BAD TASTE: THE MONUMENTS
‘The Chamber of Horrors’, 1852
Henry Cole, an over-busy Victorian civil servant, put the surplus of The Great Exhibition of 1851 on display in Marlborough House in London. Although The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations had been conceived as an imperial synopsis of contemporary possibilities, Cole and others were so horrified by the majority of the rubbish on display that he created
“The Chamber of Horrors” to demonstrate what he called “false principles”, or bad taste, in design. Thus, a stuffed stoat holding a parasol was presented as a reprimand. Cole’s initiative was one of the great conceptual generalisations of his age, providing a basis for Victorian design theory as well as
The Modern Movement which evolved from it.
Schloss Linderhof, 1886
Mad King Ludwig II was infatuated by Louis XIV and decided to imitate Versailles in Bavaria. But Ludwig was rather more the Night King than the
Sun King: a favourite occupation was travelling across Linderhof ’s subterranean lake in a boat towed by a team of rapidly paddling swans. Twelve electrical dynamos provided power to illuminate Ludwig’s Venus Grotto.
Fontainebleau Hotel, 1954
Sixty-three years ago, the world’s biggest hotel (with 1,504 rooms) opened in Miami Beach, Florida. A local newspaper wrote, “Gigantic? There must be a bigger word.” The designer, Morris Lapidus, specialised in what he called “woggles” [ameboid shapes], an architectural feature unknown to the ancients since they had a finer vocabulary all their own. The dining room could seat 800 and featured a floor which ascended and descended with hydraulic assistance. Visitors sometimes described a sense of euphoria excited by the flambé parades in the restaurant. Despite it being a bad taste landmark, the hotel has appeared in both
Goldfinger and The Sopranos.
Considering the Fontainebleau, it is impossible not to recollect Søren Kierkegaard’s observation that “the best demonstration of the misery of existence is by the contemplation of its marvels.”
The year after the Fontainebleau, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, securing for the West Coast of the United States a monument to bad taste at least as dismaying as Lapidus’s leviathan hotel. The signature castle of the Magic Kingdom was modelled on another of Swan King Ludwig II’s commissions, Neuschwanstein, itself an ignorant architectural fiction. Ever since, to describe something as “Disneyfied” —
The National Trust, for example — is to say it is founded in false understandings and unsubstantiated retro fantasies.
The ’59 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Seville is the most extreme product ever produced by industrial civilisation. The sesquipedalian name merely hints at the excess of the actual automobile. Designed carelessly to mash molecules of air and with no regard whatsoever for efficiency, the environment or safety, the classic pink Cadillac was The American Nightmare. Harley Earl, its designer, seduced the public with epic vulgarity while garbling English magnificently. One of his finer instructions to a cowering underling was: “I want that line to have a duflunky, to come across, have a little hook in it, and then do a rashoom or a zong.”
Short-pile synthetic turf (favoured for the expedients of low cost and high durability) was a feature of the Houston Astrodome, once the world’s biggest enclosed sporting venue. Grass would have been better, but more expensive and less hardy: in the same way cashmere is not as tough as nylon. Facsimile effects have been condemned by aesthetes ever since Henry Cole’s “Chamber of Horrors”. As if to confirm the Astrodome’s institutionalised bad
taste, its largest attendance (68,000) was for an event called Wrestlemania X-Seven in 2001. The Astrodome closed in 2008 and current plans are to re-purpose it as a parking garage. Astroturf has, however, survived as a bastard medium.
When he saw the first Tokyo McDonald’s at the Mitsukoshi store on the Ginza in 1975, Andy Warhol declared it “the most beautiful thing in the city”. Warhol was, of course, a connoisseur of crap.
Saddam’s Victory Arch, 1989
Dictators normally have bad taste. On the site of the Museum of Gifts to the President in Baghdad, Iraq’s leading sculptor, Adil Kamil, built “The Swords of Qādisīyah” in 1989. The heroic schema was sketched by none other than Saddam himself, while Kamil modelled Saddam’s own muscular and hairy forearms. The points of the swords meet 40m above the ground and were cast using metal salvaged from the Iran-Iraq war. Despite Desert Storm forces bombing and invading the Iraqi capital in 1991, Saddam’s arch has been restored and still stands today.
In 2004, the Chinese built a perfect replica of Le Corbusier’s majestic chapel at Ronchamp… but in Zhengzhou. Ten years later, as fast as contractors could build Zaha Hadid’s Wangjiang Soho complex, pirates were copying it on another site. “Duplitecture” is the Photoshopping of architecture: new building technology allows the rapid imitation of anything, anywhere, regardless. There is now an arrondissement of Paris in Hangzhou, a pastiche Amsterdam near Shanghai. After Isis destroyed Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in 2015, a scale model repro appeared in London’s Trafalgar Square six months later.
A House for Essex, 2015
Grayson Perry, an Essex maniac, is engaged in a knowing and on the whole successful, assault on good manners. “Steal, copy, collage” might be his motto. Perry, who was born in Chelmsford, says his house is “a homage to the single mum in Dagenham, hairdressers in Colchester and the landscape and history of Essex”. This fiction is now so popular that it has caused paralysing traffic problems on Wrabness’s Black Boy Lane, and Essex Highways has agreed to install new road signs and markings to discipline the admiring crowds of Mondeo Men who want to worship the Essex cult legitimised by the Turner Prize-winner Perry.
The Al Wakrah Stadium, 2022
The late Zaha Hadid, in defiance of all sound principles of naval architecture and hydrodynamics, once designed a superyacht from Hamburg shipyard Blohm+Voss (builders of the WWII battleship
Bismarck) which was modelled, apparently, on a cycling helmet. For the 2022 Qatar World Cup, an event already mired in accusations of corruption and slave labour, she designed a stadium which, when seen from the air, appears to be inspired by gaping labial folds. Accused thus, Hadid replied that if you think anything with a hole in it is a vagina, then that’s your problem.
Mar-a-Lago, 1924 — present
The original Palm Beach haciendaburger (in Spanish Mission style) was built by breakfast cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and acquired by a crass, but ambitious, property developer called Donald Trump in 1985. Not content with the 118 rooms, the future President of the USA immediately added a 20,000sq ft ballroom. At one point in the midEighties, Trump recognised that architecture was a useful tool for self-expression. The purchase of Mar-a-Lago was synchronous with the decision to build Trump Tower. They say the President likes hard, shiny things.
A small slice of the 800capacity dining room at the Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami Beach; Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle takes its inspiration from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany; a Fifties pink Cadillac designed by Harley Earl; ‘The Swords of...