In July 1994, Mo Mowlam became the first politician to give us her wonder and blunder. Then shadow heritage secretary, she picked the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, which had just been converted from an 1819 Wesleyan chapel, as her gem and the Department of the Environment headquarters in Marsham Street, London SW1, as her dud. It depressed her every time she walked past it, which unfortunately she had to do every day. "To have such a building representing the DOE, which is supposed to be promoting the environment, seems incongruous," she rued.
John Gummer, environment secretary in 1994, went for the two buildings he spent most of his life in. Marsham Street, the headquarters of his department, he described as "three great slabs putting up not just two but three fingers to their surroundings". Lamenting the heating system "that fries the first floor before it has even begun to take the chill off the 18th", he remarked how fortunate he was to be able to order its destruction. His wonder was his own house, a 19th-century Gothic vicarage. Construction minister Nick Raynsford, shadow minister for housing and construction in 1996, applauded the Royal Festival Hall – "good, creative architecture at its best and a building that has stood the test of time" – but regretted the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, which represented "everything good housing shouldn't be".
Earlier this year, in the run-up to the elections for London mayor, we invited all the main candidates to contribute. Ken Livingstone declined and the rest, predictably enough, all came up with London buildings. The Palace of Westminster got Steven Norris' vote. He praised the detail of the masonry, the design, the superb colouring ("wasted on politicians"), but "just didn't get" the National Theatre. Frank Dobson compared "breathtaking and impressive" St Pancras Station with the Elephant & Castle shopping centre: "far too much concrete and plastics, not to mention the colour!" Lib Dem candidate Susan Kramer slipped in some political point-scoring when she slated Millbank Tower, the Labour Party headquarters: "The 1960s exterior adds nothing to the London landscape while trying to dominate it – very similar to the people who work inside." By contrast, she found the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo "one of the loveliest new buildings around".
Jeffrey Archer was still in the frame as a mayoral candidate in 1998 when he damned "all the soulless council housing that has damaged the lives of residents" and lauded the Palace of Westminster: "It has the feel of a sprawling country house dropped into the centre of the busy metropolis."
wonder: Royal Festival Hall
blunder: Aylesbury Estate
"Good, creative architecture at its best, and a building that has stood the test of time."
wonder: Lawrence Batley Theatre
blunder: DOE headquarters, Marsham Street
"It has a wonderful feel of an intimate theatre, and the conversion has been beautifully done."
The editors and broadcasters
Janet Street-Porter, editor of the Independent on Sunday, had no difficulty naming her favourite building: her own house – "because I spent all my money on it and it was built to my specifications". But she picked as her wonder the 1920s dam on Scar House reservoir in North Yorkshire, a "real engineering achievement" whose turrets managed to make it "a bit of a fantasy". Given a stick of dynamite she would use it on the Tower Thistle Hotel by Tower Bridge in London, which "looks as if it was constructed in half an hour by a deranged builder using Lego".
Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times, confessed to getting excited by north European Gothic, which was why he loved the Palace of Westminster: "It has such a stupendous site, shimmering over the water … whenever you look, you see something new." The 1959 Stag Place development in Victoria was his pet hate; "you couldn't have picked a more sensitive part of the city to destroy."
Peter Preston was editor-in-chief of The Guardian and The Observer in 1997 when he mourned the wrecking of central Liverpool, a once great mercantile area that was now "a decrepit island ringed by roaring roadways", but was bowled over by Gaudi's Casa Mila apartment block in Barcelona. Tyler Brûlé, editorial director of interiors magazine Wallpaper*, had spent a lot of time in his wonder – publisher Gruner + Jahr's headquarters in Hamburg – and praised its "humane" qualities: "it was clearly built with employees in mind". He hated Sea Containers House on London's South Bank – "all those ridiculous gilt balls were clearly added at the last moment to embellish a terribly dull building."
Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark liked her wonder so much she held her wedding reception there: Chatelherault in Hamilton, Scotland, built as a hunting lodge in the 1700s. She was less sentimental about Glasgow University's 1970 Boyd Orr building – "an absolute monstrosity – the sort of building architects love but ordinary human beings just don't see the merit of." And BBC newsreader Michael Buerk wouldn't hesitate to blow up his blunder, a 1960s office building "that completely destroys the focal point" of Guildford, his home town. But he loved Sir Charles Barry's Reform Club in Pall Mall for its contrasts – a Georgian building of 1841 whose interior was inspired by an Italian palace.
wonder: Reform Club Blunder:
1960s office building, Guildford
"The exterior is a wonderful example of the Georgian architecture of Pall Mall."
wonder: Scar House reservoir dam
blunder: Tower Thistle Hotel
"Looks as if it was constructed in half an hour by a deranged builder using Lego."
"What a depressing series Wonders & blunders is turning out to be," said Piers Gough of CZWG in 1995. "Everyone chooses a wonder that predates a blunder … no wonder the backwoodsmen of our planning committees feel so easily able to emasculate modern architecture." He bravely attempted to reverse the trend by picking as his wonder "the fact that the big hole in the heart of the City of London will soon have a building by a very great British architect of the late 20th century – Sir James Stirling", referring to the plans for No 1 Poultry, then yet to be completed. His blunder was Herbert Baker's 1930s extension to the Bank of England.
Will Alsop also chose an unfinished building, or series of buildings – the Jubilee Line Extension stations – and predicted that in 2000 "visitors to London will buy tickets just to ride on the line, getting off at every stop". He contrasted them with the "millennium tent" and rued the fact that we were going to celebrate 2000 with "a piece of old technology" whose structural principle was "no different to that of Billy Smart's Big Top".
David Marks, co-architect of the London Eye, has always been interested in bridges, which is why he chose one by Thomas Telford that was never built as his wonder, and Hungerford railway bridge in London, "a complete mess that should never have been built" as his blunder. Eva Jiricna said the only building she really liked was Ron Herron's Imagination building in London's Store Street ("it has flair, and, you have to say, imagination") and that she had always hated the Shell Centre near Waterloo. "It's like a fortress – I really dislike architects who ignore the people who work in their buildings – they shouldn't call themselves architects."
John Pawson chose a "missed opportunity" as his blunder – the neglect of Battersea Power Station – but as far as he was concerned, the most beautiful building in the world was Le Thoronet, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery in Provence and "a sublime example of what happens when architecture is shaped by simplicity". The architects at London practice FAT disliked "everything ever done by Terence Conran, the peddler of hideously sanitised tasteful interiors for the ciabatta-chomping chattering class", and would much rather visit It's a Small World at Disneyland Paris, "the consummate contemporary building" featuring cut-out cartoon versions of the world's top tourist attractions.
Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Victoria & Albert Museum's Boilerhouse extension, thought one of the ugliest buildings ever conceived had to be the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. His favourites included Berlin's Nationalgalerie, one of the last buildings by Mies van der Rohe. Foster and Partners' Ken Shuttleworth recalled a trip to the USA in his student days on which he came across two works by great architects: the house Charles Eames designed for himself – "you just knew you were seeing one of the greatest pieces of architecture you were ever likely to see" – and Frank Lloyd Wright's "meaningless" Grady Gammage memorial, produced towards the end of his life "by which time he had basically lost it".
John Seifert was transported by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but loathed the Westway, "which carved its way through west London with no regard for the effect it has on the living environment around it". And low-energy architect Bill Dunster laid into Eland House in London SW1, the DETR headquarters, whose green claims "rested on expensive, high-tech, fossil fuel-powered equipment", contrasting it with Doxford Solar Office, which featured a huge photovoltaic wall to generate much of its own electricity. "Thank heavens someone sees the way ahead," he said.
wonder: Jubilee Line Extension stations
blunder: Millennium Dome
"Visitors to London will buy tickets just to ride on the line, getting off at every stop."
wonder: Nationalgalerie, Berlin
blunder: Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
"One of the ugliest buildings ever conceived. It has no great aesthetic idea behind it, only money."
The Observer's architecture critic, Deyan Sudjic, was director of Glasgow City of Architecture 1999 when he said that "if you make a living writing about architecture, the sheer mediocrity of most buildings tends to dull the senses after a year or two". The building that always managed to lift his spirits was Sir John Soane's house in London WC2: "full of surprises and charm". Picking a blunder was more difficult – "I find great enjoyment in trash" – but he singled out London's Centre Point for its "fast-food architecture with pretensions".
Giles Worsley, The Daily Telegraph's architecture correspondent, looked to Copenhagen for his choices: Christian Frederik Hansen's town hall of 1805, which transformed an "extraordinary range of classical sources to create one of the most satisfyingly original buildings in northern Europe", and Arne Jacobsen's SAS Radisson Hotel of 1960, "a straightforward copy of the American slab-and-podium tower block that can be found in a dozen European cities". The Guardian's Jonathan Glancey, writing for The Independent in 1995, admired Arnos Grove tube station, which managed to be "a tiny summation of all the world's great architecture", but revealed his loathing for superstores. "The whole ghastly litany – Safeway, Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda – deserves to be deep-frozen and sunk into the bowels of the earth."
Writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades had all his life wanted to see Erich Mendelsohn's 1919-20 Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany, and it hadn't disappointed. "It shows tremendous freedom of spirit… it's one of architecture's great one-offs." He hated anything by the Nazis' favourite architect Albert Speer, singling out his Congress Hall in Nuremburg for particular loathing.
Architectural historian Lucinda Lambton laid into the 1960s county council offices at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire calling them "a clodhopping conglomeration … concrete at its shocking worst". Much more to her taste was the "magical" 15th-century Triangular Lodge at Rushton in Northamptonshire, a folly in which everything revolves around the number three. Mira Bar-Hillel, the London Evening Standard's property correspondent, felt sorry for the horses that have to live in Sir Basil Spence's Knightsbridge Barracks, but adored Royal Holloway College in Egham, opened by Queen Victoria in 1886 and modelled on the French Chateau de Chambord.
wonder: Einstein Tower, Potsdam
blunder: Congress Hall, Nuremburg
"It shows tremendous individuality and freedom of spirit … one of architecture's great one-offs."
wonder: Copenhagen Town Hall
blunder: SAS Radisson Hotel, Copenhagen
"A copy of the American slab-and-podium tower block that can be found in a dozen European cities."
Traveller and former Monty Python Michael Palin thought the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow Terminal 4 shone "like a beacon in the architectural wilderness of Heathrow". He wasn't, however, a regular guest at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, central London: "the only thing grand about it is its name, and even that is picked out in weak industrial orange." Comedian Roy Hudd loved Frank Matcham theatres for their "welcoming friendliness", but could never pass the Queen Elizabeth gates at Hyde Park "without a small retch". "They haven't been there long but already they're ageing faster than the Queen Mother who they are dedicated to."
Design guru Sir Terence Conran at least got some pleasure from his blunder, "pretentious" Minster Court in the City of London – "it makes me laugh because it's so ridiculous". He loved Le Corbusier's church at Ronchamp for its "quirkiness and fantastic use of space and concrete". Furniture designer David Linley was also moved by a religious building: a Renaissance chapel in Rome, Bramante's Tiempetto at San Pietro in Montorio, "a rotunda with a beautiful domed roof that translated rather well into a jewellery box". Bowater House in Knightsbridge was "pretty grim".
For Phil Redmond, a quantity surveyor before he created the soap opera Brookside, St George's Hall in Liverpool was "a statement of Liverpool's great past", but his frequent journeys to London were blighted by Euston Station, "one of the worst places on earth to wait". Changing Rooms' Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen was lucky enough to be able to see Canary Wharf, his wonder, from his home, and could imagine Turner and Monet painting it in different lights. But the extension to the Bank of England in the 1930s was "one of the most appalling pieces of desecration that ever happened to London".
Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, compared two buildings that face each other across George Square in Edinburgh: a "range of perfectly proportioned Georgian buildings" and "a loathsome concrete lump, the Appleton Tower, thrown up in the 1960s. Fortunately, bits are now falling off it, so perhaps in time it will simply fall down." For Adam Faith, managing director of the Money Channel, the Millennium Wheel was "the nicest thing we've built in this country since I've been around", but he hated anything built in the 1950s. Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes raved about the Tate Modern but won't be Christmas shopping at the Elephant & Castle mall: "It looks like a derelict block."
And Father Christmas himself? Quarmby House in West Yorkshire – Britain's first modern underground house – had everything he looked for: a large flat roof covered in grass, easy to land on and somewhere for Rudolph to graze. Canary Wharf was, for obvious reasons, his blunder: "I'd like to see Cesar Pelli park his sleigh there."
wonder: Tate Modern
Blunder: Elephant & Castle shopping centre
"Right from the slope at the entrance, they've given it grandeur and kept the purity of the original."
wonder: Hilton Hotel, Heathrow
Blunder: Imperial Hotel, Russell Square
"The only thing grand about it is its name, and even that is picked out in weak industrial orange."
The construction movers and shakers
Industry figures have been the stalwarts of Wonders & blunders, often surprising us with their choices. Paul Morrell, senior partner in cost consultant Davis Langdon & Everest, first saw the Taj Mahal "in a pink and misty dawn light" and was touched by the tragic story behind its creation. Less pleasing was a "naff" advertising structure on Cromwell Road in west London. Laurie Chetwood, managing director of Chetwood Associates, found relief in a public toilet – CZWG's public convenience in Westbourne Grove, west London, which combined turquoise-green glazed bricks and a glazed canopy with a flower shop "to add fragrance".
Former Wimpey chairman Joe Dwyer "never ceased to wonder" at the Natural History Museum in London. "It's obviously traditional, so this is one of the few occasions when I am at one with the Prince of Wales." As for the Pompidou Centre, "the only thing one can say for it is that it's a talking point; as a building, it's a disgrace." Steve Lee, managing director of Citex, thought the London Eye was "a fantastic concept" but couldn't imagine that the "gloomy" 1960s faculty of the built environment at South Bank University in south London inspired the students inside.
Tom Bloxham of Manchester developer Urban Splash admired the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao because it had "changed a fairly depressed Spanish city into a centre of culture and excitement", but hated "the acres and acres of suburban housing creating soulless ghettoes that will be a burden for generations to come". For Dermot Gleeson, chairman of contractor MJ Gleeson, his home town of Guildford provided both majesty and monstrosity. The majesty lay in Guildford Cathedral, built in the 1930s. The monstrosity was Guildford business park. "Depending on my mood, its mixed-use, hi-tec units remind me either of four crashed spaceships or four dying jellyfish."
Guy Battle of environmental and structural engineer Battle McCarthy was torn between igloos and Japanese houses for his wonder, and picked Alsop & Störmer's Hotel du Départment in Marseilles for coming closest to interpreting them. His blunder was the Marco Polo building in Battersea. "It epitomises the gold rush of the 1980s, when all attention was on making a fast buck."
Jane Wernick, structural engineer with Arup, regularly drove beneath two bridges on main roads out of London. One, a concrete bridge that spans the M5 in Kent, "always raises my spirits"; the other was a footbridge over the A40: "Why was this particular Spam-like shade of orange chosen?" Alan Crane, chairman of the Movement for Innovation board, thought the Bull Ring in Birmingham was "like a big hard scab and you don't want to go anywhere near it". He preferred to stand in St Pancras Station and admire "that incredible roof".
For Sir Michael Pickard, chairman of the National House Building Council and the Housing Forum in 1999, the Pompidou Centre "looked sad and run-down" but the "sleek and simple elegance" of Canary Wharf tower never failed to excite him.
Racing fanatic Jennie Price, until recently chief executive of the Construction Confederation, loved Goodwood, where the "relentlessly modern" Sussex stand met one of the requirements of racecourse buildings, that large numbers of people can move around quickly. "A typical half-hour would take you from the bar to the paddock, on to the bookmakers, up to the grandstand and then, if you're lucky, back to the bookmaker." Kempton Park, on the other hand, often appeared to be bursting at the seams.
wonder: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Blunder: Suburban housing
"It changed a fairly depressed Spanish city into a centre of culture and excitement."
wonder: Natural History Museum
blunder: Pompidou Centre
"The only thing one can say for it is that it's a talking point; as a building, it's a disgrace."
Wonder of wonders
Stansted airport and the houses of parliament
Lord Foster's Stansted Airport and Sir Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament have both been wonders five times.
The latter was pushed into joint first position by two of the Tory contenders for London mayor: Steven Norris thought it was all fantastic and "wasted on politicians", while Jeffrey Archer noted that "there were endless obscure corridors for privacy and intrigue".
Stansted Airport, which opened in 1991, was a particular favourite with people who'd flown from it. Fire engineering consultant Alan Parnell commented on its "lightness and peacefulness", Cliff Beard of Beard Dove thought the journey to the plane "smooth and convenient" and John Caine of Curtins Consulting Engineers reckoned it was a place "that one is proud to have as a gateway for visitors to the UK".
Blunder of blunders
DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT, marsham street
The DOE's former headquarters in London SW1 has been easily the most reviled building, picking up 10 votes as blunder. Many came from people who had worked or been to meetings there and remembered with horror "the wind whistling round your ankles" (Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers Association), the fact that "it could take 20 minutes to walk from the top of one tower to another, by which time the minister who summoned you had forgotten what he wanted to ask you" (Alastair Balls of Newcastle's International Centre for Life), and that it was "so badly built that netting is essential to protect passers-by from bits falling off" (John Gummer).
Designed by architect Eric Bedford, Marsham Street's three slab towers have been empty since 1997 and are to be knocked down next year to make way for a new Home Office headquarters designed by Terry Farrell.