These days, the bigger the building, the uglier it seems to be. And bigger has become inevitable: We live in an era of ever-expanding shopping malls, corporate towers, and office parks, their size inversely related to their architectural quality.
Are architects to blame? It's a fair question. These are the professionals we've entrusted to build structures that improve, or at a minimum, do not damage our cities. But architects often don't get a chance to make good on such commissions: Developers consider design quality too elusive to quantify, too extravagant to subsidize. Many dismiss the architect's input as hazardous to the bottom line.
Rem Koolhaas, a Rotterdam architect whose work is on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art, turns this notion upside down: He embraces bigness, in fact he wrote a manifesto about it.
This manifesto is found on a wall near the entrance to "O.M.A. at MoMA: Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture." In it, Koolhaas admonishes architects and museumgoers to accept supersize buildings and change the criteria for good design.
He explains that megasize structures are beyond the bounds of architecture. Developers are creating buildings so massive that they cannot be experienced as easily understood entities. He says that it's useless to look for an "honest" relationship between the interior and exterior, or to expect these hulks to relate to our standards of good or bad; moral issues about design don't apply here.
"Their impact is independent of their quality," Koolhaas proposes. "Bigness is no longer part of the urban tissue. It exists; at most it co-exists."
Where do these disclaimers lead us? Do big buildings (and those who stand to profit by them) have their way by virtue of their size? An architect would be naive at best, fraudulent at worst, to renege on his or her duty to promote the good and improve the bad. These moral issues are endemic to the profession; they flare up whenever new building technology changes the scale of construction. Some 70 years ago, we confronted a crisis more acute than today's, an ethical crisis that begat the Modern architecture that Koolhaas emulates. Master plan for Euralille
Koolhaas's embrace of Bigness might amount to nothing more than a repeat of the dismal city-within-a-city schemes built 30 years ago. Consider his master plan for Euralille, an 8.6 million-square-foot mixed-use center that comprises a shopping mall, offices, a high-speed rail station, hotels, housing, a concert hall, and a convention center by Koolhaas.
The design seems ideal for trade shows, but its skyscrapers, lined in a row, have chilling affinities with the monoliths at the Albany Mall in Albany, N.Y., a 1960s paragon of modernism at its most vapid. To Lille's advantage, however, Koolhaas …