Magazine article Artforum International

New Monuments; Keller Easterling on Norman Foster's Crystal Island

Magazine article Artforum International

New Monuments; Keller Easterling on Norman Foster's Crystal Island

Article excerpt

IF YOU E-MAIL Norman Foster's London-based architecture firm to request information about his design for Crystal Island, a project recently approved for construction in Moscow, you will receive, with no accompanying note, a terse list of "facts and figures." Perhaps this response is appropriate. Overriding fatigue with the dimensional stats that have accompanied new waves of building in China, Dubai, and Russia, mainstream media outlets and hipster blogs alike obligingly repeat the numbers with apparent amazement, as the builders strive to outdo one another's superlative expressions of size.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Crystal Island is to be the biggest building in the world. It is a building as microenvironment--a very, very big tent enclosing an enclave of apartments, offices, stores, theaters, a hotel, a museum, a school, and even "public space." Its square footage is roughly equal to that of four Pentagons. It is also very tall, with an observation deck that rises almost one thousand feet into the air. In section drawings, curling arrows indicate air convection currents and exchanges through the tent's chimney and through a breathable membrane of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), a lightweight recyclable plastic film, with better light transmission than glass, that will envelop the structure.

A few stock assumptions usually make it into stories about new megaprojects such as Crystal Island. Critics come in on cue with familiar arguments. Waving a righteous sword at a nonexistent enemy, they attempt to convict the architect of creating the classic conditions of oppression: not enough public space, exacerbation of class hierarchies, etc. Embedded in the subtext are the default political motives for global development: vaguely progressive neoliberal sentiments in which the fabled market leverages a will toward participatory democracy. Some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are being written not in the language of law and diplomacy but in the language of architecture and urbanism. Yet these changes are framed--by Foster, his team at Foster + Partners, and indeed, by those crafting the reception of contemporary global architecture--as remarkably simple stories.

In the tale of Crystal Island, the narrative hook is the notion that this mixed-use behemoth may be "the world's first arcology." Arcology, put simply, is the merger of architecture and ecology, or, more precisely, the use of architecture to create a self-contained human habitat. Such structures may appear as scenery in dystopian science fiction such as William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, or as the instrument of redemption for self-sufficient utopian communities that wish to reform the relationship between settlement and environment. Although the word has been adopted to describe even the early futurology of H. G. Wells, architect Paolo Soleri is commonly considered arcology's popularizing mascot. In his book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (1969), Soleri proposed gathering large populations into an intensified, microcosmic city fueled by solar energy and designed to reduce the waste and isolation of sprawl. Immediate access to natural and agricultural landscapes would be a byproduct of this conserving "urban effect." Soleri designed high-tech projects such as Stonebow, a stealth-bomber-shaped bridge in which two hundred thousand people could live dangling over a canyon, and Asteromo, a spaceship for seventy-five thousand people. Arcosanti, the town that he founded in Arizona in 1970 and his only built project, remains a dusty, half-finished desert commune, its inhabitants selling "cause bells" to passing visitors for extra funding. Arcology needs amnesia. As with many zero-hour manifestos of the twentieth century, Soleri's book does not dwell on the possibility of failure. There is no Plan B, no adjustment for contingencies. Utopia is utopia. Each new project retains the status of the ultimate, and, for those who do not heed the call, portends dramatic consequences for resources, population growth, or global aggression. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.