Thursday, October 25, 2007

Overscaled and Underpeopled- The Continuing Legacy of Le Corbusier in the 21st Century

A true pleasure of our profession is browsing the architectural publications. Each month, magazines and websites feature beautiful photographs of recently completed buildings with their sleek high-tech construction details. In addition one finds copious artistic renderings of future projects accompanied by articles that serve mostly as public relations for the associated designers and affirms the latest theoretical trend. The content is nothing but positive, with renderings showing an ideal reality where the sky is always blue and the people on the street are plentiful. That's to be expected, as the renderings are often commissioned by the client to sell the project to investors. One is not going to buy into the idea if one doesn't imagine the enchanting future portrayed by the picture.



The problem with far too many ambitious designers, in my opinion, is that they often fall for the reality portrayed by the seductive rendering. This is hardly a new observation, as architects throughout much of their recent history have been the object of endless scorn in confusing the ideal reality found in their drawings for the imperfect and unpredictable nature that defines the real world.


The heroic architects of the twentieth century were in particular guilty of such a temptation, the most notorious example being Le Corbusier and his urban schemes and masterplans. Le Corbusier presented a romantic image of the modern industrial city laced with monumental highways, airstrips and monumental towers surrounded by parks. As difficult it is to imagine with today's hindsight, Le Corbusier's pictures appealed to many young idealists who found this totally new urban landscape exciting and inspired, as they yearned to break free from the accumulation of civilizational detritus of their own cities during the 1920s (I know...what were they thinking?). As I have written earlier, Le Corbusier cannot be accused of directly overseeing massive unpopular urban interventions, nor of actually realizing any of his numerous masterplans for cities as far as Stockholm, Paris, Algiers and Rio. Rather, he is guilty for having imagined and illustrated a theory for a new kind of city so persuasively so as to become highly influential.

As we begin another century, there are many talented contemporary architects that indulge in whishful idealizations of reality via their computer models and photoshop software. They embrace a gigantic scale when conceiving a public space and organizing various programs in similar manner to the Swiss master himself. The heirs to the Modern movement continue to view architecture more as sculptural forms upon a neutral landscape, completely cut-off from surrounding urban context or the prevailing planning patterns of traditional settlements in the locale. Though at time quite beautiful and boldly poetic, these major developments are the result of a tremendous scope of control, where the parts that make up the whole are all defined by a central author in the form of a singular designer and their semi-governmental client. They are the opposite of the organic growth that characterizes most of our traditional settlements, where each lot is developed in fits and starts according to the ability of the community to sustain them at the time.


These ideas came to mind when I came across this article posted on the Archpaper website. It describes a speculative project developed by the Malaysian government near the city of Penang which will include a whole host of new buildings and various functions in the hope of raising the country's international profile as a center of business and industry. The New York firm Asymptote, which has built a reputation for its ultra-futuristic design, was awarded the job to design the entire project, which includes a luxury hotel, condos, offices and shopping. The first thing that jumped out when looking at these elegant images was the vast sense of scale: large open-ended plazas, endless expanses of glazed curtain walls and the tiny dot-like figures people that are almost undetectable.

The Penang project appears to be an example of a precinct, an assembly of similarly functioning buildings isolated in a clearly demarcated area, planned in isolation of the surroundings. Such precincts often have the drawback of lacking pedestrians, especially during periods when there is no programmed event taking place. I predict that upon its completion, the place will feel like a ghost town of mirror and glass, its urban effect deriving more from the soaring and twisting towers crowning the landscape from afar than from any kind of chance encounters or colorful everyday crowds up close. The stark ambience suggested in the rendering remind me of my experiences visiting a similar kind of development in France. Conceived a half-century before, the cutting-edge commercial precinct of La Defense in Paris shares much in common with current boom in overscaled modern business complexes sprouting throughout the developing world, with its vast public spaces, its sculptural buildings, and an utter lack of street life regardless of how many high-profile entertainment spectacles are produced to prop up pedestrian activity. In spite of a decent indoor shopping street and a one-of-a kind monumen in the Grand Arche, the only silhouettes to be seen outside are the contemporary sculptures.

Asympote will obviously provide a visible and inspiring landmark to Malaysians deperately wanting to appropriate the qualities of economic success and technological progress. However, it will likely contribute little to any kind of enriched urban experience from the point of view of pedestrians. Such a tradeoff has always been inherent in the development of large-scale Modernist masterplans, since the first World War. With the consolidation of state and bureaucratic power during the twentieth century, it has become only easier to emphasize an urbanism of increasing scale, abstract symbolism combined with a highly detailed and complicated functional program. Under such plans, communities are seen one-dimensionally, since they are somehow expected to emerge as a logical product of a well-conceived plan. The notion that a community consists of unseen exchanges between individuals (with their own irrational preferences) at all sorts levels is completely alien to these grand planners.

Current state governments who employ massive building policies as part of the national interest have almost never succeeded in creating successful urban spaces that people enjoy. It's the nature of a bureaucracy, an entity dictated by fulfilling the needs of their constituent population. A sense of community and urbanity is something people must want and choose to have, something best left to the people of an area and manifested by the trading of private property and goods. I fear that the developing world is much too focused on "catching up" with industrialized nations and thus willingly forgo the establishment of socially rich urban experiences within their expanding cities. In spite of the impressive feats of engineering in many of these projects (Asymptote envisions their design to be "carbon neutral") I am none too enthusiastic about them overall, since none of them seem to exhibit any real authenticity or sense of place.



It is not unusual for leading influential designers to seek work designing large complexes of buildings in the middle of nowhere in undeveloped areas. What it does reveal, however, is the tendency for many elite architects to prefer to work for big and powerful clients at the cost of diminishing the authentically unique character of local communities.


For these designers, nothing must come in the way of realizing their gleaming "towers in the park". For me, that isn't good enough.

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