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
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
"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
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 is tranforming
an inauspicious site into a lucrative mini-city. …