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Why Scale and Adaptability Matter, Even for Starchitects
Alex Steffen, 7 Jan 08
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The blogosphere is all atwitter with news of Norman Foster's latest project, Moscow's Crystal Island. Why? It's big. Really frickin' big, with a floor area of 2.5million square meters and a height of 450 meters. If completed, it may be the largest structure in the world.

It's also a monstrosity. Not because it's ugly, though I think it is, but because it's ego ossified into structure. "Conceived as a self-contained city within a city," it not only denies its urban context completely, functioning as a sort of vertical suburb, it also completely precludes the kind intelligent adaptation and evolution that small-scale buildings in a complex urban fabric excel. Though it's touted as green, it's essentially the world's largest monument to obsolescence -- this monolith almost seems designed to preclude the possibility of intelligent re-use in later times.

It's like designing a computer with the latest green technologies and then welding the case closed, so it can never be reworked or updated in a meaningful way. It's not how designers with an eye on the future create things, and it seems a problem inherent to the sort of commissions starchitects accept these days. Perhaps Sir Norman wants to try to steal some of the Ryugyong Hotel's spotlight as a mega-building blunder? (And am I the only one who thinks it looks like a fractal version of the Monument to the Third International?)

Here's the alternative: a rapidly-evolving body of professional knowledge about how to design and build graceful, sustainable and adaptable structures -- structures that are beautiful both aesthetically and ethically when they're built, and which grow only more beautiful as subsequent generations modify them to fit their needs. An open architecture, an architecture which asks a question of the future -- how does our inspiration today serve your needs tomorrow? -- rather than an architecture which aims at deathlessness, and achieves only lifelessness.

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Thank you, that was inspiring! Not immediately how I would have approached the action, but very true... All too often Victor Papanek has it right: "Nothing big works"

I think the problem with what you propose is that most of us are not "made for information" yet... We are changing and we are changing fast but I think it will be another 10-15 years before we can really network ourselves good enough to approach cities, living & architecture in such an "information-sharing way". But I do believe it will happen.

Posted by: Ewout on 8 Jan 08

Alex, I don't think we yet know enough about the structure to write it off. You are correct it is bold and different, but I don't think that means it's "ego ossified." It does inspire a kind of a "love it" or "hate it" response. I happen to love it.

I think there is room in cities of the future for both organic evolving bottom-up development and top-down planned marquee projects.

I'm a fan of big projects. Not because they are the best or most efficient--they are not. Consider that most of the high-rise office space in major cities comes at a huge price-premium per square foot. Businesses could save a lot of money just building conventional low-rise offices. Heck, with telecommuting, many people could just work out of their homes. But there's an intangible benefit to occupying some of the world's priciest real-estate. It says you've arrived and puts you at the heart of the action. The beneficial network effects alone can pay for the investment.

Cities, too, have to distinguish themselves. Crystal Island will be to Moscow what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, Burj Dubai will be to Dubai City, or the Twin Towers were to New York.

I, too consider sustainability to be at the top of the human priorities list. But I would hate to see architectural boldness fall by the wayside. My only caveat is that I would hope the architects are not "welding the case shut" and have designed this project for future efficiency improvements. Rather than hoping the project will go away, if you can convince them to make such modifications, that would be the biggest benefit of this discussion.

Posted by: BlackSun on 8 Jan 08



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