These are buildings to be seen, like an in-store display, a tower of items to be purchased but not disturbed, but no matter how snobbish, they can’t escape the city they belong to
The latest New York towers are more billboard than building. Like celebrity-endorsed perfume - fancy box, smelly water - the architecture matters less than the artist and his (yes, they are all men) pen’s effluent black-ink concept scrawl.
This is the nation that gave birth to the skyscraper, yet tycoons are commissioning foreign architects for its next generation of towers. New York’s recent acquisitions include a Siza and an Ando, to display alongside a collection of Nouvel, Viñoly and Gehry. Michael Sorkin takes on the towers in his column this month, accusing starchitects of putting lipstick on pigs.
Are the buildings any good? None has the excitement we expect from American towers. Built for the super-rich, a red rope around them, they are buildings to be seen, like an in-store display, a tower of items to be purchased but not disturbed.
Only a building is never an icon close-up. It crashes into the pavement, mashes up to the city, dials into grids. Even the most snobbish building will in some corner meet the in-betweens of life where people improvise, play a saxophone, water a window box.
While mediocrity rules on the emerging Manhattan skyline, bright young architects subsist on a diet of pop-up tents, art commissions and (if lucky) private homes. So many small practices that need just one big break to take on the world. Why not give the young guns a tower or a Whitney, let them stretch their legs?
But maybe I am being unfair - at least in New York, there is architecture. Ugly towers have gobbled up my home city of Toronto; the once elegant skyline obscured behind fronds of cheap green-glassed condos.
‘While mediocrity rules on the new Manhattan skyline, bright young things subsist on a diet of pop-up commissions and (if lucky) private homes’
Meanwhile in middle-class surburbia, where I grew up, the homes only get bigger, distorted by a property market that inflates ceiling heights and multiplies bathrooms without prizing basics such as daylight and a view. There we find an obese architecture, bloated rendered homes built of sticks with small windows and a loo you could park a car in. This gigantism swallows up its inhabitants. There is so little craft, and such poverty of delight.
But while I turn my nose up, the public gorges on. Minimalist Modernism was never their bag and so we have abandoned them to the monstrosities produced by house builders: a bit of Gothic here, Victorian there, a Neo-Classical flourish and voilà, every home a squat palace with peaked roof, turrets and columns. Elsewhere, on a dark desert highway, vast swathes of bland. The scale of the homogeneity is staggering, an anywhere and nowhere America. It’s an architect’s nightmare, so the profession huddles together in pockets of ‘good taste’, mostly New York and LA.
‘A building is never an icon close-up. It crashes into the pavement. Even the most snobbish building will in some corner meet the in-betweens of life’
Towers may be the all-American building type, but NYC is not where we found a new American architecture, as might be said about Michael Maltzan’s work in LA. As Raymund Ryan points out, it is mostly outside these echo chambers that radical voices are found - gutsy and irreverent, a touch sarcastic. Although occasionally humanitarian, the work of the next gen is dishearteningly apolitical, but still more interesting than Manhattan’s fresh skyscraping crop.
That unique American gumption - we could use a bit of that. I hope the young things will make it there, then anywhere, but for that to happen, big jobs need to go to the little guys. New York, New York, are you still that kind of town?