It’s time for an all-architecture edition of Unrequired Reading! So if you don’t care about this stuff, go visit the Unrequired Reading archives instead!
A few weeks ago, I goofed on NYTimes writer Nicolai Ouroussoff’s starchitecture rimjob about planned cities. I contrasted it with a second NYTimes article that discussed the moral quandary of taking commissions from dictatorships.
In yesterday’s NYTimes, Ouroussoff managed to top himself, going gaga over the starchitecture in Beijing, conflating events in Beijing with those throughout China, condemning the west for not allowing starchitects like Rem Koolhaas the opportunity to build whatever is capable of being built — whoops! I meant, “probe the edges of the possible” — and concluding that modernism is going to redefine the public sphere in China, where they have a “fierce embrace of change.”
In one of the article’s early non-sequiturs, the writer contrasts the new airport and its transportation hub to, um, New Orleans (?):
This sprawling [transit] web has completely reshaped Beijing since the city was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago. It is impossible not to think of the enormous public works projects built in the United States at midcentury, when faith in technology’s promise seemed boundless. Who would have guessed then that this faith would crumble for Americans, paving the way for a post-Katrina New Orleans just as the dream was being reborn in 21st-century China at 10 times the scale?
Mr. Ouroussoff’s doesn’t seem to find faults in modernist architecture, focusing instead on how generic office buildings and slums highight the inequality of the city’s economy. For the article’s climax, he waxes rhapsodic about Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building, in a passage I have to quote in its entirety, because there’s no way I can do justice to this level of bullshit:
But the [CCTV building] is a formidable challenge to all of our expectations of what a monumental building should be. Like Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron, Mr. Koolhaas is part of a generation of architects, now in their late 50s and early 60s, whose early careers were shaped in opposition to the oppressive formal purity of mainstream Modernism. They fashioned asymmetrical forms to break down the movement’s monolithic scale and make room for outcasts and misfits. The problem they face now is how to adjust that language for clients that include authoritarian governments and multinational corporations.
In his design for the CCTV headquarters, Mr. Koolhaas begins by obliterating any trace of the human scale from the exteriors. There are no conventional windows, no clear indication of where the floors begin and end. The forms completely distort your perspective of the building; it seems to flatten out from some vantage points and bear down on you from others.
As a result it is almost impossible to get a fix on the building’s scale. Seen through the surrounding skyline of generic glass-and-steel towers, it sometimes seems to shrink to the size of a child’s toy. From other angles it seems to be under a Herculean strain, as if fighting to support the enormous weight of the cantilevered floors above.
This is not just a game. Mr. Koolhaas has set out to express the elasticity of the new global culture, and in the process explore ways architecture can bridge the gap between the intimate scale of the individual life and the whirling tide of mass society. The image of authority he conveys is pointedly ambiguous. Imposing at one moment, shy and retiring the next, the buildingâ€™s unstable forms say as much about collective anxieties as they do about centralized power.
Then, complaining about the reflexive repression of a totalitarian regime that can afford to impose Mr. Koolhaas’s vision on the cityscape, Mr. Ouroussroff notes, “For now, however, it is not the architect who will determine the degree of openness at CCTV but the companyâ€™s government-appointed board of directors.” Earlier, he points out that the government plans to block roads to the building and restrict access to CCTV employees. See, when it comes to “the dividing line between public and private spheres,” that gets written by the guys with the guns, not the guys with the girders. (There’s a dividing line between spheres?)
I think it’s awesome that China is a “great laboratory for architecture,” even though the Mr. Ouroussoff doesn’t appear to have traveled beyond Beijing. After all, China’s a small and uniform country, right?
Still, I bet the parents of the kids who were killed, maimed or buried alive by collapsing schools in the Sichuan earthquake last May would be willing toÂ trade the new national theater building, the new airport and even the CCTV building for decent architecture and construction standards outside the big city.
A few weeks ago, the NYTimes published a magazine supplement about architecture or something. It included this meandering ramble about building cities that have no history. Written by the paper’s starchitecture critic, Nicholas Ouroussoff, it glowingly describes the miraculous super-projects to be designed by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl and others. The elephant in the room that Ouroussoff fails to mention is that all of these places that are offering these opportunities “happen” to be dictatorships (to be fair, he does mention that most of these “new cities” appear to be built as playgrounds for the rich, with no opportunity for interaction among classes).
While the architects celebrate the openness that these nations have, and the willingness they have to undertake massive top-down projects designed to show off their wealth, we’re able to read between the lines:
Take [Steven] Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing, for example, which has a surprisingly open, communal spirit. A series of massive portals lead from the street to an elaborate internal courtyard garden, a restaurant, a theater and a kindergarten, integrating the complex into the surrounding neighborhood. Bridges connect the towers 12 to 19 stories above ground and are conceived as a continuous string of public zones, with bars and nightclubs overlooking a glittering view of the city and a suspended swimming pool. “The developer’s openness to ideas was amazing,” Holl says. “When they first asked me to do the project, it was just housing. I suggested adding the cinematheque, the kindergarten. I added an 80-room hotel and the swimming pool as well. Anywhere else, theyâ€™d build it in phases over several years. It’s too big. After our meeting, they said we’re building the whole thing all at once. I couldn’t believe it. We havenâ€™t had to compromise anything. . . .”
“We haven’t had to compromise anything”? Great! Because the building’s the thing!
Today’s NYTimes offers a balance to that morally idiotic sentiment, as architects discuss whether to take jobs from dictatorships. The article by Robin Pogrebin takes as a starting point Daniel Libeskind’s statement that he won’t work for totalitarian regimes (Singapore excepted) and, while it humorously tries to contrast Robert A.M. Stern with Rem Koolhaas —
Architects face ethical dilemmas in the West too. Some refuse to design prisons; others eschew churches. Robert A. M. Stern, who is also Yaleâ€™s architecture dean, drew some criticism last year when he accepted an assignment to design a planned George W. Bush Library in Dallas.
— it gets to the point about exactly the compromises that Holl avoids seeing:
Architects readily point out that dictators — or powerful central governments like China’s — can be among the most efficient in getting architecture built, as the boom in China attests. “The more centralized the power, the less compromises need to be made in architecture,” said the architect Peter Eisenman. “The directions are clearer.”
Sorta makes me want to read The Fountainhead again, now that I’m twice as old as the last time I read it.