“Tall Buildings”

The Museum of Modern Art, Queens
July 16 - September 27, 2004

In an effort to dispel some of the fear now associated with skyscrapers while simultaneously recovering their lost glamour, Tall Buildings, organized by Terence Riley, head of the Department of Architecture and Design at MOMA, and Guy Nordenson a structural engineer and Associate Professor at of Architecture at Princeton, assembled a “collection” of twenty-five tall building projects of the last ten years, both built and unbuilt, that showcased formal and technical innovation while underlining issues of safety. With the planning of the show beginning soon after the devastation and loss of life at Ground Zero, the curators must have been acutely aware of a heightened level of public scrutiny that any new major architectural projects would undergo.

When the chaos subsided after the destruction of the Trade Center, the public’s initial panic gave way to two distinct agendas. One suggested that in order for America to “prevail” after 9/11, the Twin Towers should be rebuilt exactly as they were, a defiant replica that would send a message to any who doubted our national resolve in the face of tragedy. The other, far more reticent proposal was that rebuilding on the site would signify a denial of the tragedy that occurred there. In keeping with the mainstream media’s buoyant use of patriotic imagery to reinvigorate the “consumer confidence” of a shaken populace, the Tall Buildings catalogue’s symbolic use of the Statue of Liberty as a source to “begin to understand the meaning of the tall building or structure” and as the “clearest voice in the marketplace of ideas”, sets the tone for a more sophisticated sentimental appeal to return to business as usual by building tall.

In presenting some spectacular tall building projects by some of the world’s best-known architects, this show made no apologies for the seductive nature of massive resources in the hands of famous men. Wowing the public with one formal and technological tour-de-force after another, the projects on display at MOMAQueens, with one or two exceptions, tended to highlight the sculptural properties inherent in much “experimental” architecture. Matching stylistic accomplishments with the confidence of new technology, most of the projects assert the notion that in a post 9/11 world, we can be both daring and safe. From Norman Foster’s 590 foot bullet-shaped 30 St.Mary’s Axe (1997-2004) in the center of London, to Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso (1991-2001), a 630 foot residential luxury tower in Malmo, Sweden that rotates its shape 90 degrees from the base to the top, the majority of these buildings are not shy about their impact on the landscape. While their visual effect is undeniable, some of the details of their assimilation into the built environment are left outside the scope of this exhibition.

In the case of Turning Torso, the idealized description accompanying the handsome model on exhibit has clashed with the harsh realities of constructing what amounts to a massive lived-in sculpture. According to the catalogue text, the architect went to great lengths to “minimize construction time” by prefabricating the steel exoskeleton and white facade elements. The project was also lauded as a “sustainable solution to provide much needed housing” in the area. As reported this summer in Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish daily paper, the project’s budget has skyrocketed from the anticipated $120 million to close to $220 million because the architect vastly underestimated the amount of steel required for the reinforced concrete. In a country where income is far more evenly distributed than in that of the United States, the developers struggled to find clients able to afford the $800,000 apartments with spectacular views, selling only a dozen or so out of 150 units. In order to save this “sustainable project”, the state has had to intervene, picking up the tab with the intention of renting the unsold units. Since the state’s burden is of necessity the taxpayers’, Turning Torso may ultimately represent a rather perverse new example of publicly sponsored luxury housing.

Because of this disconnect between theoretical concerns and practical application, some fantastic conceits are allowed to germinate. One example is the notion of a “green” community-oriented skyscraper typified by Ken Yeang’s Elephant and Castle Eco Towers (2000). Yeang’s premise is to take the horizontality of an urban community and turn it on its end to create a vertical city within a city. Applying a one-to-one logic to these two distinct conditions, Yeang’s fantasy envisions multiple functions that combine work, play, schools and green parks in one autonomous structure, asserting the interchangeability of the horizontal and vertical notions of community. Appearing to address issues of a broader social relevance while ignoring fundamental distinctions between public and private realms, this scheme discounts the discrepancy between the freedom of movement a pedestrian enjoys in the street, provided for in a properly functioning democracy, and the exclusivity inherent in all privately owned buildings. With a thin veil of “green” softening its contradictions, this project functions more or less as a gated community, neatly resolving the security issues of the inner city.

Represented in Tall Buildings by a fortress-like continuous loop model for CCTV Tower ( 2002-04) in Beijing, and Togok (XL Towers) (1996-2002), a cluster of six buildings in Seoul, Korea, Rem Koolhas’ diagrid structures are an attempt, at least, to break the complacent autonomy of most skyscraper architecture. Describing the origins of Manhattan skyscrapers in his book ‘Delirious New York’, Koolhas wrote, “…from now on, each new building of the mutant kind strives to be a ‘city within a city’. This truculent ambition makes the metropolis a collection of architectural city states, all potentially at war with each other.” When aligned with current notions of the architect as master sculptor, evident in recent projects of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenmann (whose muscular mobius strip proposal for the Max Reinhardt House (1992-93) in Berlin was included here), Santiago Calatrava and Daniel Libeskind among others, these heroic “sculptures” resonate with the American media’s investment in the cult of personality, which highlights individual achievement and competitiveness over social engagement. While popularizing “experimental” architecture, the notion of “buildings-as-art” has also rendered practically invisible the interests of those whose needs are not served and are perhaps adversely affected by the addition of more corporate office space and luxury apartments to the urban environment.

Conspicuous in Tall Buildings for its modesty, simplicity and usefulness is Richard Rogers’ Industrialized Housing System (1991-2), commissioned by the Korean manufacturer Hanseem Corporation to address an increasing demand for affordable housing. This project proposes a high quality, low cost housing system that references the visionary housing projects of Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller in its use of factory based pre-fabrication. The flexible, module system apartments can be “assembled at any site, including those on steep hills that include much of the Korean landscape, as single dwellings or in low- or high-rise configurations.” Offering an alternative to the strict delineation between horizontal and vertical communities in Ken Yeang’s Elephant and Castle Eco Towers, Rogers’ more organic solution to growth allows for both horizontal and vertical expansion. Unfortunately, because of the exhibition’s theoretical bias, it’s difficult to discover what prevented this project from being realized.

Though the rationalist aesthetic of visionary European modernists like Le Corbusier dovetailed nicely with Corporate America’s post-war interest in enhancing its universal appeal with International “Style” skyscrapers, the wider social concerns of their program was not a good fit for American Capitalism. The economy of means inherent in Le Corbusier’s Vertical City ran into a class structure that split its influence into poorly constructed low-income housing projects, on the one hand, and sleek, elegant luxury housing like Jean Nouvel’s Landmark Lofts (2001-03) that indulge in industrial pastiche, on the other. Continuing to adopt the “look” of the avant-garde while omitting its original social function, the mostly corporate and luxury towers on display here are planned and built on behalf of a limited few, while their impact affects many. Avoiding broader social concerns that might be of interest to a public now sensitized to the built environment through witnessing part of its devastation and gradual recovery, Tall Buildings chose instead to reassert the significance of placing unmistakably ambitious objects into the urban landscape, reaching back to iconic and patriotic structures of the past to help restore an order that the temporary chaos of 9/11 threatened to disrupt.