Friday, July 16, 2010


The following is a spiked book review from a while ago which this reminded me about. There'll be a long thing on Hadid, Parametricism and such sometime in the autumn, but the basic argument is below, so waste not want not...

That the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, was completed mere weeks after Dubai's defaults nearly caused a second financial crisis, was towering proof of the Skyscraper Index. This practically failsafe crash-predicting mechanism posits that the tallest building in the world is either erected as boom turns to bust, or finished during a recession. Showing the Emirate's usual keen sense of apocalyptic irony, a supertall residential skyscraper, designed by Switzerland-based tax exile Lord Foster actually called 'The Index', was recently finished in Dubai. Yet these built embodiments of the 2000s' financial hysteria, with their lack of visible means of support, their headiness, weightlessness and essential absurdity, were only the tip of a Titanic-crashing Iceberg of architectural fantasy, something handily and handsomely collected in Will Jones' Unbuilt Masterworks of the 21st Century, a compendium of projects so outrageous that neither Shenzhen oligarch or Ozymandian Sheikh would dare commission them.

Such are the places for which these buildings are proposed. Jones notes that these kind of structures are seldom suggested for London, as it is 'strangled by political and heritage organisations', which is an interesting euphemism for 'retains some vestiges of representative democracy'. The first project here, the Arabian Performance Venue by the Anglo-Cantonese firm Aedas (responsible for some astoundingly bland towers in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester) is typical of these unbuilt masterworks – 'occupying its own island in the middle of a nature reserve' (artificial islands are a persistent feature here), it is a series of glass tendrils crawling, triffid-like, from a platform on stilts, with the desert sun giving the glazing a golden sheen. It's lurid, apocalyptic, ludicrous. The Island fixation has a fairly clear unconscious motivation – easily defended against intruders – and even Britain has its own unbuilt island settlement in the book, financially embarrassed property developers Urban Splash's Birnbeck Island. Jones writes of the various mechanical features in the latter that 'it appears to 'work'', and this is another recurring feature – buildings that seem to be in motion, that seem to do things, which seem to be machines – or lifeforms – in themselves, although this is usually a matter of appearance than reality.

That's because these are mostly serious proposals, which the architects in question claimed were actually buildable, so these fantasies are circumscribed both by viability and by politics, Here too are glorifications of despotisms that are frequently comic in their sycophancy – take the proposals for a 'Sheikh Zayed Museum', which promises to 'symbolise the centrality of knowledge and ideas and the life and role of Sheikh Zayed'. The indentured helots that would have constructed these edifices (and did construct their more prosaic built cousins) naturally get no such monument. These Unbuilt Masterworks also mark an apotheosis of the architect-as-artist – painterly, indebted to expressionism more than rectilinear Modernism (albeit with little to 'express'), and with function clearly a second or third thought after the biomorphic, writhing form. A fine case in point is Erick van Egeraat's 'Moscow Avant-Garde Towers' – shrill, attention-seeking blocks based on 1920s Constructivist paintings, in a city where actual 1920s Constructivist buildings are left to rot. They require an attention span to be appreciated, and don't contain sufficient lettable floorspace.

As you read the book, glazed-eyed, horrified wonder rapidly turns to boredom, as curvaceous museum interminably follows plant-like skyscraper. Actual ideas are extremely thin on the ground – the only truly memorable non-building is Office for Metropolitan Architecture's 'Hyperbuilding' for Bangkok, a chaotic tower which tries to alleviate congestion by becoming congestion, a bristling embodiment of 'a city on the edge of the tolerable'. It's an exception in its genuinely shocking solution. As a whole, Unbuilt Masterworks is one of the most damning indictments of the last decade – even its fantasies were banal.


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Le Corbusier was an artist. This is not art, not good art anyway.

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