Metaphor for a Metropolis

Project Description

Metaphor for a Metropolis

by Edwin Heathcote, Jul 21, 2009 [View PDF]


“Krung Thep Mahanakhon”, Ole Scheeren tells me, is the Thai name for Bangkok. That last, strange-sounding word translates as “metropolis”. Ever since Fritz Lang’s 1926 filmic vision of an expressionistic, hubristic, futuristic city with a Babel-like skyscraper at its heart, the word “metropolis” bas become one of the richest, most evocative words in architecture. It means urbanity, “cityness”. And it would be hard to think of a better name for Scheeren’s extraordinary new skyscraper design.

Along with Rem Koolhaas, founder of OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, naturally), Scheeren is the architect of Asia’s most ambitious and scariest skyscraper, Beijing’s enormous CCTV (China Central Television) Building. That avant-garde monumental arch loomed over the Olympics and dominates the city’s increasingly prickly skyline. Based in Beijing, the German-born Scheeren bas specialised in Asian projects and, with his enthusillsm for the strange, chaotic dynamism of the big Asian cities, he is a long way from the familiar “starchitect~ imposing a vision from a western capital. This latest building, revealed exclusively to the Financial Times, is the perfect expression of a sensibility that powerfully combines western questioning and eastern bravado.

It is impossible to compete with Bangkok’s existing exotic menagerie of skyscraper, so Scheeren proposes a monolith, an un-twin tower, the dumb, extruded box of modernist orthodoxy – but then begins to erode its perfection. It is as if a computer virus bas begun to eat away at an image, pixellating it, or as if a tower of sugar cubes is dissolving away. It is a powerful image:, one the architect compares to a toppling Tower of Babel (the inspiration for Lang’s film).

The appearance of decay, though, is more than a formal aesthetic device. The most intriguing aspect of Mahanakhon 18 Scheeren’s desire to suck the frenetic activity of the street up into the architecture. This will be a striking contrast with neighbouring skyscrapers.

Bangkok’s high water table makes underground parking impractical. This bas led to a standard model of a plinth of parking beneath an extruded tower, disengaging the building from the street. killing the area around it. By placing parking at the rear of the site and having the building crumble into a series of terraces as it approaches street level, Scheeren proposes a kind of enerna1 atrium, a plaza. broken up into a deliberate chaos of dozens of flying levels.

This complex network links with the adjacent Skytrain (mass transit) station to create a public realm of cafe and restaurants. The dissolving of elements vertically through the building creates a spiral pattern of private balconies and terraces for the hotel and apartment complex above. In one image of the plan, with a viewpoint above the tower, you can see clearly how, as the smooth walls fragment into apparent randomness. I the monolithic is reduced into bite-sized chunks, cleverly echoing the intricacy of the urban landscape, the chaotic infill that constitutes the surrounding city streets. Reconciling the micro- and the macro-urban and resisting the disengagement between skyline and streetscape, Scheeren proposes a compelling alternative that addresses both.

If New York is defined by the setbacks and Aztec pyramid steps of its skyscrapers, a gesture to allow light into streets that would otherwise be canyons, this building, which will be Bangkok’s tallest, acknowledges street activity through a kind of capillary action, sucking up its imperfections along with its dynamism to animate the walls. An archetypal modernist skyscraper with its erosion programmed to from the beginning it is quite a metaphor for the contemporary city.