One of the continued problems with contemporary architecture is its tendency to vacillate almost exclusively between only two extremes: the banal and the kitsch. On the banal end of things we have an endless parade of glass curtain walls and concrete/metal boxes, sometimes with facing in other materials, which are viewed as safe since they are interchangeable, irrespective of where they are built. Pick up a contemporary K Street office building from Washington and plop it down in the middle of Stockholm or Singapore amidst other such boxes, and no one would find it strange. These are the sorts of projects that city planners and landowners tend to like, since they can fill these spaces easily with businesses or residents.
On the other side of things we have attempts to look like something other than a box. These projects may initially capture the imagination of those planning them, but upon completion strike viewers as ill-conceived or utterly impractical. Frank Gehry’s now-iconic Guggenheim Bilbao is one example, since for all of its flash and acclaim, the building is leaking and falling apart. Though my personal favorite has always been Philip Johnson’s dreadful AT&T building in New York, with its ridiculously amateurish, giant broken pediment roofline, that looks as though it was designed by a Looney Tunes matte artist for some sequence involving Bugs Bunny being chased across Manhattan by Elmer Fudd.
However sometimes the project does not even need to near completion, before people realize that there has been a terrible mistake somewhere. Such is the case with a British-designed building currently under construction in the city of Suzhou, China, a structure known as the “Gate to the East”. The massive project, which features a pair of skyscrapers connected at the top, is supposed to resemble a triumphal arch, symbolizing China’s arrival on the world stage. Yet the more people look at it, the more it reminds them of a giant pair of long underpants. It has caused some in China to (understandably) question why it is that their country seems to be commissioning and building more and more odd-looking buildings from Western architects.
Part of the reason for what we might call a “Wild West” architectural movement in the PRC is that China is one of the few places in the world at the moment which not only wants lots of new buildings, so that it can bulldoze the poor out of the sight of Western television crews, but also has the cash to pay for them. For somewhat different reasons, the wealthy emirate of Dubai has been another locale for bizarre-looking building projects, such as a hotel shaped like an incomplete sailboat, or artificial islands laid out to look like a palm tree from space. This has been driven by Dubai very sensibly thinking about what will happen when the oil runs out, so that at least there will be nice, shiny buildings for tourists to look at, as the country morphs into some sort of Koranic Las Vegas.
While China and Dubai are – at least compared to much of the rest of the world anyway – doing just fine economically, those who pour their funds into such experimental architecture ought to remember that much of what they are building is doomed for the scrap heap, thanks to poor design and a pernicious effort to try to make people like things which they simply cannot in good conscience accept as a good building. Modern untested materials and methods combined with bizarre building shapes often become hated eyesores within less than a generation, even as more traditional construction fades into ruin in a sympathetic way. Thus, the fact that so much of the formerly grand hotels, public buildings, and homes in places like Havana or Detroit for example, are still standing in a kind of spectacularly beautiful decline, is a tribute to the men who built them. Meantime, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the comparatively recent Boston City Hall and its courtyard, which looks like the setting for some sort of space-age auto-da-fe, is anything but a crumbling, hulking disaster which no one at present has the courage to tackle.
There is much to be said for trying new things in architecture, for by doing so we can create buildings that better serve their purpose. Imagine how much more pleasant, for example, it is to be a patient in a hospital where all of the rooms receive plenty of fresh air and sunlight via modern methods of air circulation and an expansive use of glass, for those who cannot get out of bed or outside unassisted, and think about how much more hygienic a trip to the market is today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. These are thanks to improvements in engineering and in architecture in understanding how to effectively use different materials and ways of looking at buildings.
Yet not everything that is new is necessarily better. Simply because a starchitect tells us that a new building is the latest and greatest thing to appear on the planet since Mr. Obama does not mean that either statement is true. And in the case of building a giant pair of pants, one cannot help but feel that if the Chinese wanted a triumphal arch, they ought simply to have built one.