Skyscraping around the Urban World: Loners amid the Globalization
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Skyscraping around the Urban World: Loners amid the Globalization
by Holland Cotter, Jul 16, 2004 [View PDF]
GET out your old Pan Am flight bags. London is calling. So are Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, Mexico City, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and other fabled ports of the urban imagination. But if that itinerary is too strenuous, do you think you could possibly manage a trip to Queens?
”Tall Buildings” the new show at the temporary Long Island City headquarters of the Museum of Modern Art, is as much a travel expo as it is an architecture show. Featuring giant scale models, many of them glitzy, the presentation brilliantly simulates a grand tour of urban contemporarity. Apart from ease of access, the simulation is superior to the real thing in one respect. It demonstrates the proposition that contemporary architects reveal the inner world in the process of adorning the outer one. They conduct odysseys into the mind.
Organized by Terence Riley and Guy Nordenson, ”Tall Buildings” documents 25 projects designed between 1991 and the present. An Industrialized Housing System designed by Richard Rogers in 1991-92 for a South Korean manufacturer is the oldest work in the show. The most recent is the Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Tower in Beijing, a triumphal arch remodeled in the style of M. C. Escher by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren/OMA.
Six of the projects have been completed. Four more are in construction. The majority, however, are either still on the drawing boards or destined to remain in the form of the models and drawings we see here.
It’s worth noting that most of the realized projects are situated outside the United States. We do not lack the talent here. What’s missing is the civic pride. And perhaps the competitive spirit.
Technology; urbanism; and the building program, or set of uses: Mr. Riley cites these as the main themes embodied by the work on view. The urban dimension is by far the most important of the three. We assume that engineers can do wonderful things. Programming remains the prerogative of planners, for better or worse. But the story about the period in question concerns the increasing reliance on architects and architecture to guide cities into the era of globalization. That’s the story we see illustrated here.
It was Louis Kahn who said that architecture should send out sparks to the world outside the building envelope. The first project we encounter in ”Tall Buildings” doesn’t look like much of a sparkler, however. A bunch of tree trunks, complete with bark, this study for a skyscraper complex in Seoul, South Korea, could pass for an Arte Povera sculpture from the early 1970’s.
But never mind. Mr. Koolhaas, who conceived the rough-hewn arrangement, emerged during the Arte Povera moment. And that movement’s perverse obsession with undercover luxury clings to him still.
Are the Chinese ready for it? Non-Povera cost estimates appear to be delaying construction of Beijing’s CCTV Tower. But it would be hard to imagine a more potent symbol of Asia’s potential to eclipse the West in the next few decades. The building’s boldly cantilevered corner virtually screams victory.
In the fine exhibition catalog, Mr. Riley suggests that the urban quality of the design arises from the space it frames. In his view, this inclusionary strategy distinguishes the design from the aesthetic of urban displacement that prevailed in the mid-20th century.
Contemporary buildings are better at engaging their surroundings. Porous structures are one way they do this. The porosity prize surely goes to a plan for the World Trade Center designed by Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Steven Holl, and Peter Eisenman as part of a study for the future of ground zero. The show presents three projects — commissioned for this study, actually — and it is highly instructive, if a bit bittersweet, to inspect them out of the politically charged atmosphere in which they were first seen. All three contain ideas that will undoubtedly reappear on other sites.
They’re all more or less porous. The design by Mr. Meier, Mr. Holl and company even resembles a sponge, or a pair of them, though tic-tac-toe was the image most commonly cited when the plan was first unveiled. I don’t think history is going to leave this one alone. The scale of the design, its deceptive simplicity and its relationship to time as well as context combine to make it a major work.
Proposals by United Architects and Norman Foster have also aged well. But their urbanistic quality isn’t due solely to porosity, or indeed to design at all. It has been generated in large part by public expectations. Today, only suburbanites seem to want comprehensive master planning as it was practiced in the mid-20th century. In the big cities, people are looking toward buildings to help define their identities in changing times.
Disembedding without re-embedding: that’s how I’d summarize the general thrust of architecture during the period covered by this show. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist, wasn’t thinking about architecture when he coined that phrase. Mr. Beck was talking about the impact of globalization on individual identity. But the impact on design has been roughly the same.
Under the pressure of a shrinking world, the impulse to resist movements and styles finally overcame the 19th-century belief that architects working contemporaneously should embrace a common language. Cities have become the super-size Wunderkammer of the globalizing world. Architects are now called upon to stock their shelves with curiosities.
Here is London’s Swiss Reinsurance Headquarters, designed by Lord Foster in the shape of a lingam. Now there’s a way to spiritualize the old phallic drive. Mr. Eisenman’s loopy Max Reinhardt Haus, like some giant orifice, prepares to devour Berlin whole. Act out, kids. It’s allowed. Be fruitful. Multiply, divide and add.
Perhaps ”Tall Buildings” is best seen as a conversation between its two curators. Mr. Nordenson, the esteemed structural engineer, is more modern than the Modern, it often appears. He adheres to the traditional equation of structural integrity with moral substance. Mr. Riley is more attuned to the zeitgeist. He doesn’t shrink from promoting trends.
I wouldn’t presume to guess which curator sponsored what designs. The important thing is that the collaboration enabled them to step out of their accustomed points of view. The museum’s perspective has shifted also. This isn’t the first time Mr. Riley has mounted a conceptually based exhibition. But ”Tall Buildings” makes the sharpest break with the Modern’s traditional devotion to formalist aesthetics.
Fecundity of form gets great play here, but that is a different matter. We’ve come a long way from the time when ”modern” signified identical glass boxes. Some skeptics deplore the heterogeneity of today’s design as a manifestation of ego, the flaunting of signature statements by star architects. What it actually reflects is the recognition that the city is a libidinous proposition, an experiment in desire.
There are no duds in this selection. I am particularly grateful for the inclusion of exceptional projects by Steven Holl, Santiago Calatrava, Arata Isozaki and Jean Nouvel. Heads will no doubt be shaken over Jin Mao Tower, a high-rise pagoda for Shanghai designed by Adrian D. Smith and D. Stanton Korista of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office. But it’s nice to shake heads.
Do not be chagrined if your favorite tower is missing. The show isn’t meant to be comprehensive. And there’s a slim chance it could grow. This is the final exhibition scheduled for the Modern’s Long Island City venue. Why not let it stay up for a while? And add to it occasionally, like the wonder room that it is.
No artifact in the show is more moving than a drawing of the Twin Towers’ structure. Prepared by Mr. Nordenson’s students at Princeton, the study is an homage to Leslie Robertson, who engineered the structure for the architect Minoru Yamasaki. The color drawing reveals the different grades of steel that were used in the towers’ load-bearing walls. It has the radiant beauty of an Agnes Martin painting. And it documents the exceptional finesse that went into the making of our lost icons.
”Tall Buildings” benefits from a polemical edge. The show was conceived in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, some believed that the future of the skyscraper was in doubt. Amid sound concerns about the safety of tall buildings, a degree of guilt hung in the air. It’s naughty of a society to crave heights, the thinking went. Remember Babel!
Americans are easily shamed these days into renouncing habits. And we are quick to thwart the desires of those who won’t go along with our disapproval. Skyscrapers need no justification. But it would be worth building higher merely to disembbed ourselves from fear.
Does it need to be said that arousing fear is one of the things architecture is actually good for? Every visitor to the Eiffel Tower knows this. Tall buildings transport us to the far side of dread.
”Tall Buildings” remains at the Museum of Modern Art, Queens, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, (212) 708-9400, through Sept. 27.