New buildings are constructed every day. Some to overwhelming fanfare, others to disdain, and most to little more acknowledgment than a passing glance on the street. Of course, there’s also another option: controversy. It doesn’t come around often, but when it does, it’s hard to forget.
It’s important to note that there’s a big difference between ugly and contentious—in fact, many of the buildings on this list, like the Guggenheim, are as architecturally significant as they are aesthetically stunning. But looks aside, these buildings have stirred up arguments, created conflicts, or welcomed their fair share of debate. From a modern addition to a historic palace to a billionaire’s 27-story personal residence, these 13 buildings are among the most controversial in architectural history. Below, AD digs into what makes these structures so highly contested.
City Hall (Boston)
Since construction, Boston’s City Hall has been the center of countless heavily divided debates. Some praise the building, while many—especially in contemporary settings—loathe its appearance. The American Institute of Architects awarded the City Hall building its Honor Award in 1969, but that hasn’t stopped many media outlets and civilians alike from claiming that the structure is the “ugliest building in the world.” Both sides of the argument can likely agree that it’s a stellar example of brutalist architecture in the city, but of course, it’s in the eye of the beholder whether that’s a good thing.
Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex (St. Louis, Missouri)
Construction started in 1951 for the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex in St. Louis, which was supposed to provide subsidized housing for low-income residents and increase revenue for the city. While originally seen as a win for urban renewal, the property has ultimately been considered one of the worst disasters in public housing. Consisting of 33 eleven-story towers, the complex is remembered to have failed on many fronts: architecturally, societaly, and policywise. Living conditions were poor, with one former resident calling it a “prison environment” in a documentary about the project, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. The complex was eventually deemed unlivable, and all buildings were demolished within two decades.
Antilia Tower (Mumbai)
Antilia Tower in Mumbai is big: It spans 48,780 square feet, stands at 568 feet tall, and encompasses 27 stories. While the mini skyscraper may appear to be an apartment complex or office building, it’s actually the private residence of billionaire Mukesh Ambani, the 10th richest person in the world, according to Forbes. Designed by Chicago-based firm Perkins+Will, many people have criticized the exorbitant display of wealth.
Ryugyong Hotel (Pyongyang)
Despite work on the 105-story monstrosity being going on for two decades, the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea remains vacant and unfinished. After experiencing a series of delays, the façade appears complete—though it’s considered an eyesore by many—but the inside is rumored to be far from done and structurally unsound. Born from the Cold War as a way to outdo the 73-story Hotel Swissôtel The Stamford in Singapore, the Ryugyong is now nicknamed “the Doom Hotel.”
20 Fenchurch Street (London)
Nicknamed the “walkie-talkie” building because of its resemblance to a handheld two-way radio, this 38-story building was designed by Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2014. In 2015, the building won the Carbuncle Cup, a tongue-in-check award given by the magazine Building Design to the “ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months.” Along with its unwelcome appearance, the building has made headlines for various problems. Most notably, when the sun shines directly onto the building, it acts as a concave mirror and shoots the light directly to the street. In 2013, temperatures got so hot (243 °F) that it damaged parked cars on the street below, even melting the bodywork of one. The problem was corrected in 2014, when a permanent awning was installed on the building’s south side. The skyscraper was also been criticized for a having a wind tunnel effect and impacting draughts on the street below.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York City)
Though the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, has become a significant New York City landmark in the 60-plus years it’s been open, this wasn’t always the case. When first unveiled, Wright received heavy criticism with critics comparing the museum to a washing machine and inverted oatmeal bowl. Many thought the building overshadowed the actual art it was meant to contain, and 21 artists even sent the director and trustees of the museum a letter protesting the construction. According to the senders, the museum’s curvilinear slope indicated a “callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference necessary for the adequate visual contemplation of works or art.”
The Louvre Pyramid (Paris)
When construction began on I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, which serves as the main entrance to the museum, debate broke out almost immediately. Aesthetically, many saw the structure’s modern style to be in complete opposition to the French Renaissance style of the historic palace. Critics also claimed that the Chinese American architect didn’t have an adequate grasp on French culture to properly update a Parisian landmark and that the structure’s form was unsuitable as it represented death in Ancient Egypt. Despite 30-plus years to grow on people, some still think the modern glass edifice looks out of place.
Tour Montparnasse (Paris)
There aren’t many buildings that have directly influenced the laws of the city in which they’re built, but this isn’t the case for Tour Montparnasse in Paris. In 1975, two years after the tower’s construction and with amassing frustration from residents, the city banned buildings over 121 feet tall (the government has since raised the height limits in certain outer areas of the City of Lights). Like the Louvre Pyramid, most of the criticism spans from the fact that building’s simplistic façade and overbearing height don’t fit in with the rest of the landscape in the French city.
Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
Builders broke ground on the Sagrada Familia in 1882, and, 140 years later, the basilica is still not finished. Spanish architect Francisco de Paula del Villar was the first designer to work on the church in 1882, but he quickly resigned, and Antoni Gaudí took over in 1883. Though he worked on the gothic temple for the rest of his life, the building was only about a quarter complete when he died. In its nearly century-and-a-half-long life, the church has become no stranger to controversy. Gaudí’s original plans for the building were destroyed during the Spanish civil war, causing some to argue that recent additions weren’t consistent with the architect’s original vision. The property also incurred a multimillion-dollar debt to the city of Barcelona over 130 years.
Clerkenwell Close (London)
The limestone façade of 15 Clerkenwell Close wasn’t welcomed by all when this mixed-use building was completed in 2017. Designed by architect Amin Taha, residents argued the stone exterior with visible embedded fossils did not complement the brick-clad buildings that surround it, which were designed to honor the area’s medieval architectural heritage.
Originally, Taha planned a bronze façade, before changing his mind to brick, then ultimately going with the stone. Islington Council, the local authority for the borough, published the brick plans on its website, incorrectly indicating that was the approved design. When the limestone was revealed, the council ordered the building be demolished, though the order was then rescinded following a legal inquiry from Taha. In 2018, the council again ordered the building be demolished after an “investigation” revealed that the approved design differed from the actual structure. Taha appealed the ruling and ultimately won.
Strata SE1 (London)
Another winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the Strata building, a 43-story residential tower in London, has been on the receiving end of many complaints—and not just about its looks. The giant holes at the top of the skyscraper aren’t there for just any reason, they’re actually the openings for three wind turbines, which were expected to power 8% of the building’s electrical needs. Though noble in thought—it was the first building in the world to integrate wind turbines into the design—many critics pointed to the turbines as evidence of greenwashing. Later, residents came forward saying the turbines rarely move.
The Scottish Parliament Building (Edinburgh)
In 1997, when construction first started on the Scottish Parliament Building, it was estimated to cost somewhere between £10 million and £40 million, about $12 million to $48 million. Less than 10 years later in 2004, after a series of delays and changes, the estimated cost had risen to £430 million, or about $514 million. The growing price tag and the fact that it was funded by taxpayers stirred up plenty of public outcry, in addition to critiques about the building’s location and the fact that Enric Miralles, a Spanish architect, was originally chosen to design the building.
John Hancock Tower (Boston, Massachusetts)
The John Hancock Tower, built in the late ’60s and now called 200 Clarendon Street, was supposed to be a modernist masterpiece in Boston. Designed by I.M. Pei’s eponymous firm, the tower would be the tallest in the harbor city, but the project was riddled with controversy even before construction started. The building’s proximity to Boston’s Trinity Church, a national historic landmark, caused citywide frustration when it became apparent that the skyscraper would cast a shadow over the beloved church. During the tower’s excavation, Trinity Church was damaged and the congregation sued the tower, later winning the multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
While the building’s early beginnings were undoubtedly rocky, the skyscraper is now best remembered for its engineering failures. After construction started, the signature blue windows started to fall out of the building at high winds, crashing down on pedestrians hundreds of feet below. The building also swayed, causing tenants to complain of motion sickness. Ultimately, the problems were corrected.