Tag Archives: Architecture

The “exploding” towers controversy

If you’re following the ginned up controversy over a proposal, by the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, to build twin towers that appear to be “exploding,” I gave my short take on the Post’s “Arts Post” website. Here’s the crux of it:

The controversy seems part of a larger cultural effort to make the events of September 11, 2001 somehow sacred, to use the meaning of the terrorist attack for larger, more overbearing cultural control. So now it is being deployed against contemporary architecture, not because there is anything inherently offensive in this design (which may or may not be an intentional reference to 9/11), but because the emotions generated by the attack have been co-opted by one part of the political and cultural spectrum.

Architects have long been exploring ways to turn buildings inside out, to peel away their external skin, to represent them as if melting or hurtling through space. The metaphor to “explode” a building might well be used as a positive architectural value, to open up space, break down formal strictures, allow multiple points of access. So even if the Dutch design firm, MVRDV, intended a reference to 9/11, there’s no reason that reference should be read as mocking or ironic. It might easily be seen as an effort to freeze frame a traumatic event, in architectural form, and neutralize its shock and pain.

Update: On second and third thought, it’s remarkable how old-hat the idea is. A vertically uplifted edition of Habitat 67?

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Shopping List

Chocolate ravioli, some nasty, stanky French cheese and maybe something to make a mess of greens taste unhealthy. Eastern Market is open again. Here’s my take, in Sunday’s paper. And next, when we’re all done celebrating, we can talk about bringing some more diversity to the vendors, some real organic produce, and closing off 7th St. SE in front of the market for good.

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The Architecture of Fellini

Fellini’s 1957 Nights of Cabiria is about houses and homelessness and the painful exchange we make, as modern creatures, when forced to cash out the stagnant wealth of the past for a new and desperate freedom. By the 1970s, when the Italian director made Amarcord, the price had been paid, and everyone in the little town depicted there lived in some version of the late Fellini’s modern-cinematic-surrealist world of restlessness and narcissism and irony. But in Nights of Cabiria, the title character, played by Giulietta Masina, is in the midst of the transition, torn between the house that gives her dignity, and the grand cinematic dreams of love and redemption that will leave her both homeless, yet terribly free of old mythic encumbrances.

          Cabiria, a prostitute who falls in love with dubious men, is often swindled of her earnings. But she has managed to protect her house, a simple structure near Rome on the road to Ostia, from her own recklessness and naiveté. It is basic, a rectangular box with only one room. When we see her enter it for the first time, she must climb through a window because the man she loved took her purse, and thus her keys, and left her to drown in a river.

          Cabiria’s house, a symbol of her fraught independence (she has no pimp and thus no protection), is her sole asset, and it is small one. The arid, rectilinear high-rise apartment buildings of suburban Rome are encroaching. Just as her life as a prostitute is untenable, so too her home. It contrasts sharply with two other dwellings in the film: The caves that worn-out street walkers are destined for, a lunar landscape of utter destitution we see in a haunting interlude; and the modern house of Alberto Lazzari, the besotted movie actor who takes Cabiria home only to dump her even before consummating the dalliance.

          This last house is a marvel of architectural confusion. Even Cabiria, in the morning, gets lost trying to escape its white walls and glass doors. A staircase, steep and straight, seems to be going both up and down at the same time, a confusing inner passageway in a house that should be open and blank in the high modern fashion. Lazzari is struggling against the architecture, stuffing his home with all the nonsense that modernism is supposed to banish. It is cluttered with modern art and luxuries, but also a Baroque spiral column sitting in the room as a purely sculptural and decorative object. The transparency of the modern style has been subverted and the space feels closed in.

Cabiria’s house is secure, yet she can always get in, while Lazzari’s house is protected by ferocious dogs, yet it’s hard to get out. One frail house is threatened by modernity, while another sumptuous one is an example of the failure of freedom that modernity is supposed to bring. Music, for both Cabiria and Lazzari, is a consolation for problematic homes, a way of being rooted in structures that are insecure or vulnerable or contradictory.

          Cabiria’s fate is in the hands of a man whose house—if he has one—we never see. He lives in another part of the city, he comes from a village outside of Rome, he is rootless and foreign within his own country. At the moment he threatens Cabiria—just before wresting from her the monThe Wandererey that came from selling her house—we see him standing in the exact pose of Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. Wandering, restlessness, motion—this is the new sublime, the reward for everything lost when the home is taken from us. The whole film could pivot at this point. Cabiria’s pathos could work on the man’s conscience. It almost does.

          But no. This is the moment when Cabiria crosses over and loses the last of the emotional tendrils that connect her to the old way of life. She is homeless but fully modern, drawn to the itinerant music of life after dwelling.

She isn’t disillusioned—that would be a different movie, a morality tale—but she will never have as much at stake when she invests in a man, or a place, or an idea again. Having cashed out her house, having been swindled by a homeless man from the land of  nowhere, she finds herself swept up in the flow of youth. “We’re going to lose our way, going home,” says one of her new friends, with happy abandon. And so Cabiria exits walking, strolling, almost dancing, part of a loose network of ephemeral alliances, never again to be rooted in something so burdensome (or consoling) as pile of stone with a roof on it.

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The Ordos Prize

            Young Chinese architects are blessed and cursed with an abundance of work. Many of them have burgeoning portfolios of built projects in their 20s, when young architects in the West are still thoroughly in the apprenticing process. But when I visited China last year, I heard the same refrain: While it’s nice to work, they also want a chance to think.

            When  I visited a class of aspiring architects at Nanjing University, they wanted to talk about Kenneth Frampton and regionalism and debate the merits of starchitecture. They wanted time to ponder China’s role in the world, and how the younger generation could steer the country away from building fast and encourage it to build well. They were idealists, but they knew that their likely fate was a life of long hours, cranking out formulaic designs for warehouses and generic housing.

            Announcing the Ordos Prize, a new architecture competition funded by a Chinese billionaire. It is named for the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos, one of China’s astonishing “mushroom” cities that has grown from a population of zero in 2001 to 1.36 million today. Part of the award includes a commission to build a new building, plus $20,000 in award money.

Though not so grand as the Pritzker Prize, or so thorough in its process as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture  (which operates on a three-year cycle and is meant “to encourage architecture that reflects the pluralism that has always characterised Muslim communities”), the Ordos Prize does seemed design to address the malaise of over-worked and under-theorized young architects. It is not limited to Chinese architects, and the nominating committee is thoroughly international: Ben van Berkel, Stefano Boeri, Liz Diller, Jacques Herzog, Thom Mayne, Pierre de Meuron, Enrique Norten, Kazuyo Sejima, Wang Shu and Robert A. M. Stern, according to a press release.

 “Unlike other major prizes that recognize an architect for a significant project or body of work, The Ordos Prize is the first to honor emerging young talent,” says Rem Koolhaas , who heads The Ordos Prize Jury.


The prize process is being thrown together rather quickly. A spokeswoman for the award said that nominees are currently coming in, and the jury will meet in July. The award will be presented August 20, 2009. The commission that goes along with the cash award is “still a work in progress,” according to Barbara Sayre Casey, whose public relations firm sent out the announcement. At this point, it’s not clear what the building will be, though it will be built in the city of Ordos. Which already seems to have one of everything.
Architecture critics love prizes because they are a lazy man’s way of sorting through a large and confusing field of data. I also think there’s a desire to see something interrupt what seems like an intractable problem in China—the disappointing lack of authenticity and innovation in a country that is building so much new stuff. There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps this prize is one way of locating and promoting them.

 Meanwhile, it’s worth taking note of the larger fact of Ordos, the city-out-of-nowhere that is cashing in on the fossil fuels trade. It is also the site of the Ordos 100 project (funded by the same billionaire, Cai Jiang), a collection of 100 individually designed villas being curated by Herzog and de Meuron. An international array of architects is involved, and according to Sayre Casey, who has just returned from the site, they are actually being built. So far, a half dozen or more are underway. And the city includes a museum, also under construction, designed by the Beijing-based MAD firm, which I visited last year. MAD is a very interesting, ambitious and innovative young company that always manages to find itself in the headlines.

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The Architecture of Authority

I think this show is better than it might seem on superficial first glance. Richard Ross’s photographs of institutional spaces include interrogation rooms, prisons and execution chambers. But also high-school corridors, hotel phone booths and religious spaces. If you take these connections too seriously, it seems like Ross is making silly, agit-prop connections. But if you stand back and allow the show some irony space, it begins to make distinctions that are much more interesting. The show, Architecture of Authority,  first appeared in New York and is now in Washington, DC, at the National Building Museum. And as most things at the NBM, it’s worth some attention. My review is here.

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