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Tall Buildings

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Several years ago, a building fell down a few blocks from my house. I was living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, surrounded by tall buildings; this one was twelve stories high, and three of them suddenly collapsed in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, ripping the structure in half diagonally and beginning a long and increasingly tiresome process that lasted the better part of a week. Residents of nearby apartment complexes had to be evacuated, the area taped off and quarantined, a wrecking crew hired to finish the demolition, and scores of policemen called in to keep the gawking onlookers at bay. I should mention that no one was hurt, save a small blue tropical fish whose bowl was muddied by the flood of dust that poured into every window nearby. The building itself was hardly ever occupied; perhaps fittingly, it was a warehouse for a business called Irreplaceable Artifacts, whose owners collected architectural debris from old buildings that had been demolished. According to the New York Times, its inventory included cast iron fireplaces, Victorian bathtubs and Tiffany windows. Twelve floors of stuff, none of which could be rescued after it was declared a danger spot. In the vast pile of rubble that used to be an open courtyard for display of the most prized pieces, you could see broken fragments of white marble and limestone and wrought metal curlicues. It struck me as very sad.

What draws people to this kind of scene? There were no bodies, so it wasn’t the morbid curiosity that makes us slow down when passing a car accident. The warehouse itself wasn’t historical or valuable, and didn’t hold meaning or usefulness for anyone but the occasional wealthy couple decorating their summer homes in the Hamptons and looking for that perfect, elusive birdbath. Why were people so interested in watching this sudden and tragic death? Perhaps it’s the finality that seems to surround and permeate built structures, especially tall ones. When a building blocks out a piece of the sky above us, day after day, we can’t imagine it ever not being there.

If the absence of a moderately tall and relatively unimportant building can inspire this kind of angst, the presence of a skyscraper is designed to create a much more powerful opposite: a feeling of stability, success, and pride. Skyscrapers' most defining feature is height, and a close second is its profile, the facade that is instantly a trademark, if the designer is lucky. Even the most anomalous form is instantly interiorized as an accepted and necessary part of the city's skyline — something we all took for granted about Irreplaceable Artifacts, until the hole on the corner of Second & Houston made us all very unsettled for awhile. That effect was multiplied many times over when, two miles south and a year and two months later, natives of lower Manhattan told of the bizarre irony of being asked directions to the World Trade Center, or the chilling feeling of standing in bright sunlight on a corner that was always cool under the shadow of the massive towers.

"Tall Buildings," on view at the MoMA through September 27, is a study of twenty-five skyscrapers. The spare and understated character of the title also fits the facility in Queens where it is housed: a long, low warehouse with unfinished concrete floors and lofty, exposed ceilings. (MoMA's main facility, in Manhattan, is under construction as it prepares to grow —you guessed it— taller.)

Skyscrapers have always inspired us with a kind of reverence, ever since the first humans aspired to build a tower to reach the heavens. Like them, we harbor a sort of giddy self-satisfaction as we gaze on mankind's accomplishments: Look what we can do! But if we are to truly learn from the builders of Babel, we must begin to see that just because we can doesn't mean we should. And, unfortunately, "Tall Buildings" is mostly an exercise in that kind of arrogance. With the advent of postmodernism, a trend toward theory projects has intensified, many of which were never even intended to be built. A lot of the projects in "Tall Buildings" fall into this category, which makes it difficult to level any sort of pragmatic criticism against what are often very self-absorbed designs.

The first thing on view is a model, maybe eight feet tall. A strange combination of intersecting vectors, it looks like an horrific attempt to fuse nature and technology: thick boughs of wood intersect with webs of steel trusses, which fasten to a steel cage on the floor. Then I notice that the trees aren't trees at all, but wood beams cut and fitted to certain lengths and covered with bark. Metal screws wink conspiratorially at me from the crevices. Why is this so unsettling? The placement of the model at the entrance to the exhibit (it's actually a concept model for the Togok XL Towers in Seoul, a project located on the other side of the room) seems to indicate it's some sort of artist's statement for the whole exhibit, and actually, it fits very well. Nature is presented as variable and subordinate to technology, not an entity to be respected. The sculpture has no structural integrity —it's bolted to the floor— and the illusion of nature is very carefully crafted, but without regard for an actual site and the unexpected caprice of a forest. See, it says with gleeful abandon, we can build whatever we want!

The projects are displayed side-by-side in the large exhibition space, not unlike the lobby of the Foundation Building where I used to pin up work at Cooper Union. Looking at the intricately built models brings back a wave of nostalgia, and a slight throbbing pain in my fingertips. Models are usually the last thing to be built, after all the ideas are finalized; by this time, for me, it was always late at night, and fatigue doesn't mix well with sharp box cutters. I always began with utmost precision, calibrating to less than 1/32" error and sanding in one direction only, with a square wooden block — but by the end, I was sanding with a single sheet of paper, just trying to finish. I smile as I look at a basswood model of Arcos Bosques in Mexico City: the stairs in front are rounded at the corners from a similarly rushed sanding job, and glimpses of wood putty abound. Yeah, I've been there.

Though the models in this exhibit were made by professionals, not students, they make a lot of the same mistakes. The choice of materials, one of the first decisions to be made, is also on eof the most crucial ones. Too few materials can block out the complexities of the design, as in Peter Eisenman's Max Reinhardt Haus, an origami arch made entirely of black styrene, with no surface texture. It can also be extremely effective, as in Richard Rogers' 122 Leadenhall Street, which is constructed entirely of clear plexiglass. Cars, people, staircases, and even a dangling Alexander Calder sculpture are completely transparent, allowing a true perception of depth and space within the structure. Too many materials, on the other hand, can be overwhelming, and tends to look amateur: Hans Hollein's Monte Laa PORR Towers is a hodgepodge of cardboard, plastic and even a miniature JumboTron projector. But of course, even an amazing model can't save a bad project. Arata Isozaki's JR Ueno Station is made from warm, carefully polished wood, and includes a whole city block as context for the site. The problem is that the design doesn't fit that context: five times taller than anything around it, the building is a tower of cubes, slightly bulging at the sides, and it's propped up by long, thin toothpicks that intersect the base at an odd angle.

"If you get a good plan on a skyscraper," said Philip Johnson, you just "click it through and it reproduces all the plans all the way up to the hundredth floor." Though many architects would not agree with this oversimplification of the design process, skyscrapers do produce a novel kind of challenge: making a very, very tall box look interesting. Johnson was famous for using a Chippendale motif at the top of his AT&T headquarters, which is otherwise quite plain; most other skyscrapers have gone this route, including New York's most beloved, the Chrysler building. But several of the designs in "Tall Buildings" have dealt admirably with the problem. The facade of Arcos Bosques is broken up with thin veneered lines and dots, punctuating the rhythm of windows with a modern type of ornamentation. Ever since Adolf Loos called ornamentation a crime, architects have been leery of using it, but it has crept back in with a minimalist slant, and here the result is very pleasing. Adrian Smith's Jin Mao Tower echoes very slightly the form of the pagodas lining the waterfront a few blocks away, and tapers gracefully toward the top. When the architect can't find a way of handling the massive volume, though, the outcome is disastrous. Jean Nouvel's Landmark Lofts, an unbuilt project designed for Manhattan's Upper West Side, ignores the third dimension entirely and creates a surface pattern so complex it reads as disorganization: lines of vertical, horizontal and tiny square windows are interrupted semi-regularly by other groupings of windows, and the overly complicated façade is just disorienting. By contrast, many of the projects in "Tall Buildings" are under-designed, huge towers that represent an overly simplistic gesture. The EDF headquarters in Paris: A football-shaped prism. "Turning Torso" in Malmo: a football-shaped prism caught halfway through a 90-degree rotation. 7 South Dearborn in Chicago: a big spike. And Arcos Bosques in Mexico City represents Stonehenge, the simplest post-and-lintel construction that epitomizes the essence of architecture. Walls and a roof: the most basic of shelters. It's ironic and a little weird that this one stretches 530 feet into the sky.

Richard Rogers' proposal for mass-produced, low-cost housing in Korea is the lone project that deftly manipulates the skyscraper into something engagingly human. The building seems caught in motion, the way Mies van der Rohe envisioned the walls of his buildings to be — he drew hundreds of versions of each one, picturing the walls sliding around the house and stopping the instant the balance was perfect. Here, balconies pop out unexpectedly in groups of two or three, and the building itself stops in mid-slide, spilling partially into the densely wooded valley that surrounds it. Most intriguingly, the window problem is solved by a true repetition of difference: a grid, four square spaces across and three down, changes on every floor. Some spaces are left blank, just a slight indentation to leave the idea of a window lingering in the wall; some are actual windows. The designs are not random, but carefully planned according to aesthetic principles, and the overall effect is very interesting. It's refreshing to see so much attention paid to the beauty of the design, instead of just trying to increase property values by adding as much fenestration as possible. Rogers' design was not limited to this building, but included a whole library of parts that could be pre-assembled for cost savings of approximately eighty percent; the idea was that the components were flexible enough to use in a variety of sites and conditions. But it's hard to get funding for a project that only has beauty and integrity going for it. This one was never built.

Three losing proposals for a new World Trade Center are included in "Tall Buildings." The first, a collaborative effort by Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl, is another superb model of another insipid design. Sheer plexiglass idealizes the surface of the water at the edge of the island, and meticulously documented existing conditions —including a tiny model of Trinity Church— lend credibility to the project. But the towers themselves, an expanded version of a Tic-Tac-Toe board, stick out like a sore thumb. Another collaborative effort, led by six different firms, is clearly a case of too many designers spoiling the soup. A ridiculous hodgepodge of intersecting and twisting towers, it goes right back to that original problem of building something just because it's possible. Norman Foster's proposal, the only one shown that sticks to the basic idea of two towers, is hexagonal in section, with the diamond-shaped facets of the facade faintly reminiscent of a Venetian pattern, but it looks tremendously unstable, as if it's balancing on the bottom point of a triangle.

What is disappointing in all of these proposals is the lack of absence as a design element. Yes, we can build something that's bigger, better, prettier, and even more in-your-face than the original towers —but should we? That warehouse in the Lower East Side left a blank hole in my vision, and it made me think. I was glad for its absence, glad for the silence of the empty lot once the rubble had been cleared away. Many times multiplied, the vacant footprint of the World Trade Center is a far more powerful monument than a vast, multifunctional complex could ever be. The massive hole, surrounded by fences, is all we have left of a very great tragedy; absence creates remembrance, and when we rebuild, thumbing our noses at the forces of evil, we will have lost both in our struggle to make something tall.

Photo: Modern Hallway - Paris, May 2003

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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