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Crisis City Topic: The End of the Age of Excess

August 12, 2010

“We’ll have to wait to find out exactly what the end of the Age of Excess means for architecture in New York. Yes, the glut of high-concept luxury towers was wearisome,” the opening statement from Nicolai Ouroussoff’s New York Times review of the Morphosis Cooper Union building.

-Yes.

A few sentences later, Ouroussoff goes on to call the building “a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value”.

-Ok, sure.

He then describes the strategy of the building to be social as well as aesthetic: “Here the big V-shaped columns that line the sidewalk not only support the building, but they also create small pockets of space where students can hang out along the street…the idea is to create a series of interlocking social spaces, many undefined, and to allow for the kind of casual encounter that is a central part of urban life.”

-Maybe.

However, you are more likely to be reprimanded for physically interacting with the building: “Like other radical architects of his age, he is more interested in the dark, hidden corners where people can loiter, get into mischief, escape from authority.”

-It happened to me.

“Mr. Mayne’s stairs are a standard 11 inches, like a conventional fire stairwell. They are hard to sit on, and they gave me vertigo when I began my descent from the third floor. Does this sound picky? Not in a design that is all about the informal use of public space.”

-Sounds like Mr. Ouroussoff started the review with one idea only to realize that, perhaps, this building is just another self-indulgent “starchitecture” blob.

I suppose, the design was initially presented as a building that would encourage informal use of public space.  In reality, security guards come after you for sitting on the sloped walls and columns.  If I can’t get into the hermetically sealed building, can I at least play on the exterior?  Absolutely not. This is proof that we can’t always leave things to chance; we must deliberately design.  I therefore find myself asking what use this building is to 99.9% of the city?  Even if one could argue that the spectacle of this building is of great civic value to the city, it is not enough.  That is a great difference between ART and ARCHITECTURE.  Critics are projecting that we are leaving the “Age of Excess”, mainly triggered by the current economic situation.  I think we need to leave the “Age of Excess” because it is causing a crisis in our cities.  What happened to functionality, moral responsibility, and social conscious?  How is the architect relevant in our cities?  Can an architect be an urbanist?  The good news is that I fully believe the architect has an important role in shaping our cities and can successfully get us out of this crisis.

I see our shared social experience happening without much “capital A architecture “.  I am trying to argue that we need more publicness or infrastructure for public behavior in our capital A architecture. It is sort of a landscape urbanism argument. I want seamless relationships between our buildings and the city. More function, less pretty Morphosis-Cooper-Union-private-architecture. Why did Thom Mayne design a spectacular building if the public cannot enter the building or even climb on the sloped columns?  Architects, developers, and city officials have been ignoring us, the inhabitants.  Our urban public spaces seem to be constrained to parks and plazas.  Where can we take respite from the elements and the grueling activity of the city?  Parks and plazas don’t serve their function in extreme weather.  A large component of architecture is SHELTER.  Not only should we give people the option to feel sheltered in the city, we should encourage the deliberate “casual encounter that is a central part of urban life”.  As architects, let us truly provide a sphere of enactment for our urban theatre.  The psychological effect on humans is inherently more ingrained in an urban environment.  In suburbia you can more or less control your environment, while in cities there is more of an element of surprise.  You can’t escape and hop in your car to the grocery store, you have to get on the subway or walk the streets with thousands of other urbanites that you may be forced to interact.  If architecture could provide a place for people to make connections in a city where one feels isolated, then it is true that an architect can be an urbanist.

It is not solely about adding to the skyline or a line of facades along the street.  We can complain that Dubai shamelessly does this, but almost all cities are plagued with this attitude.  Let us move past the excess and make it unnecessary to hold “Open House Days” in cities across the globe.  If we do our job correctly, we won’t need to hold an annual open house, which gives people the chance to visit private architecture in the city.  The public yearns for access they do not have. It isn’t necessarily our city to blame; it is our culture of privateness. Thus, architecture has the power to influence us away from this obsession with complete privacy.  Enough is enough.  Lets have some transparency and integrate the urban fabric into our urban architecture.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Natel Wooten permalink
    August 13, 2010 8:31 pm

    Wow, great post, and great building choice! Morphosis Cooper Union building is symbolic for your argument.

    I too am tired of architects designing in a sim-city like bubble. It infuriates me when architecture lies. I do not think that Thom Mayne and his crew meant to lie to us, but whether it was the requisite for profit, or there own blissful ignorance, people deserve truth in their architecture. In many ways I think architecture can continue to stay relevant if it sugar-coats less and deal with realities. I suppose anti-terrorism, code, governments, and private organizations can be blamed as much as the architects, but having seen the success of so many European buildings (most notably Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House), I think architects here can do better.

    I would add:
    If architects deal with urban policy realistically, then they can become urbanists.

  2. Natel Wooten permalink
    August 13, 2010 8:58 pm

    Also I was wondering, did you collage the image above? Its quite effective!

  3. August 16, 2010 11:28 pm

    Daley I have to say that this is a great post!
    One of the elements which you uncovered through your writing appeared to be how policy can ruin architectural intention; this issue has become apparent to me as well for the last few years. The design of Cooper Union’s exterior columns certainly have their moments where informal use becomes possible, leading me to believe Mayne’s intentions are genuine. A critique I would still hold against it is the inconstancy of the frequency to which informal use can occur (the 11″ stair landings being the clearest illustration of the oversight). In such cases where architectural design attempts to provide highly public use, maybe it is important for us as designer to find ways in which we can build those elements to become more vital to the buildings function, preventing policy from at least literally barricading these things from public use.
    Another issue which may be interesting for you to explore in the claming of urban space is perception.
    While I was in New York last semester I was asked to analyze Kips Bay Plaza, a professional housing complex between 30th and 33rd. The first time I approached the building appearing as a student: backpack, polo, jeans, nervous disposition, etc … before I could walk into the court yard I was quickly met by a security officer and turned away. For my second arrival I dressed in typical business attire walking with purpose and confidence. This time the door to the courtyard was opened for me by the doorman, no questions asked.
    While I am sure if I started a theatrical performance in the courtyard shortly after being admitted I would be questioned or asked to leave, it was interesting to see what became accessible (public) space for me based upon a change in attire. This to me indicated a direct relationship between perception and accessibility.
    In the larger context of your focus Daley, it may be interesting to question if a flash mob could be conducted in certain public or nonpublic venues with greater ease based upon the dress of the performers. Or if design can some how alter perception of attire to create a greater democracy within the urbanscape.

    • nathanielwooten permalink
      August 17, 2010 6:45 pm

      To run with a tangent:

      Ed and a guy named Jay (from Kansas State) did a really interesting project in London in the Foster studio utilizing flash mob (certainly a form of urban performance and social infusion). The project existed in a future in which cnc-milling and other rapid prototype machines would be more common and publicly available in urban areas. Each person participating in the flash mob would be sent a 3d file to be printed. With all the pieces printed each person would arrive at a predetermined site and time and assemble the structure based on directions lightly edged into the piece. Through the act of quickly assembling the structure people would meet and exchange.

      This was my first exposure to the concept of flash-mob and its architectural potentials. While I like James idea of a stylish flash-mob boldly using architecture’s forbidden fruits, I think the potential for flash mob architecture, as a generative building process holds the greatest potential.

      Oh and I want to do this at Syracuse…

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