter known for his half-dream, half-nightmare-like renderings.
National Library, Minsk,Belarus
You can’t really hate this glass-paneled, 23-story rhombicuboctahedron (a solid with 8 triangles and 18 squares), complete with color-changing LEDs to make it sparkle at night. After all, it’s difficult to begrudge a library with such mojo. But the designers should have stopped there. Instead, what’s referred to as “the diamond” sits atop a geometry equation gone wrong—tiered circles, huge triangles, winglike flaps.
The Ugly Truth: The winners of a government-sponsored search, architects Michael Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko, were expected to make a statement. The government wanted tourist-attracting drama, a desire that seems to have been fulfilled; the 2006 opening attracted a flurry of attention.
“The UFO House,” Sanjhih, Taiwan
If visitors had ever arrived at this resort on Taiwan’s north coast, they would have slept in an uncomfortable-looking, spaceship-like pod. As it happens, nothing ever got off the ground at this twice-abandoned project from the 1970s.
The Ugly Truth: Because developers left these four-winged capsules empty for years, information about them is spotty; it seems, however, that the businessman who built the resort in the 1970s wanted it to look like a landing pad for Martians. The Taiwanese government plans to tear down the alien abodes, so see them while you can!
The Ideal Palace, Hauterives, France
Cinderella’s dream digs it’s not, but Le Palais Idéal does bring to mind a fairy tale—the kind one might have visions of after dropping acid. Gargoyles peer out at grottoes with Hindu temples, and tiny mosque-motifs adorn squiggly stone pillars.
The Ugly Truth: In the mid-1800s, Ferdinand Cheval tripped over a stone while delivering mail and was seized with inspiration—his life’s work would be to build a stone château. Over the next three decades, he marked stones while covering his route, returning in the evening with a wheelbarrow to collect them.
Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool, England
Cathedrals like this one, officially named Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, should conjure up thoughts of heavenly repose. But here, congregants look up and imagine getting impaled on those unfriendly spires—that, or they plan their next camping trip, inspired by buttresses that recall a fancy beige tent.
The Ugly Truth: Well, it was the ’60s. Plus, architect Frederick Gibberd was charged with getting the cathedral up on a tight schedule and budget. Result: not long after the 1967 opening, mosaic tiles started popping off, and the roof began leaking.
The Experience MusicProject, Seattle
Sure, a building dedicated to rock music shouldn’t be too conservative. The problem? In not looking like anything in particular, it appears anchored in nothing. Of course, people have tried to describe it, and have come up with everything from “a multicolored blob” to “open-heart surgery.”
The Ugly Truth: Architect Frank Gehry has said the inspirations for his 140,000-square-foot structure, which opened in 2000, include a smashed guitar and guitars in general, evident in the colors (glimmering purple, powder blue) and metal materials (aluminum, steel). The museum, founded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, is also an example of Gehry’s signature style, made most famous by the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. But according to architect Jason Fifield of Ankrom Moisan Architects in Portland, OR, “his work at Bilbao makes much more sense because there’s a connection between the sculptural forms and the surrounding landscape.”