Friday, May 15, 2015

Inequality in Modern Architecture

Inequality in 1315.
Buildings always reflect the society in which they are built. The pyramids of Egypt symbolized many things at once – Egypt’s obsession with the afterlife, a massive population boom of idle workers made possible through grain agriculture, the power of the Egyptian state. It was the new top-down social structure made manifest in stone. Roman Civic buildings such as basilicas and amphitheaters symbolized the power, order, and authority of the Empire  – effective civil service and bread-and-circus distractions for a restive populace. The tallest buildings in European cities were the Gothic Cathedrals which symbolized the power of the Catholic Church in the Age of Faith. The Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower symbolized the age of engineering and iron industrialism.

Recently, the new world order that is emerging from the rotting corpse of post-war popular democracy – which I have termed Neofeudalism, -- has developed similar distinctive architectural forms.

Its form is new and yet familiar. Some of you may be familiar with the tall slender towers that dotted Italian hill towns in the fourteenth century. These were built to show off the wealth and power of patrician families, and to serve as refuges for elites in times of strife.

Now ironically, the form is being reborn in stone and concrete, but massively higher and for the same reason - to cater to the wealth and power of elites, this time the global economic oligarchy who are quickly sopping up all of humanity's collective wealth.

The form is due to the zoning laws of New York City and the height to maximize the economic returns. The towers are being built as places for the global elite to store their cash. They take advantage of complex engineering to create tall, slender towers that rise from their base to their peak, looming over the little people with their eerily ubiquitous presence. Due to their purpose as Elysiums for the one percent, they have been nicknamed Pikettyscrapers, after French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Lloyd Alter:
In an earlier post I complained that It's time to dump the tired argument that density and height are green and sustainable. The point was that there are essentially no density limits in Manhattan, but that doesn't mean people are getting affordable housing. Or as I noted in a more recent post, The problems in our big cities aren't caused by restrictions on density and height, but by inequality.

What New York and other cities are getting instead are what are now called pencil towers, or skinnyscrapers, or superslenders: expensive inefficient buildings where the very wealthy buy whole floors which they often don't even use very much, or pay much taxes on...That is what we are seeing in New York and London's skylines: Pikettyscrapers, inequality made solid in marble and glass. Put them all together and instead of a skyline you have a Piketty line....super-slenders are hugely expensive to build, requiring the same stairs, elevators and emergency systems as buildings with floor plates ten times the size. The ratio of expensive exterior cladding to floor area is insanely high. On a use per capita basis, they are horrible energy hogs. As for benefits to the city, the tax income to the City will be minimal because the occupants probably won’t live there full time and won’t pay the New York City income tax...The Skyscraper dictionary notes:

Piketty Line as a skyline typology takes its meaning from Piketty’s argument that unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened, which resembles the protesting essence of the term picket line, which is a boundary established by protesting workers on strike. It was coined for this dictionary.
Jargon Watch: A Piketty line full of Pikettyscrapers (Treehugger)

Perkins + Will to design Manhattan Pikettyscraper (Treehugger) 1961 [New York City] revised the zoning laws again, making the wedding-cake towers period pieces. Instead, entranced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue, a masterpiece of bronze metal set back in a handsome plaza, officials switched to a zoning code that encourages standalone towers. In exchange for ceding open space to the public, developers could build straight up (the permissible height was governed by a calculation called “floor area ratio”, or FAR)...But the 110-storey Twin Towers, anchoring their own downtown skyline and set in a giant plaza (called a “superblock”), were a special case. Otherwise, buildings of 40-60 storeys were the norm.

No one, it seems, was anticipating the current wave of pencil-thin, supertall towers. The technology they depend on has been around for decades — “mass dampers”, which prevent thin towers from swaying uncomfortably, are nothing new. So has the structural know-how that allows them to rise safely even from tiny bases. One of the buildings, 432 Park Avenue, has recently topped out at 1,396 feet, from a site of just 90 feet square.

The real generator of form now is the winner-take-all economy — and with it, the demand for sky-high condos at sky-high prices. Virtually all of the new buildings are condominiums with just one unit to a floor, which means they can get by with very few elevators. And that, in turns, mean they can be built even on very narrow lots. In other words, the demand for $20m to $100m condos, with views in all directions and no next-door neighbours, has given rise to a new building type – making the revised skyline the physical manifestation of New York’s income disparities.

Amazingly, none of the towers required city permission (although they did require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, given Manhattan’s proximity to three airports). The city doesn’t limit height, just floor area ratio, and developers, can buy “air rights” from adjacent buildings, letting them go supertall “as of right”. The developer of the Nordstrom Tower, named for the department store at its base, bought air rights from the neighbouring Art Students League, paying the venerable school (which had no plans to enlarge its handsome, 1892 building) some $30m.

Not only are these new towers casting long shadows on Central Park; they are turning the New York skyline, for most of the 20th century a kind of ziggurat with the Empire State Building as its peak, into a jumble. As for life below? The buildings are making the city less pleasant for anyone who cannot afford one of the condos in the sky. Think of it as the new Upstairs, Downstairs, but on an urban scale.
Supersizing Manhattan: New Yorkers rage against the dying of the light (The Guardian)

Inequality in 2015.
Of course, I'm fascinated by what buildings reveal about our society. See this excellent article from the New York Review of Books: Conspicuous Construction. It goes into greater depth about the reasons for these designs:
The 1990s witnessed the high-tech, telecommunications, and dot-com booms, the rise of hedge funds, the denationalization of the former Soviet Union’s natural resources, and the ascendance of China’s state-controlled capitalism. Together all these developments radically altered standards of private wealth worldwide. In the top bracket there were said to be only fifty or so extremely desirable apartment houses in Manhattan, symptomatic of the oddly persistent scarcity of premium housing in America’s financial hub. Here was a gaping hole at the high end of the market begging to be filled.

Although major fortunes have increasingly trumped religious, racial, or social biases, some co-ops require purchasers to have liquid assets equal to many multiples of an apartment’s price, which has limited sales in them to an even smaller portion of the so-called top one percent. If you buy a co-op, you buy shares in the building; if you want to leave, it is up to you to sell the shares to someone who can pass the board. Conversely, if a condominium board turns down a sale it must buy back the apartment, an effective deterrent to rejection. Thus the offspring of deposed African dictators are as welcome at condos as Social Register scions, and this ease of access has attracted shady characters who’d never get board approval at the toniest old guard citadels...

The nascent Manhattan high-rise that has everyone talking is 432 Park Avenue, the skinny eighty-nine-story spire that soars above the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Park on the former site of the Drake Hotel. Set for completion this spring, it was designed by the Uruguayan-born, New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly. Now the highest residential structure in the Western Hemisphere at 1,397 feet, 432 Park is officially New York City’s second-tallest building (after David Childs’s inevitably symbolic if architecturally negligible One World Trade Center of 2005–2014). Actually, it’s the loftiest by twenty-eight feet in habitable space, since a broadcasting mast accounts for the uppermost 408 feet of the Childs tower.

Many observers report being bemused, not to say unnerved, by the Viñoly building’s strange ubiquitousness. Visible throughout all five boroughs and as far away as Long Island and New Jersey, it startles both visitors and natives with its thin looming omnipresence and seems to follow you around like a bad conscience. One doesn’t hear much about 432 Park’s design for the good reason that artistic niceties are almost beside the point in the mathematical conjuring that brought it and its peers into being. You could even say this structure resembles a three-dimensional balance sheet more than a fully articulated architectural façade.

While [Robert A.M.] Stern clings to a passé postmodernism in much of his work, Viñoly hews closely to the reductive aesthetic of high modernism. The basically white exterior of 432 Park Avenue imparts a graphic feel accentuated by the flatness of the building’s four identical sides, as well as the bold contrast between its dark glass windows (six large square panes per story) and white concrete panels that frame the minimalist fenestration. But what most sets this oddly disturbing composition apart is the way it shoots straight upward to its full, vertiginous height.

Together with the building’s relatively small footprint—ninety-three feet square (about one quarter the length of a football field)—this uninterrupted ascent approximates the proportions of a medieval defensive tower in an Italian hill town. The configuration was made possible by city regulations that waive upper-story “wedding cake” setback requirements—instituted in 1916 to prevent overbuilt Lower Manhattan streets from turning into lightless, airless canyons—but only if a building occupies no more than one quarter of its lot. Now that prices for Manhattan residences in prime locations have gone through the roof, it hardly seems wasteful to leave 75 percent of a plot empty on a $1 billion speculation like 432 Park.

Among this new breed of towers, design elements not directly tied to profit are often downgraded or eliminated as overall costs climb. For example, Portzamparc poetically predicted that the rippling glass exterior he initially planned for One57 would evoke a cascading waterfall. As executed, however, the flat surface of the building’s variously blue, gray, and silver panes fades into a pixelated blur even from a short distance. With today’s mathematically generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”

Meanwhile, vast areas of former middle-class tract homes sit empty in the sun belt and Rust Belt cities are bulldozing entire swaths of the city. And:

Warren Buffett's mobile home empire preys on the poor (Center for Public Integrity)

The tragedy of the trailer park: Warren Buffett's Clayton Homes accused of preying on the poor (Treehugger)

Abandoned America: Amazing photos of a nation’s ruins (BBC)

America!! Freedom!!!

Meanwhile, speaking of inequality on the other coast, they instead prefer high-tech human biodome/terrariums to skyscrapers designed by the Galactic Empire. I finally managed to read that Bloomberg article about the Google Campus. Here are some passages that leaped out at me::
Employees will have access to exercise equipment and yoga studios on majestic balconies overlooking central courtyards, although the renderings curiously omit railings and other safety barriers. Perhaps gravity will be different under the glass as well? With cafes and stores on the ground floor, and 5,000 units of proposed housing within an easy recumbent bicycle ride, there may be no reason for workers to ever leave.

Silicon Valley is blessed with nearly idyllic year-round weather, but it’s almost devoid of landmarks, other than a mission-style bell tower on the campus of Stanford University and the utilitarian sign of a once famous electronics company, Ampex, standing along the 101 freeway in Redwood City. Generic low-rise buildings inside endless office parks are spread over the rest of the area, which is carved up by highways and dotted with parking lots, marring a landscape once rich with orchards. The leaders of high tech, it seems, were too busy changing our world to pay attention to theirs.

The Apple spaceship, scheduled to open next year, is meticulously conceived and obsessively polished down to the smallest detail, just like an Apple product. Forty-foot concave glass panes for the curved walls were specially manufactured in Germany. With a projected price tag of $5 billion, it will probably be the most expensive building in history. It will also be closed to the public.

Ingels and Heatherwick may not have the standing of Gehry or Foster, but they’ve been the subjects of exhibitions at major museums and profiles in magazines. They’re both charismatic pitchmen, adept at presenting their visions in relatable terms. Ingels’s 2009 TED Talk, 3 Warp-Speed Architecture Tales, has been viewed more than 1.9 million times. Heatherwick’s newer presentation, Building the Seed Cathedral, about his porcupine-like British pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, has 1.4 million views….Ingels talks in the lofty argot of a starchitect. Meeting in the lobby of a boutique hotel in San Francisco, he wears all black, with fashionable beard scruff and an Audemars Piguet watch on his wrist. He says things like, “I like showing there is potential for meaning in the mediocrity of the everyday. There is poetry in the practical.”

Google’s request contained some broad guidelines, many from Page himself. He wanted flexible large-span structures that dissolved the conventions of boxy buildings with four vertical walls and a roof. The new Googleplex should meld the inside and outside, bringing nature closer to employees and encouraging creativity and collaboration....Ingels’s unusual perspective also prepared him to interpret Page’s unorthodox parameters—facilitating greater collaboration, fusing the inside and outside, and leaving plenty of options to change the space around later. Ingels’s proposed solution, conceived with Heatherwick, starts with the giant canopies, which evoke the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller and the tentlike structures of German architect Frei Otto at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Ingels says that because the canopies will shield the buildings from wind, sunlight, and inclement weather, the designers can use lighter materials and take greater risks. “By making the membrane sophisticated, we can have a much more free and flexible architecture within,” he says, adding that BIG and Heatherwick are still working on ways to regulate sun exposure and reduce glare. “I doubt that any of us would have arrived at these designs if we had just been doing it alone.”

The true skeptics, really, are other designers, and they’re not hard to find. Why, for example, do you need giant glass enclosures in a place where the weather’s always perfect? “This is why hiring architects from Northern Europe maybe wasn’t the smartest thing,” says Louise Mozingo, a professor of environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley. She also wonders how Google plans to clean the glass canopies when it doesn’t rain for long stretches. “There is something about this whole microclimate that they are not quite getting,” she says. [and who is going to scoop up all the dead birds on the outside of the canopy? Is there an app for that? --CH]

Others doubt the practicality of the supposedly flexible design. How, they want to know, do you configure a stable electrical system in a set of modular office units that will be hoisted and moved around by crabots? “Flexibility can become really expensive,” says David Meckel, director for research and planning at the California College of the Arts. Radcliffe says the company hasn’t worked out every problem just yet. “There may be a few things we need to scratch our heads on and figure out over time,” he says. He agrees the project should probably be considered another Google moon shot—a hugely ambitious idea that doesn’t yet have a lot of supporting details nailed down. “It redefines the way we think about the relationship between the built environment and the work that happens there, and the community and ecology it sits in,” he says.

He adds that others probably shouldn’t try to copy the grand design. “This is absolutely the right thing to do for Google. I’m not sure it’s the right thing for anybody else.”
Big and Weird: The Architectural Genius of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick

The neighbors seem less enthusiastic: Why Google’s Hometown Said “No” to a Massive New Googleplex (Slate) Perhaps there is a lesson here
...Instead, it set aside the majority of the developable office space in question for a more modest project proposed by another local tech company: LinkedIn. The move will give LinkedIn a chance to build its own new headquarters as part of a mixed-use development that will also include a movie theater, fitness club, shops, and restaurants, all open to the public. And it will leave Google with rights to less than one-fourth of the commercial square footage it had hoped to build—about enough for one of the four main buildings it had planned...LinkedIn’s plans required no special exceptions to the city’s height or density limits and were touted as more shovel-ready than Google’s far-out designs.
If you want a taste of the architect sales-pitch speak that got them the job, both of the above architects have TED talks (appropriate, no?). I'm sure you'll enjoy their "buildings" from the ski-slope power plant to the giant furry cube made from fiber optics:

Building the Seed Cathedral (Thomas Heatherwick)

The Seed Cathedral "building." No, you do not need glasses.
3 warp-speed architecture tales (Bjarke Ingels)

It's a power plant AND a ski run. Such genius!!!
These talks might remind you of something else...

Someone needs to write a book, "How Architecture Got Weird." The important thing is that your betters like it. So now rather than just being snookered by fast talkers into goofy fashions, austere apartments and blank canvasses in their art collection, the one percent will now be able to remake the entire built world that we all inhabit as abstract pieces of modernist sculpture according to their whims. Progress!

And speaking of Bjarke Ingels, what is the only form that could be even more evocative of extremes of wealth inequality than giant sculptural phallic towers? Yes, of course, the pyramids! And what do you think old Bjarke is building for the wealthy in New York City (without irony, apparently)?

So it shall be it shall be done!
On yet another biting cold day, Ingels cheerfully locks his foldable bicycle to a street sign in Chelsea and slides into a diner banquette to discuss his New York debut. Having naughtily dropped a few public hints about the project before his client, Durst Fetner Residential, was quite ready for the attention, he is now simultaneously excited and cagey. The new building, he explains, will fuse two apparently incompatible types: a European-style, low-rise apartment block encircling a courtyard, and a Manhattan tower-on-a-podium, yielding something that looks like neither and behaves like both. New York is ready to embrace such a griffin, he insists: “This is the country that invented surf and turf! To put a lobster on a steak—any French chef would tell you that’s a crime.”

Ingels, who has been a visiting professor at Rice University, Harvard, and Columbia, is an unabashed Americanophile. “Europeans like to declare the U.S. dead, but it’s a convenient fiction,” he says. “So many European architects have been influenced by America, and I’m interested to discover that part of Danish culture.” So he has become a part-time New Yorker; he’s rented an apartment in Tribeca, opened an office in Chelsea, and bought a vintage Porsche for jaunts out of town...
Pyramid Scheme: Bjarke Ingels reinvents the New York apartment building (New York Magazine)

Good thing architecture is being 'reinvented,' the old architecture just wasn't working, apparently. Maybe BIG can get some tips on using slave labor from Zaha Hadid.

The original 'reinvention' of architecture for the 1%. History repeats.
How did Ingels get so BIG so fast? Simple, he came out of the star-making factory at Rem Koolhaas OMA. If you're not familiar with Koolhaas work, see below for a sample:

Click for larger size
So it kind of makes sense now, doesn't it? OMA is the launching pad for hot new European starchitects, and just about all the purveyors of giant sculpture pieces came through it at some point. OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) is not to be confused with the band called OMC, who sang the song that goes through my head whenever I see a lot of modern architecture these days:

Not all New Yorkers are impressed with the new buildings. Perhaps they will agree with Xi Jinping and demand an end to 'weird buildings.'  There is a fascinating proposal to rebuild Penn Station according to the original McKim, Mead and White design that was barbarically torn down in the "progress"-mad 1960's.
The loss of the old Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead and White was a tragedy that actually became the start of the architectural preservation movement in North America. Now Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co. want to rebuild it from the original plans. According to Clem Labine in Traditional Building:
The Rebuild Penn Station plan has three major elements: (1) Reconstruct the grand spaces of the original Penn Station; (2) Create a modern transit hub that connects two subway lines, two commuter railroads, and Amtrak; (3) Redevelop the area in and around Penn Station to create a world-class urban destination – like Rockefeller Center. McKim had envisioned his splendid rail terminal as the centerpiece of a spectacular City Beautiful project – but he died before his full dream could be realized. “The time is right,” Cameron declares, “to complete McKim’s glorious urban vision.”

They project that it would be a whole lot cheaper and easier than doing a new modern building, because "architectural design development costs would be dramatically less than for a “blank slate” Modernist exercise in abstract geometry that is the current fashion." They note also that there is no fancy new engineering to be done, given that it's all been done before. And, the foundations are still there.

They don't say where you get the trades who still know how to do the stonework and the detail, but this is where it could get interesting; since all the original drawings still exist, they could be digitized and a lot of the detailed and complex traditional components could probably be 3D printed, using the newest of technologies to recreate the old.
The previous Robber Barons knew how to build public spaces.
Why not rebuild New York's Pennsylvania Station the way it was? (Treehugger)

On a lighter note:
At their national convention May 14-16, AIA members will be voting on a resolution to adopt a position statement in support of a new investigation into the collapse of “Building 7” on September 11, 2001.
American Institute of Architects to Reconsider WTC7 9/11 Collapse (Disinfo)

I've never been to the national convention, but as a full AIA member, had I known this was on the ballot I might have made the trip!

For more laughs, be sure and visit the indispensable Notes on Becoming A Famous Architect blog.


  1. The Seed Cathedral looks like a giant anus. Gadz.

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