‘His friends said, “Why do you have that ugly thing hanging there?” and Bull said, “I like it because it’s ugly.” All his life was in that line.’
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
The funny thing about beauty is that people often consider it to be diametrically opposed to ugliness; that beauty is attractive and ugliness is repulsive. The French expression ‘Jolie Laide’, translated as ‘pretty-ugly’, highlights the contrariety of this notion and proposes that departure from the conventional aesthetic does not necessarily relinquish any claims of beauty. Indeed, it suggests that it is such ugliness and such peculiarities which arouse our curiosity and permit a deeper appreciation of beauty – free from the hegemony of aesthetic perfection.
Perhaps this concept explains why I have always had a curious fascination with Belfast City Hospital. Standing 75 metres tall, this hefty, off-square, yellow pinstriped lump sits unashamedly aloft the South Belfast urban sprawl as a monument to its own ugliness; a deliberate subversion of conventional considerations of proportion and congruity in favour of a modern language of necessity. From afar the building appears almost incomprehensible, the brain frantically attempts to provide a reference with which to relate, but its inability to conjure up a relevant precedent ultimately leads to a bizarre concoction of comparisons which only beget further intrigue; a light bulb, a transformer, an upside down sandcastle bucket?
Upon closer inspection, the viewer is left no more enlightened as to what lies within the building, but is instead treated to a plethora of curiosities which agitate the eye. Stood at the base of the hospital tower, the viewer’s gaze and attention furiously dart from the inverted pyramidal structures on the fourth floor, to the angled windows punctuating the saw tooth facade; tracing the vertical lines of the building’s characteristic yellow ribbons, and back down the oversized ventilation stacks which hang over the sides. The facade may initially seem chaotic and garish, but, like the gap toothed mademoiselles who engendered the ‘Jolie Laide’, Belfast City Hospital holds your intrigue in a way much more complex than a skin deep infatuation. The longer you stare, the more you become enamoured with the tenacity of the design and the confidence exuded by this bold, heavy set building.
Oscar Wilde once quipped that, ‘there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ I would love to know whether Louis Adair Roche, architect of the Belfast City Hospital, would have agreed. Noted as a flamboyant, avant garde designer, it would be interesting to know whether his building being labelled by many, if not most, as ‘the ugliest building in Belfast’ was something to lament, or whether he believed that such opinions vindicated his intentions to forgo compliance with the physiognomy of the past and create something detached from the pursuit of aesthetic conformity.
For me, Belfast City Hospital imbues the very essence of that which characterises the built environment of Belfast. From the industrial landscape of the shipyards and mills, to the pompous nature of its ostentatious Victorian civic buildings, Belfast has always been based on an architecture of pragmatism, with little consideration given to the collective image of the city. It is this incongruity, this ugliness, which gives the city its unique visual character. Belfast, like its City Hospital, may be ugly – but it’s beautiful.