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Viewpoints: William JR Curtis on Towers

Architecture in the days leading up to the present economic crisis often degenerated into a game played with computer generated images as designers and clients attracted attention to themselves with so-called ‘iconic’ buildings. Everything was done for quick effect to seduce politicians and investors with sensationalist gestures attuned to the free market, privatisation, the transient interests of globalised capitalism and the ‘society of spectacle’. Seductive virtual images were used to sell high-rise projects which were really vertical packages of investment serving the interests of an international plutocracy without any real sense of responsibility towards local communities and civic space.

These grandiose schemes for prestigious towers often clashed brutally with the urban context and trivialised the past, but were promoted as if bringing ‘identity’ to this or that city, an absurd claim in places centuries old. Jean Nouvel’s phallic tower in Barcelona was supposed to be ‘echoing’ Gaudí’s Sagrada Família and the sacred mountains of Montserrat, while in fact vulgarising the skyline with a sensationalist gesture. Herzog & de Meuron’s (mercifully unbuilt for the moment) Tour Triangle for the southern edge of Paris, was compared in official propaganda to Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, although it was roughly eight times taller and a private operation not a public monument. Computer-generated images of this 180 metre high monolith were tricked out to make it look transparent against the sky.

A new sort of pulp fiction emerged on the web, a pornography of eroticised skylines. In a tower project for Moscow (which might have come from Dubai or Shanghai), RMJM claimed to have achieved a ‘sexy organic form’, a building ‘deeply rooted in its place’. Their Gazprom tower project in St Petersburg was 396 metres tall and had all the look of an unfortunate exercise in techno-kitsch, Viagra urbanism and political megalomania. But it was marketed as the latest addition to the ‘city of spires’, its polygonal plan being traced to a historic Swedish fortress nearby.

The banter of contextualism was thus used cynically to persuade local populations and dignitaries that the big money was really thinking about them and their heritage. Citizens of St Petersburg were not so easily duped and took to the streets to defend one of the world’s most beautiful Neo-Classical cities. The situation is now repeating itself in Seville where César Pelli has designed an ungainly shaft, the Cajasol skyscraper (178 metres high), which competes disastrously with the historic Giralda tower by the Cathedral.

London has emerged as the epicentre of double-speak in politics and finance, particularly in the confusion between private wealth and public interest (under New Labour and Conservatives). The soul of the city has been sold off to the highest bidder. Renzo Piano’s Shard is yet one more pile of luxury accommodation and foreign investment promoted as if ‘giving’ something to civic life.

A preposterous website asserts that this crushing and profiteering monster is inspired by historical church spires and the split masts of ships shown in Canaletto’s views of the Thames. The pilings under the building are compared with Nelson’s column. In fact the Shard competes with St Paul’s at a distance as does Foster’s Gherkin (once hilariously compared to Wren’s unbuilt pine-cone for the dome). Sometimes tall stories sink low and turn into caricatures.

Sometimes they pretend to express social concern. The 140 metre tall Coin Street luxury condominium tower by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands was ‘sold’ as a supposed contribution to ‘community’, despite its negative impact upon a truly civic building, the National Theatre. In London in recent years, with its bank bailouts and expenses scams, it has been socialism for the rich and laissez-faire for the poor. Or as JK Galbraith might have put it: ‘private wealth and public squalor’. Which brings us back to that preposterous plutocrat’s plaything, the ArcelorMittal Orbit at the site of the Olympic Games (see Outrage, AR May 2010).

If ever there was a monument to excess, this pile-up of red steel girders designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond must be it. Like a giant piece of fairground equipment gone berserk, the Orbit is an unintended funeral marker over the steel industries in Europe. At a time of factory closures and de-localisations, it is a sad symptom of social inequality rather than a worthy monument to the Olympic ideal.

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