The World's most controversial buildings

Do you hate modern architecture? What’s hated now can often be loved tomorrow. People laughed at the Gherkin at first, but it soon worked its way into our hearts




It’s not the only building which took a little time to win over the public. You may be surprised by what people thought about these famous buildings when they first opened…

© James Whitesmith

The Eiffel Tower, Paris

"Imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack" – In a letter published in the newspaper Le Temps in 1887, one reader was very frank about how he felt about plans for the city’s newest structure… The Eiffel Tower.

And he wasn’t alone. Built for the 1889 World’s Fair, many Parisians thought the tower was a ridiculous blot on the landscape and looked forward to the tower being torn down after 20 years, as originally planned. In fact, it is said that the famous writer Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant not so much because he enjoyed the restaurant’s food, but because it was the only spot in the city where he was guaranteed to not have to look at“this tall skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton.” It is now, of course, the most important structure on the city’s skyline, and a huge source of national pride. 


© Janet Hall / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Tower Bridge, London

Those who think the Millennium Bridge got a harsh reception when first unveiled should look at what people said about London’s Tower Bridge when it opened.

English architect and editor of ‘The Builder’ Henry Heathcote Statham attacked the bridge, saying “it represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure" while the designer Frank Brangwyn declared that “a more absurd structure than the Tower Bridge was never thrown across a strategic river.”

Likewise, so disgusted that they had to quote Shakespeare to express their fury, the Pall Mall Gazette said of the bridge “there certainly seems to be a subtle quality of ungainliness, a certain variegated ugliness, so to speak, that age can scarcely wither or custom stale, about this new bridge. It is excellently situated for our ugliest public work, straddling across our Thames, to the terror of the errant foreigner.”

And apparently it was also unpopular with our four-legged friends. In August 1894, the Evening Telegraph described a dog who was so frightened by the hydraulic action of the bridge that “when the roadway had been restored to the horizontal it was more than the owner of the dog could accomplish to get him across.”


© Ralph Deakin / RIBA Library Photographs Collection 1830s 

Empire State Building, New York

One of the USA’s most iconic buildings, the Empire State Building, looked like it was going to be a flop at first. Opened in the midst of the 1930s depression, its poor location on 34th street meant it was some distance from public transport, leading to even fewer people wanting office space in the building than originally expected. In its first year of being open, the observation deck took in two million dollars, which unfortunately, matched the amount of rent its struggling owners made in that year. The building’s lack of occupants led many New Yorkers to ridicule the building as the ‘Empty State Building’, and it didn’t make any profit until 1950. It has since become one of the most iconic buildings in America and been named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.



© Bernard Cox / RIBA Library Photographs Collection 1979

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Now a much-loved part of the New York cityscape, the museum faced a tough crowd when it was first built in 1959, with commentators seemingly trying to out-do each other to see who could most creatively attack the building. Page one of the New York Times carried art critic John Canaday’s mocking assessment that it was “a war between architecture and painting, in which both come out badly maimed”. There was perhaps a little more wonderment in the New York Daily Mirror’s description, which said that it was “a building that should be put in a museum to show how mad the 20th century is”. Other criticism of the building was that it looked like “an indigestible hot cross bun” or an “inverted oatmeal dish”.  But it seems that the critics were wrong. In its first year, the museum’s gift shop sold far more postcards picturing the museum itself than any of the artworks it held, and it is now one of the most popular museums in America.


©Robert Elwall / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Sagrada Famillia, Barcelona

Now on the must-visit list of the millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona every year, Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia wasn’t very popular when it was first built.  The British historian and writer Gerald Brenan declared that “Not even in the European architecture of the period can one discover anything so vulgar or pretentious”. Picasso wished that somebody would "send Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia to Hell."

And never one to be backwards in coming forwards, George Orwell describes the cathedral as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and, speaking of the recent Spanish civil war said “I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.”


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