One City, Two Visions

On the one hand, New Urbanists say that cities should have minimal impact on their natural surroundings, while on the other hand world-class designs are defined by unconventional schemes that strive to minimize the use of non-renewables.  It seems, then, the twenty-first century building is a machine designed to rationalize its inputs while maintaining high function. But the agreement between the two groups ends there. Should all architectural projects resort to minimalism out of ecological necessity? Or should those who create them strive for ever-inventive ways to trounce gravity? And if the interests of global commerce command the latter course, do these questions even matter?

Two current exhibits in New York showcase competing answers. The free, experimental public space that is the Guggenheim Lab on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (open through October 16th) personifies a democratic, minimalist approach.  Supertall! at the New York Skyscraper Museum (running through next January) posits that natural boundaries exist to be crushed.

It’s hard not to envy the persistent optimism on display at the BMW Design Lab at the Guggenheim. It conveys the underlying message that city-dwellers are empowered to affect their surroundings. No ideas may dominate, all may be heard. This is an acropolis of urbanism intended to cultivate civic participation. Visitors can articulate practical problems in city life, offer input, and collaborate with experts on their chosen theme of “confronting comfort”. It is a forum so transparent we may wander through it without immediately knowing what it is or what it does—its functions change hourly. Its cubical platform imposes no barriers, only curtains rolled back to reveal the graffiti-laden residences that flank it. The entire setup resembles a stage set, but one in which visitors are both the consumers and producers of the scene. The Guggenheim Lab makes efficient use of its tight public space, employing Jacobsean ethics and attempting to globalize them. True to its minimalist ideals, nothing was destroyed to put the lab in its place, and the lab itself will be disassembled to depart for Europe. In that sense it attempts transnational discussion. Even its logo will evolve, based on input from citizens around the world.

Supertall also has a global DNA. Defined by the Skyscraper Museum as a tower rising at least 1,250 feet in height, supertall projects require armies of designers, architects, engineers, and construction teams that crisscross oceans. They are marketed as ways to capture ever increasing international flows of financial and human capital, as core elements of the modern global city. Moreover supertall towers arise from and encase the rigid class structures that characterize today’s global economy. Where the Guggenheim Lab demonstrates New Urbanism’s potential ecological seamlessness, “Supertall!” heightens its contradictions. Consider what it takes to maintain the quotidian functions of Dubai’s 2,717 foot Burj Khalifa, the exhibit’s brightest star: 250,000 gallons of water, cooling needs equivalent to 10,000 tons of melting ice, and 36 megawatts of electricity at peak. This is the price tag of an emergent global city’s limitless quest for growth. What “Supertall!” does best is display the ethereal beauty of these structures through graphic art and models. The effect is arguably superficial given the far reaching political, social, and economic questions posed at every stage in the formation of mega-architecture, from design to proposal to planning to construction. By contrast, the Skyscraper museum’s previous exhibit, "Vertical Urban Factory,” brilliantly connected shifting modes of production with architectural reinventions during the 20th century.

Just as interesting are the points where these exhibits intersect. Both convey, to some degree, the notion that world resources must be efficiently rationalized. Both hypothesize that technology may be trusted to solve the problems of modern urban life. Between the two we learn that answers pointing toward the more comfortable, globally-conscientious, New Urbanist ideal can be found in the nuances of superior design. Improving upon the human condition is a matter of problem-solving, whether it be raising commercial spaces above hitherto inconceivable vertical thresholds, as “Supertall!” ponders, or simply pumping clean water through a tap in the words of one Guggenheim team member.

Visitors lounging in the Guggenheim Lab after a talk, as lab team members press them for their ideas on the city.  Photo: Joshua K. Leon

My sympathies lie more closely with the open, democratic layout of Guggenheim’s experimental lab, emblematic of the quaint notion that political power is diffuse and all viewpoints important. By contrast supertall towers are artifacts of concentrated wealth and power, symbolizing the immovable economic forces shaping built environments around the world, whether average citizens like it or not. Proponents of supertall construction say state-of-the-art physical infrastructure is essential for fostering growth in an increasingly competitive world system. Hence the revival of supertall modernism–it may stir the imagination but, paradoxically, it illustrates the simultaneous need for going small.

Joshua K. Leon wrote the column “World Watch” for Next American City magazine from 2008-2011. His writings on cities have also appeared recently in venues including Cities, Foreign Policy in Focus, and The China Beat. He is an assistant professor of political science and international Studies at Iona College. He lives in New York City. Notes on Sources: *Based on August visits to the Guggenheim Lab and the New York Skyscraper museum. *Statistics on the Burj Khalifa can be found at the building’s official site.

Categories: Arts + Culture