Published  07/07/2008

Architecture Not Now

Architecture Not Now

As we approach the second decade of the turbulent 21st century, the level playing field sought by both practising architects and by teachers and theorists appears to be more than ever transitory

by Michael Spens

This century has some similarities in its early years to the dawning of the 20th century. Then, Vienna made an inspired effort to float off new ideas, such as we can now experience in the Klimt exhibition currently drawing the crowds in Liverpool. Yet shortly after, as demonstrated by the painter Karl Kraus (as recorded by Frank Field in 1967)1 bourgeois society in this most cultured of cities, was in shock, as the Habsburg Empire collapsed and financial institutions wobbled. The same false optimism, which Kraus condemned at the time of the loss of the 'unsinkable' Titanic, has similarities in play with the current plight of both commercial and political institutions. It was a gift to Kraus, who after all was a brilliant satirist as well as painter.

Today, our 'sinking' is probably the targeted collapse of the twin World Trade Centre towers in Manhattan. This seemed to foretell the financial collapses in New York and Britain shortly to follow. Despite this, the imperative ruling from Moscow to Beijing and Shanghai, is 'build, build,' and higher still. Architects and planners have of course been drawn into this vortex, and have followed their clients with a gleam in their eyes. High-rise towers have been designed, at La Defense, firstly by Norman Foster (although finally succeeded by Jean Nouvel, Pritzker Prize winner and designer of the superbly calm Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, in 1987). Nouvel is now designing a 75-storey tower next to the Museum of Modern Art, New York (where else?).

Foster has moved forward with a plan for 'the world's biggest building', dubbed Crystal Island; it has received planning approval. Foster is already involved in the 'Russia Tower' now under construction in the Moskva-Siti business area of Moscow. The new structure is, as Foster says, 'a paradigm of compact mixed-use sustainable city planning with an innovative energy strategy'. Daylight will reach the interior of the great ' tent', and there are external panels to be opened up in summer but closed down in winter to beat the sub-zero temperatures of the Moscow winter. Possibly the most innovative planning development will be the lower level landscape of gardens and trees. There will be three theatres, a cinema, a museum, two pedestrian decks, plus a proportion of offices over an underground parking lot for 14,000 cars. There are also 3,000 hotel rooms, 900 apartments and a school for 500 pupils. Titanic might be the best catch-all title for the whole venture, when launched. Rising up on the Nagatino Peninsula, and a comfortable four miles from the Kremlin, Crystal Island will be completed in 2015. The spire is just short of 500 metres high, with the tip just visible from the Kremlin.

Down in Dubai, a novel structural solution to high-rise building has also been deployed by the British architect David Fisher, with his 420 metre high Dynamic Tower building rising in downtown Dubai. This will contain some 80 apartments designed to hit the £2 m to £20 m price brackets. However the scene is not for buyers who get vertigo: the apartments turn individually on a central axis, this slow spin allowing the occupants a total view of the city. This means that the actual profile of the building itself constantly changes. Also in Dubai, the Burj Al Arab Hotel, with its sail-like profile, and fabric wall membranes, rises to 321 metres. An architecture of high technical proficiency and ingenuity, this tower also seems to represent precisely this sense, of being becalmed. The opposing aesthetics of Arabic decoration in the interior and high technology externally, seem to prevent this vessel from ever seeking port while it rides securely at anchor.

Moving closer to ground zero, the preoccupation of institutions and government planners alike seems to be widely at variance. While Beijing has achieved a remarkable piece of architecture for their new 'bird's nest' Olympic Stadium for 2008, the London Olympic Stadium has raised the prospect of a 'flat-pack' completed structure which can readily be deconstructed and moved elsewhere. The principle is driven hard by the remorselessly demanding budgetary dilemma that clouds the whole 2012 Olympic venture. So, if the building designed by architect Rod Sheard can be sold to, say Chicago, in due course (Washington Park, Illinois, has been mooted as a cool solution), the Olympic Delivery Authority will really have delivered. Perhaps the advisory presence of Sir Peter Cook, RIBA Royal Gold Medallist and Archigram pioneer of the 1960s, has had something to do with this.

Under the new stringent economic regimes prevailing round the world, various solutions have been offered in the realm of house building. Of course this concept has been around a long while. In Sweden, Ikea have for some decades, pioneered 'flat-pack' as a distinct marketing philosophy but only recently have they designed and sold whole housing schemes on the same principle. This seems a gift to the British Government now floundering with an impossible housing commitment, which was to have satisfied an electorate desperate for affordable accommodation. Hanley Grange in Oxfordshire, is proposed as a site for 8,000 to 11,000 houses, on greenfield agricultural land all in Germaine Greer's back yard, bringing a general, longer term environmental devastation, whatever the form this eco-township assumes. As Greer says, ' Eco-towns reflect an utter failure of imagination. There is no commitment to design, no concern for urbanistics.' As Guardian architectural critic Jonathan Glancey says, 'Where we once had genuine eco-towns (English market towns) we now have eco-promises and big-time property development - all in the name of desperately needed low-cost mass housing'. Over in Kent, 'Ebbsfleet' is rising, These dreams of the future will be dreams however for some time. Furthermore, this new settlement is planned to transform the so-called Thames Gateway to London itself, at Eurostar's suburban link to Europe. Once again, the philosophy and mindset revealed here is wholly illusionary.

Such denial of economic reality is globally all-pervasive. However at New Orleans, little conceals the reality of total devastation. The federal authorities have mostly side-stepped the problem; even locally, the authorities seem oblivious to forthcoming elections. It has taken the star Brad Pitt to precipitate activity with his $ 5m contribution, plus a website ( seeking donations across the board for an 'adopt a house' project. Meanwhile his initially planned 150 houses target has been said to be expandable to 10,000. The homes are to be at least five feet above ground at datum level, with a verandah and up to three bedrooms, to sell at a modest $150,000 each. Pitt's initative looks like the way out of a widespread conundrum, precipitated by natural disaster, yet wholly feasible ecologically and financially.

1. Frank Field, The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus and His Vienna, Macmillan, London, Melbourne, Toronto, 1967.

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