Boring Buildings. (the Critics Architecture)

By Goldhagen, Sarah Williams | The American Prospect, December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

Boring Buildings. (the Critics Architecture)

Goldhagen, Sarah Williams, The American Prospect

NOW THAT THE WORLD Trade Center towers are gone, will Tony Soprano still glance at them in his rearview mirror as he drives home on the New Jersey Turnpike? Or will The Sopranos' producers have him looking back at the now denuded skyline of Manhattan--at the squat residential towers of Battery Park City, all dressed up in frills and pink veneer?

Not likely. The twin towers were that rare entity in the American architectural fabric: a good, perhaps even a great, work of architecture. Everyone knows that few of the other towers on the southwestern tip of Manhattan are any match for what was lost. The towers' destruction has brought home something that perhaps had not been so obvious before: how critically important buildings are not only to our aesthetic sensibilities but also to our public and communal lives.

Minoru Yamasaki's soaring World Trade Center towers, finished in 1973, were the indisputable icon--sometimes beloved, sometimes vilified, but always unavoidable--of America's greatest metropolis: The glinting, thin, vertical aluminum struts of the structural facade guided the eye seamlessly skyward, while at ground level the towers' coupling made a noble (if imperfect) plaza. Now that a 16-acre hole has replaced that austere plinth, we are inevitably confronted with the question of what the built environment's public spaces could and should be.

IT IS A TRUISM TO STATE THAT ARCHITECTURE composes the immediate physical environment of our lives. But in this country, we too often forget that high-quality architecture is also a social good, one that more than repays the investment. European architecture has demonstrated this repeatedly. Public-housing complexes in the Netherlands, where thoughtful design and good construction are the norm, consistently help to integrate marginalized groups (immigrants, minorities, and the elderly, among others) into their larger communities with a combination of exciting forms and careful attention to the scale and proportions of the buildings in relation to their surrounding context. Innovative civic architecture such as the recent Vuotalo Cultural Center--a hybrid library, art gallery, theater, and cafe in Finland designed by the firm of Heikkinen-Komonen--serves to draw people out of their homes and into the public realm, encouraging them to identify with their communities and become more active in them. Dignified and stimulating public buildings such as Jean Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe (a mixed-use information resource center in Paris devoted to Arab culture) and Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus (an art museum, cafe, bookshop, and piazza in Bregenz, Austria) can help to instill respect, commitment, and--by fostering participatory action--sometimes even a healthy skepticism toward the institutions that they house.

It's not that Americans aren't interested in good architecture; after all, they often head to Europe on summer vacation. Europe has a longer history, more architectural monuments, and much denser and more richly textured cities. And it has both the old built fabric and the new architecture--some of it designed by American architects--that has captured the media's and the public's imagination: the Reichstag in Berlin, the grands projets of Paris, the new Tate Gallery in London, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. American tourists make a point of visiting these buildings. Can anything similar be said about Europeans--or Americans, for that matter--who travel around the United States? Europeans who come here go to New York City, where they marvel more at the collective height of the buildings than at their individual quality (the CitiCorp Building and a few others notwithstanding). If they go elsewhere, it is often to revel in the spectacle of kitsch architecture at Disney World. Or to make pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.

Among practicing architects here and abroad, it is axiomatic that there is much more contemporary architecture of high quality to be found in Europe than in the United States and that innovative, inspiring architecture--as well as architecture that is well built and long lasting--is constructed less frequently here than almost anywhere in Europe. …

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