Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Architectural Follies

This unbuilt building design has been getting quite a bit of attention:

The first time I saw an article on it, I didn’t pay it much attention. I did not notice at first glance what became the design’s source of notoriety: it’s eerie resemblance to the World Trade Center at the moment of collision with the two jet airplanes on September 11th. In fairness to the designers (Dutch firm MVRVD), neither did early commentary on the design, so I don’t think it’s something that the designers would have necessarily caught. It’s funny in a macabre way.

It’s resemblance to the World Trade Center bombing is not, however, the main thing that springs to mind when I see it. No, it’s problems go way beyond that. When I see it, I can’t help but think how utterly ridiculous this building is. Why are all those functions in the ‘cloud’ suspended hundreds of feet in the air? Why not put them on the ground? Are they even needed? This building seems to exemplify all the problems of modern architecture in one building: the abstract form finding with no relation to any practical need, the striving for novelty for novelty’s sake, the sheer wastefulness of all the steel and concrete that are required to make these crazy forms work, the enormous depersonalizing scale, the lack of any relation to context, the abstract gridded geometry taken to a ridiculous extreme with no human-scale features, the blank expressionless façade, the lack of engagement with the street, and the need for designs to be a status symbol for the wealthy rather than possess civic virtue. The fact that it reminds people of a terrorist attack is a bitter irony and as trenchant a commentary on the quality of today’s modern architectural design as could be made. Words fail me here. From the BBC article:

The development company say they were offered two versions of the design. The chaotic pixelated style was chosen because it was seen as "trendy".

A second version, with a smooth, undulating bridge snaking round the two buildings was dismissed as "too old-fashioned".

The designers describe this big cluster of functions suspended in midair as “pixelated”. Are we so desperate for novel forms that we're taking them from garbled digital transmissions? I’m sure the architects came up with all sorts of philosophical archo-babble about how the form is driven by digital culture, how it 'reflects our times', yadda, yadda. It’s really just the endless starchitect preening and search for notoriety; a testament to our hyper- individualism expressed in building form to create a 'brand' and the desperate need to be avant-garde. What’s with our obsession with abstract machine-tooled “modularity”? It looks like it’s built from Legos.

Why should I have to have to take an elevator to the fiftieth floor (or wherever) to use whatever functions are floating in the “pixelated cloud” How ridiculous is that? Even a basic understanding of structural engineering will tell you the sheer amount of oversizing of steel members and complexity of engineering to do this is immense. This is so fucking wasteful! Whatever happened to economy of materials, or form following function? This is just a desperate cry for attention. Apparently, that’s de rigeur for this firm – see this and this (thanks WAN).

This is why the public hates modern architecture. Its impersonality, its outsize scale, its lack of humanity, history, ornament or context. Its obsession with “style” and “trendiness” over practical matters. Not only are such buildings extremely inefficient and wasteful, not to mention difficult to construct, but they are all too often poor performers: Gehry sued over leaky building. Such buildings respond to no needs but the need for the designer’s self-gratification – not the needs of users, of cost, of energy, of materials, or even of environmental conditions like rain and snow! And they will be impossible to maintain once energy and materials get more expensive.

The enormous growth for the sake of growth in the Middle and Far East has driven architectural narcissism to unimaginable heights. Every culture builds its grandest monuments on the eve of collapse. We’re now following the script from the Mesopotamians, the Mayans, the Romans, Easter Island et al., except now on a global scale. Skyscrapers are just as much sheer status symbols as the ancient temples and pyramids – there has never been an economic justification for their existence. Still, look at the quiet dignity of the towers from our own golden age – the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, Chicago Tribune Tower – in contrast to these ego-driven monstrosities. And isn’t it interesting most of these new oppressive towers serve functions of banking or ‘global trade’? The Orwellian-named gargantuan “Freedom Tower" shard at Ground Zero in New York has been criticized for its brash triumphalism at a scene of massive tragedy, with some even comparing it to the work of Albert Speer. Capitalism’s destructive mechanistic, inhumane and anti-nature philosophies are now wrought in steel, glass and stone.

As the economy craters, these white elephants will litter the “developing” world even as their fields forests and waterways wither away and dry up. Silent monuments to our hubris. They will not even be usable, except as scrap-their elaborate abstract forms and their separation from their surroundings will see to that. These are our Moai – our testaments to our own folly and stupidity, and they’re not even beautiful or lasting. Looking at the architectural boondoggles under construction, you’d never realize we’re running out of fossil fuels, and destroying our climate in a mad race to get the last of them out of the ground (tar sands, shale oil, deepwater drilling, etc.). And for what? For nonsense like this?

At least the building didn’t look like Hitler:

For a different take on architectural philosophy, see this:

Honesty, where would you rather be? And why aren't we architects paying attention?

For a better form of Modernism, see this:
P.S. - I’ve been preparing a post about Christopher Alexander as well.

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