Law in Contemporary Society
More than any other form of art, architecture requires cash. Especially at the level of large urban architecture, no architect has the means to build for themselves their dream project. Moreover, while architecture is art, and architects artists, the buildings that they produce are often businesses. In the modern age buildings are branded. They are symbols of power, success, and the ability to literally change the face of a city, and, accordingly, few and far between are projects where an architect is given total free reign. However, this does not mean that great buildings cannot still be built here in New York and the United States. Some of the greatest and most enduring monuments of our city were built by corporations and developers who wanted to declare their strength and prominence to the world. So how do we account for the relative blandness of what is being built around us today?

In 1928 William Van Alen designed one of the most consciously branded and yet most successful skyscrapers in the world. His Chrysler Building is adorned with gargoyles and flairs that were designed to mimic the hood ornaments and radiator caps of Chrysler cars in order to link the building to, and please, Walter Chrysler and his company. Similarly, Lever House and the Seagram Building, which form the nexus of urban skyscraper modernism, were daring when they were built and have turned out to be important and much imitated turning points in 20th century architecture. However, by the same token, Phillip Johnson's tacky Chippendale armoire/skyscraper that he built to similarly show off the puissance of AT&T is not nearly as important or successful, and, thankfully, has not had the same kind of impact.

So it seems to me that to build a great building, one needs a rather ineffable, and maybe lucky, combination of the right place, the right time, the right society, the right architect, and, perhaps most importantly, the right person paying the bill. The goal is, or should be, not simply to create something that will hubristically mark the landscape, but to create something that inspires and draws attention to itself through its quality, not just its size. However, what is missing from the US and specifically New York City today is that as architecture continues to be big business those who are funding the buildings start to put more consideration into profit margins instead of architectural integrity. The three buildings I mentioned above were ludicrously expensive. Mies van der Rohe was famous for using a very limited palette of very expensive materials and the Seagram building was the most expensive skyscraper ever when it was completed. Even just the windows of the Seagram's building with their iconic brass hue require near constant cleaning and upkeep in order to make the building look presentable. Today, though, it seems hard to imagine someone taking the same kind of risk with a building, especially one they have to sell space in and "sell" to the public. For examples of this we need look no further than the new "Freedom Tower," which has evolved from a daring design by Daniel Leibeskind, which was supposed to add to New York City's famous downtown skyline by mimicking and playing off of the Statue of Liberty, to the current, boring design by David Childs, or the architectural taste of Donald Trump. He has made a career of throwing up one neo-Miesian skyscraper after another, as though if he builds enough of them maybe he will assure for himself the same sort of immortality that Samuel Bronfman did for his company. However, these buildings are economical; they do not lose floor space towards the top because of daring forms or new architectural ideas. They are a product of a society and a time which, while successful, seems more worried about making a dollar than making an architectural and cultural statement. Maybe it is a plateau that societies reach at a certain level of success, where--sort of as Eben pointed out regarding the Dutch--potentially garish monuments of the present are eschewed in favor of tried and true designs and aesthetics.

One of the few interesting buildings on the proverbial horizon here in NYC is a skyscraper being built right next to the MOMA by the French architect and 2008 Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel. This exciting tapering tower may not be a landmark or a revolutionary move in the big game of international architecture, but it is exciting, and more interestingly was the more “dangerous” and thrilling of the two designs that the architect was asked to produce by the developer. But, even this building has to be sold today in NYC. The upper floors have so much of their space taken up by the elevator core that the apartments there will feel like they are pressed up against the glass. To combat this the architect and developer have said that they will feel like the pied a terre at the top of the Eiffel Tower where Gustav Eiffel used to work; but, of course, they are, in reality, penthouses which will have to be sold for multi-million dollar amounts and as such the reference to Eiffel's apartment rings hollow, like a marketing ploy more than a truthful statement.

Buildings are designed by architects, but they are made by the people paying for them. Skyline altering works of architecture are, like sports teams, one of the greatest, boldest, and loudest forms of conspicuous and invidious consumption. The problem however seems to be that today instead of trying to produce great buildings that inspire envy and gain prominence through their form, more developers, governments, and corporations appear to be trying to produce economically marvelous and profitable buildings so that the "Joneses" are jealous not of what was built, but of how much money it can make. If this really is the case then it hardly seems surprising that the architectural outlook at the moment is pretty bland here in NYC and the US.



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r9 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:53:48 - IanSullivan
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