Carbuncle and collaboration

In recent architecture news, The Francis Crick Institute has been nominated for the Carbuncle Prize [Link]. This is the satirical prize run by Building Design magazine, awarded to “the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months”. Although it’s probably not something I should celebrate, I think it was almost certainly inevitable we would be in contention for the prize. Over the years, just about any major new building that doesn’t conform to some nostalgic Victorian or Georgian aesthetic appears to have been proposed for a Carbuncle award. So the Crick’s nomination – given its size and prominence – didn’t come as a surprise.

Of course, critical reception to modern buildings is nothing new. Buildings such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tower Bridge in London, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York were all widely condemned when first built. The writer Guy de Maupassant was said to eat lunch in the Eiffel Tower, not for the food, but because it was the only place he could go where he was sure he wouldn’t have to look at Eiffel’s construction. And one critic described the newly completed Guggenheim Museum as “a war between architecture and painting, in which both come out badly maimed”. Despite these initial reactions, within a few years the critics and the public had changed their minds and come to appreciate and even enjoy these buildings.

Likewise ground breaking scientific work is often greeted with skepticism and sometimes outright hostility. Famously, several Nobel prize winners have talked about how the work that went on to win them the prize was initially rejected by prominent journals. Hans Krebs’s paper describing what became known as the Krebs Cycle was editorially rejected in less than a week by Nature only later to be published in Enzymologia (1937, Enzymologia, 4, 148-156). Similarly, Nature rejected, without review, Leland Hartwell’s paper on the genetics of cell cycle control in yeast (later published in Science 183:46–51) and Lynn Margulis’s proposal of the endosymbiotic theory as the origin of eukaryotic cells was rejected by 15 scientific journals before finally being published (J Theor Biol. 14: 255–274). So having new ideas rejected seems to be one thing that unites scientists and architects.

The nomination for the Carbuncle Prize also seems an appropriate award for a medical research institute. A carbuncle is a medical condition describing a large pus filled boil, caused by an inflammatory immune response to a bacterial infection. One of the missions of the Crick is to better understand infectious diseases and how our immune system fights them. You never know, some of this research may offer new insight into carbuncles and help treat them. This is far from trivial because, in an era where common infectious bacteria are becoming resistant to multiple antibiotics, there is a real danger that a carbuncle could turn monstrous, and even lethal.

There’s also another way in which I think that being nominated for the Carbuncle Prize is relevant to the Crick. A carbuncle is formed by inflammation, which results from the attraction and concentration of potent immune cells to a site of infection. The purpose of this is to help the body fight the infection by promoting collaboration between the immune cells and interactions with the bacteria. In a similar fashion, the goal of the Crick is to attract the finest scientists from around the world to form a critical mass of researchers that interact in new ways. The idea is that this “scientific inflammation” will generate a collaborative environment and promote cutting edge research. I’m not sure I’d want to extend this analogy much further and in the end, whether or not the building wins the Carbuncle Prize, and whether or not it’s ugly, is less important than whether we can recruit the best scientists and support their research. So, on reflection, maybe I should be celebrating the Crick’s nomination for the Carbuncle Prize – it’s a useful reminder of the literal and metaphorical purpose of the Institute.

2 thoughts on “Carbuncle and collaboration

  1. A very erudite and engaging commentary – however, I the evidence for your thesis is rather selective. We all know the Nobel Laureates who love to tell stories of initial rejection of their brilliant findings, but this is by no means the rule – take, for example, the papers of Ed Lewis and Nusslein-Volhard and Wieschaus, both published in Nature, that led to their Nobel, the significance of which was quickly appreciated by the field. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of modern architecture that have been met with acclaim from the outset – Sydney Opera House, the Gherkin in London and the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore immediately spring to mind. On the other hand classic Victorian architecture has by no means been the subject of nostalgic conservation – many great buildings disappeared in the modernist and post-modernist decades, a notable exception being St Pancras Station, whose spectacular and beautiful roof the Crick tries hard to emulate. As you know, I think the Crick is an amazing building, but that is partly because I understand its function and purpose better than the non-scientist. To those without this appreciation, it probably is not the most attractive building – but this does not make them all reactionary conservatives!


  2. Thanks for reading, Phil. I agree it’s not all one way but I do think that architects and scientists, like actors, have to learn to deal with rejection. At least we get paid while being rejected.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s