Magazine article Artforum International

High Times

Magazine article Artforum International

High Times

Article excerpt

THE ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIAN Manfredo Tafuri famously claimed that "no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate [the skyscraper] into its own terms." For him, the problem with adaptations of the skyscraper in Germany, France, the former Soviet Union, and the UK was that all operated under the erroneous assumption that the skyscraper was "architecture." On the contrary, wrote Tafuri, skyscrapers were "real live 'bombs' with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market." They were an exemplar of capitalism at its limits, "an instrument--and no longer an 'expression'--of economic policy."

It isn't necessary to share Tafuri's relentless skepticism to see how European skyscrapers have had to struggle to convince, ever since the first efforts rose from their foundations in 1920s Antwerp, Belgium, and Stuttgart, Germany. Serious attempts in Europe were not made until after 1945: West of the Elbe, Gio Ponti's and Ernesto Rogers's alternately sleek and aggressive Milan towers took the decoration off, while to the east, Lev Rudnev's bizarre, hyperactive neo-Woolworth Buildings in Warsaw and Moscow piled it back on. Next, expatriate European architects like Mies van der Rohe created a new, "rational" language for the American skyscraper and exported it back to the Old World, and Le Corbusier imagined mass-producing his soi-disant Cartesian skyscraper as residential tower blocks. The buildings that resulted might have been architecture, sometimes high architecture--but they weren't skyscrapers, at least not according to Tafuri's understanding--and those "boxes," "packing cases," and "filing cabinets" have faced decades of popular opprobrium. London is no exception. If anything, its experience with tall buildings is more riven with controversy and high-profile failure than any other city's--and yet it is now starting to complete one of the most dramatic skylines anywhere in the world, topped by Renzo Piano's Shard. How did this happen?

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In the UK's brief burst of postwar social democracy, tall buildings served useful purposes. They were nearly all residential, educational, or in some way connected with the welfare state. It wasn't until the 1960s that the capital's financial district even began to build what would once have been called skyscrapers in Tafuri's terms--that is, very tall office buildings whose development was driven by land speculation--with Birmingham and then most other cities following suit. The most visible structures were designed by the corporate architect Richard Seifert, in a style initially indebted to the sleek and chic work of Ponti and the sensual, rippling modernism of Oscar Niemeyer; Birmingham's Alpha Tower (1969-73) exemplifies the former, London's Centre Point (1963-66) the latter. Seifert subsequently developed a more original, somber, paranoid manner typified by the inscrutable 1971-80 NatWest Tower (now known as Tower 42), until very recently the City of London's tallest building. Seifert has been all but forgotten, but his dominance on the skyline continues, rivaled only by Christopher Wren and, more recently, Norman Foster.

When the property-based boom of the Blair years led to a massive demand for office space, the City of London and its Docklands outpost were forced once again to build upward--but the example of the 1960s had unpleasant associations. Centre Point, for instance, lay empty and was both derided in the architectural press and used by campaigners against homelessness as an exemplar of London's inequalities. The Thatcher-era edifice Canary Wharf, on the former London Docks, was until the beginning of this century another high-profile failure--a bankrupted, lonely beacon. One of the city's responses, beginning in the late '90s, was to initiate a series of urban and architectural reforms culminating in the creation of the Urban Task Force, under the aegis of the left-leaning architect Richard Rogers. …

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