Ivanka Zhao

The Undervalued Public Comments in the Ugliest Architecture Ranking

Entering 21st century, a widely felt public preference is to receive information from rankings and listings such as “24 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in London”, “10 Most Handsome Male Politicians in the World” or “10 Traditional Types of German Jokes”. Among this phenomenon there are the ugly architecture rankings worldwide, such as:“The 29 Ugliest Skyscrapers in the World”, “Which are the World’s Ugliest Buildings?” or “Top10 Ugliest Architecture in China”. Criticises attacking these lists are prevalent, and their reliability and parties of interest involving in are two main concerns.

Concerns over its reliability are raised by the entertaining nature and the subjectivity of modern media. BBC E-cyclopedia defines such “media obsession to categorize anything into lists” using the word “listmania”. Their existences pander public needs of comparing and simplifying complicated situations and the early form of lists can be dated back to Ten Commandments (Érdi,2009). However, lists and rankings that prevalence in modern media often exhibit a clear entertaining purpose. As questioned by opponents of ugly architecture ranking, many readers would never see the nominated “ugliest building” in their lives and the only purpose of reading it is to content their curiosity. Postman identifies these fictional contexts as “pseudo-context”, and argues their purpose is only to give the fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use, whereas their essence is only to amuse (Postman, 2006, p76). In addition, most of these rankings are lack of objectification and seriousness. Unlike scientific research, these ranking are put forward by individuals or a small group, so that they can hardly be impartial.

Another drawback that is attacked is the power nexus in backstage. Take the ranking system “Top10 Ugly Architecture in China” as an example. It is hosted by website Archcy, a Chinese subsidiary corporation owned by RCC Group, who has made substantial amount of avenue (nearly 50 million pounds yearly) by helping major enterprises finding contractors. RCC have service or competition relationship between other architectural related companies, and results in potentially not objective judgement. This paper acknowledges the aforementioned concerns regarding the reliability of these ranking systems and the findings they produce. This paper nevertheless focuses on public participation in architectural rankings and argues that the values of these discourses extend beyond entertainment, representing a practice to “the right to the city.”
The case of “Top10 Ugly Architecture in China” is chosen as an exemplar of the architectural ranking phenomenon in this paper. In addition to other annual summaries, the Top10 Ugly Architecture in China, which has been held annually since 2010, has become a phenomenal public event. By March 2023, the hashtag “#2022 Top10 Ugly Architecture Nationwide” and “#2022 Top10 Ugly Architecture Revealed” on Weibo had received 4,384,000 views and 1,354,000 views respectively. Although being publicly influential, academic responses to this ranking is not commonplace. In China National Knowledge Infrastructure, one of the biggest digital Chinese academic research platforms, there are only nine papers study rankings of ugly architecture. Academic literatures have a critical attitude towards the condemn of architectural ugliness, and typically oppose placing “ugliness” at the opposite end of the aesthetics. Rather, so-called ugliness is seen a sign of diversity or the collision of public values (Wang, 1995) (Hyde, 2019). In the small number of academic papers about ugly architectural ranking, the value of public comments is rarely appreciated. Liu claims that the prevalence ugly architecture is a result of “public aesthetics and their vulgar taste” and suggests that non-professional critics are “throwing their weight around architecture,” leading to a decrease in professional authority and causing “aphasia” among experts (Liu, 2021, p4). Zhou, one of the founders of this ranking system, describes it as an “emotional target” for the general public and is used as “the sword of Damocles that hangs over government, first party, and architects, so that they have to be cautious and fearful when making decisions” (Zhou, 2020, p3). Although Zhou recognises the value of public voices, he focuses on the macroscopical pressure that public voices imposed on decision-makers instead of the values of their content.

This paper challenges the neglect of the value of public comments and argues that public engagement in the ranking of ugly architecture is beneficial for both the public and professionals, thereby contributing to the practise of the public’s right to the city.

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