Towering! Folly?

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, they’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 haven’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 Yale’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.

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