Monday, July 28, 2008

Shallow Wonders: Architecture and the Global Drive to Greatness

In this current period of global economic unease, the ever enduring undercurrent of American declinism rears its ugly head. Decade after decade there are new books predicting the end of American hegemony, the emergence of a multi-polar world and the rise of rival economic powers. In describing the latter phenomenon, one finds the time-honored journalistic practice of producing articles that report an ambitious and massive building campaign that reflects a city's or a country's ascendance to the elite group of power players. There is an implication of admiration and awe by the dozens of construction cranes dotting the skyline; massive armies of construction workers coming together to realize something unthinkable in more modest wealthy countries that are tied down by democratic processes and small-scale entrepreneurially-based developments. The amazement at such towering construction efforts is nothing new, since it has been going on since the beginning of urban centers thousands of years ago.

What is interesting, in my view, is how the absence of oversized construction projects is now seen as a problem. A recent book by Fareed Zakaria that revives the recurring discourse on American declinism cites the fact that the tallest building in the world no longer resides in the U.S. as proof that it is somehow a less important country. I believe this evaluation to be a bit misplaced, since beyond these materialistic monuments lies completely different social and cultural realities the U.S. would be better off not to emulate. Building big is an inherently exciting human enterprise, but the process in which it is done in a world run by global capitalism makes it seem more diminutive in significance, casting doubt on genuine 'greatness'.

I say this as one who has spent most of his career working for American firms that have had a deep hand in rebranding the architectural image of many countries around the world. One influential experience was in being part of the large team of American architects and engineers that designed what will soon be the tallest building in the world in Dubai. The client, EMAAR, is a huge real estate company largely managed by the ruling family of Dubai, who hired us along with consultants from throughout Europe and contractors from South Korea to give form to an icon of national identity to a land, though flush with lots of financial capital, has relatively scarce human capital (i.e. educated and productive native citizens). Adrian Smith, the principal designer of the tower, to his credit generated a scheme inspired from a natural flower motif indigenous to the Persian Gulf that guards the tower's cultural integrity. That is something that can rarely be said of many of the other ambitious designs and structures going up in the U.A.E., that either opt for Arab kitsch or styles (and artificially terraformed landscapes) alien to the area, whether Mediterranean or overscaled high-tech.

The UAE building boom kind of resembles a teenager who purchases lots of fashionable clothes to figure an identity in which they seek to be defined. There is no authentic Emirati identity asserted in these new towers, but rather the hope that Western designers can give them one they like and will proudly wear. Views of the Dubai skyline remind me of a rich person's closet: racks of expensive and fashionable suits and dresses, with most of the outfits rarely ever worn but instead serve to show off a person's accumulated wealth. Like unworn designer outfits, the new landmarks may be testaments to art and craft of those who make them (and the imported South Asian serf population that builds much of them), as well as those who finance them, but we will never know how its users, the local Emirati community, will fit into them. Such is the paradox in a world increasingly driven by consumer-driven capitalism and free-flowing capital: the creation of artifacts that express the uniqueness of a culture are abandoned in favor of buying artifacts that express a dissolution into an all-embracing yet shallow global culture. Dubai may indeed bill itself as a new symbol of the trans-global culture (after all, they are highly dependent on foreigners to make this spectacle happen), one that is in its very nature thin and unable to regenerate itself over time. Is this the kind of 'greatness' we seek to restore to our own shores?

Deep in the heart of Texas, I now help realize commercial amenities that address the needs and wants of the millions of beneficiaries of the globalism - the new middle classes and nouveau riche that have recently sprouted in all continents. The expansion of market capitalism throughout the world has been a boon for Western architects, from the almost unlimited commercial opportunities for sector-specific oriented American firms to the hundreds of wannabe cultural capitals who desperately seek the golden touch of studio-oriented, often European, "starchitecture" firms. Foreign construction projects in developing countries tend to be large and complex, the clients frequently desiring an architectural style that projects a new and progressive image for their cities. This contrasts with projects in local American (or European) building markets, in which one has to deal with the headache of various layers of building departments, code enforcement, legal liability, individual property rights and precarious financing from small banks or government-issued bonds that depend on skittish voters.

Sites in developing countries often start from a blank-slate approach, which naturally attracts many designer-types encouraged to exercise their creative freedom. Many of the developers in these countries have little interest for contextuality or in defining an intelligible sense of community. Rather the project must communicate the simple message that a place has 'arrived' in the new global game, that it is modern and progressive and ready to jettison the old. Many of the architects I work with will try, in either an imaginative or awkward way, to insert a layer of authenticity to the project, whether by using traditional motifs, adapting to the local climate, or introducing materials found in the local vernacular. Other architects could care less and continue to proceed in delivering a self-referential icon to the locale. In both cases, the designer type revels in these foreign projects, since design services tends to focus on the "front end" of the design process; that is, the conceptual and schematic phases, where models, renderings and loose technical documents are produced. Actual construction documents are usually produced by a local architect in the country in which the project is situated, who will be responsible in dealing with the headaches of following local codes, permitting processes, and local liabilities. Add to that the generous construction budgets made possible by oligarchic real-estate environments, opaque lending institutions and government connections and cheap labor and you get the best of all worlds (from the designer type's point of view). From my perspective foreign projects are indeed fun even if quite demanding and are of great benefit to all sides, but one should acknowledge that they carry some of ethical baggage that does not tend to exist in the West.

The new global architectural marketplace has naturally benefited architectural firms with a fundamentally commercial character, the large majority of which are to be found in the U.S, the UK and Australia. Technical expertise on various building types is a highly-sought comodity, and the Western economies that have fostered a sophisticated service sector (especially in the 'Anglosphere') with a high degree of specialization have produced a broad array of firms in the position to generate icons and images for a new cultural identity with which developing countries desperately seek to rebrand themselves. This is a part of the story that is rarely focused on when the media marvels at the large-scale pace of construction and engineering feats: there have always been since the dawn of time steady stream awe-inspiring works that have amazed observers, but what makes today's accomplishments different is the scale to which cultural production has been overlayed from one foreign culture over another, namely from the West on to the Orient.

Just as movies made in Hollywood have become the main staple for popular entertainment in many countries throughout the developing world during the last century, building sleek glassy towers and megablocks in a style that was developed in western architectural capitals of London, New York and Rotterdam has become the preferred means by which people in developing countries express a sort of cultural and economic ascendance for the rest of developed world to notice, or in other words, 'greatness'. Where movies with action-packed story lines, special effects, larger-than-life characters and English dialogue have come to diminish the importance of local theatrical traditions and folk performance, an architectural vocabulary of glass curtain wall, smooth concrete, stainless steel or aluminum panels and high-tech steel structural supports (and increasingly LED lighting) has supplanted the local built vernacular - the most open and direct way a community or a society expresses its most unique qualities apart from the rest of the world.

Borrowing foreign building styles and suiting them to local conditions is not new, as the colonial architecture of many British Commonwealth member states demonstrate, nor is the embrace of modern industrial materials and methods in favor of more traditional modes in these places specific to contemporary times, as the ubiquitous 'International Style' that emerged in middle of the 20th century can attest. What was different in the past was that a synthesis binding outside influences to the local cultural reality occured, often initiated by the local artists and designers. For all the intentions toward universality and essentialism that characterized the International Style, architects throughout developing world adapted the style to native sensibilities and values that would later be characterized as 'critical regionalism'. The current wave of international projects have not reached this point, nor does there seem much interest doing so beyond what the designer in London/NewYork/Amsterdam/Dallas tries to conjure up in his office.

When I was first given the opportunity to work on the world's tallest building in Dubai, even if it was on a relatively small part of such a huge project, I was reminding myself that I was helping build the pyramids of our own time. In terms of the imaginative and intellectual endeavor, the testing of physical limits a man-made structure can endure, there was a bit in common with the pyramids at Gizeh. And yet it was easy to forget this idea, since most of the people I worked with treated this as a typical international project no different from countless others that they had worked on. There seemed to be little spiritual resonance about the project, but instead became an unusually large headache in providing a commodified service to a distant client and land we cared little about. Somehow the project seemed shallow in significance (the firm can lay claim to having designed many of the world's tallest buildings for decades) due to the fact there was zero cultural attachment to what we were doing, that it didn't speak much about who we were as Americans nor did it say much about Dubai except that it had lots of money and a ruling family with an outsized ego. At least the pyramids at Gizeh revealed lots about the ancient Egyptians, from their religion and social structures to their technical advances. What both Dubai and Ancient Egypt may have in common would be their deplorable treatment of manual labor, which doesn't say much for the formers current assendance in international 'greatness'.

If there is any genuine greatness to be found in the contemporary world of economic globalism and computer assisted engineering innovations, one could argue that it's the creators of cultural icons and man-made environments. The artists, graphic designers, branding specialists and architects of North America, Western Europe and Japan have been able to project a look and feel to distant places at a rate and breadth never before witnessed. Romans may have had the whole Mediterranean (and Britain) to render a uniform style to the look and feel to the cities under their control, but this Western-based army of environmental designers have all habitable continents to take advantage of, with millions of acres waiting to be transformed overnight. One could question whether all of this is indeed a good thing, as much of this new building lacks originality and fails to convey a genuine expression of a locale. Still, such an abundance of opportunities has been aggressively pursued by this design corps, to the extent that there are numerous design firms who work almost exclusively on international projects. They opt to bypass opportunities in local markets that seem stifling in favor of foreign markets that embrace innovative and trend-setting solutions.

This internationalist orientation to design has been of particular benefit to that elite cadre Western-based 'starchitects'. Since their reputations for bold, self-referential designs express more about the designer than about the place a projected is situated, they find it often difficult to realize their vision in their more democratic and extensively regulated home countries. The boutique starchitecture firm is not much of a profitable enterprise within a regional or national market of designing exclusively state-funded cultural projects such as museums and libraries. Superstars of today such as Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Daniel Liebeskind and Zaha Hadid experienced prolongued periods of financial uncertainty even with a few signature projects behind them. The game would change once their work was perceived as a reproducible brand identity that could lend a heaping dose of sophistication to any place that wanted it. Called "the Bilbao Effect", where municipalities depend on a singular architectural tour-de-force to regenerate the image and ensuing redevelopment (as was supposedly the case with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain), the value of starchitects as a result has risen as cities compete with each other at a global level for foreign investment and real estate-based riches. It is now no longer the domain of select Western capitals, but has now become the desired silver-bullet strategy towards respectability in cities as distant as Tashkent, Uzbekhistan and Baku, Azerbaijan. Not too long ago one often had to go to a post-industrial country in the West to observe ground-breaking and daring projects that were often the concrete fruits of inquisitive and free exchange of ideas promoted in those countries. Now one travels to the far corners of the earth to semi-agrarian/industrial countries whose more traditional social structures repress experimentation and liberal cultural life. Such a disparity between a regressive local cultural reality and dramatic cutting-edge works highlights how current attempts at greatness in the developing world are an inorganic phenomenon which strips a valuable layer of meaning and tends to relegate these new structures as relatively shallow symbols. It reminds me of those glossy architetural renderings I frequently see that portray a futuristic space populated by figures in Arab Bedouin costume.

With the disembodiment of local cultural expression comes the Starchitect's ego that tries to imbue in these concrete, glass and steel carcasses a richness of meaning. That is what I interpret from statements like Steven Holl's, saying "In America, I could never do the work I do here. We've become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new." The architect justifies what he is doing as part of his commitment to his principles on what places need and his obsession for newness. Since there is no significant critical element that stimulates vigorous cultural debate so fundamental to the success of western culture, Mr. Holl uses the apparently Chinese consensus for the new as a carte blanche for realizing his personal design ambitions. This argument applies to other similar situations such as Norman Foster's grandiose schemes in Russia and Zaha Hadid's projects for Azerbaijan, which reveals certain ethical dilemmas regarding projects situated in countries known for their restriction of political freedom and accompanying static cultural development. The irony comes into focus, as these elite architects seek the most unencumbering environment in precisely those places known to discourage free expression for everyone else. It sure seems to reek of the practice of officially privileging the chosen few at the expense of everyone else on the outside, a proud tradition of one-party authoritarian regimes and monarchies.

From what I've seen so far, the new starchitecture going up throughout the developing world has been disappointing. Much of it is hideously overscaled, lacking in proportion and detrimental to the surrounding urban context. There is something to be said for designing not to overpower a place, but rather to mediate with it, to interact with its particularities. In my opinion, many of the starchitects' best work occured within the confines of their culturally free yet democratically regulated home countries, as their innate bold visions were forced to compromise with the mature urban fabric and highly mobilized citizens' associations and individual critics. The tension works and lends a place additional layers of desirable complexity. When that healthy tension is lost, the temptation towards an oppressive and uninspired architecture becomes much greater. It seems to be happening in much of the ballihooed projects going up in China, which is wasting the opportunity by furiously constructing a modern identity that is, to my mind, ugly and unhuman in its scale and detail. One can brag about the billions of tons of concrete, the millions more of new apartments, offices, and the tallest, most high-tech buildings anywhere in the world, but the overall quality is not of greatness in its original implication. It's undoubtedly impressive, but it's far from being great architecture, much less a symbol of true greatness.

Update: I've come across some recent articles that address the topics discussed above. The phenomena of designer cities is described in detail in the Wall Street Journal, in which foreign clients invite starchitects an unlimited hand in shaping entire city districts as a means of marketing these places as good real estate investments. Another article highlights how the Chinese government uses architecture to conceal abuses elsewhere, especially in the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. For a revealing portrait of how a starchitect evaluates the ethical challenges of working for a dictatorship, check out this interview with Jacques Herzog of Herzog + deMeuron in Der Spiegel.

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