Tag Archives: EIFFEL TOWER

SOCIAL IRRESPONSIBILITY: SCALE AND OPTICS

June 3, 2022

“Supertalls” (photo from sinelab.com)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California. An additional excerpt on ego and arrogance is here.)

The architect’s responsibility to society goes far beyond the state legislature of “protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” Certainly, a design must ensure that a movie theater has the right number of emergency exits, for example. But social responsibility extends far beyond compliance with building codes. Just to name a few topics of accountability: carbon footprint reduction, community engagement, equity and equality, industry diversity, ethical labor practices, philanthropy, resilience, and affordability of housing.

At my presentation, The Creative Process and the Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Oive Stays)

Please heed Stan Lee as he proclaimed, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility!”

When I ponder social responsibility, I also confront social irresponsibility. As I prepared my notes for a presentation for Modernism Week 2022, out of a number of unfortunate examples of imprudence, two come to mind: scale and optics.

left: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France (photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash); right: Empire State Building, New York, New York (photo by Sam Trotman on Unsplash)

First, how tall do we need to build? When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1887, we reached the limits of our engineering and creative ambitions. At 1,083 feet tall, Eiffel was a marvel and over time, has become one of the most beloved structures in the world. Who knew we would need or want to build taller?

In 1930, the Empire State Building shattered records, completed with a height of 1,454 feet. Over the years since, clients, developers, corporations, engineers, and architects continued an obsession to pierce the sky with vertical and priapic structures. Perhaps, ego and arrogance were the fuel.

From Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

Currently, the award of conceit goes to the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Exceeding $1 billion in construction cost, when completed, this literal skyscraper of hotel rooms, residences, and offices will be 3,281 feet tall—three times the height of the Eiffel Tower and more than twice the height of the Empire State building.

A previous time in New York City, red line added (photo by George Marks | Getty Images)

The social responsibility of height is not just a numerical indicator. Height is also a concept of scale, meaning responsibility requires architects to understand a building’s height in relationship to its surroundings—whether to be complementary or intentional divisive. The early photo of New York City above displays a red line suggesting a consistent height the buildings, resulting in a cohesive scale and compatibility of neighbors.

“Supertalls,” red line added (photo from sinelab.com)

The above image depicts NYC today with a similar red line. Half a dozen projects, about 120 to 150 floors tall, counter the scale of the area. Called “Supertalls,” these skyscrapers south of Central Park—mostly residential units serving the super-affluent—pose the questions: Just because we can build this tall, should we? What is the responsibility towards the scale of the existing urban fabric?

101 California Street, San Francisco, California (left photo from 101california.com; right photo from socketsite.com)

The irresponsibility with optics is evident with the 48-floor office building at 101 California, San Francisco. For the design at the street level—though it is likely that the architect and structural engineer have completed a safe structure, the optics of the sliced bottom with slender columns leaves one to wonder. Is this the responsible and appropriate look for a city known for earthquakes? Does the design idea not remind one of a tree ready to fall?

left: buckinbillyray.com; middle: familyhandyman.com; right: outgress.com

There are many areas of social responsibility, from low-hanging fruit to visionary ambitions. Architects should not shirk the leverage they hold. With societal precedence having granted architects tremendous influence, let’s not let our creative thinking be impaired by ego and poor decision making.

EGO AND ARROGANCE

April 1, 2022

(photos left to right: Pyramid at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France, by Michael Fousert; Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, by Anthony Delanoix; Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York, by Dennis; Burg Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by Nick Fewings; all from Unsplash)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California.)

Architects design homes, schools, skyscrapers, entire cities. Who has given architects this role and influence in society, and what have we done with it? From the Pyramid at the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower , from the Guggenheim to the Burg Khalifa in Dubai—architect’s egos are stamped all over cities, all over the world. Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, even has drawings to literally redesign Earth.

Me presenting, The Creative Process and The Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Elizabeth Staes)

Master builder, master designer, master creator—architects have been granted the responsibility to impact communities and cultural progress, through the flexing of creative muscles. The offering of world icons and or definitive works stems from both talent and skill, as well as confidence and ego. Consider Philip Johnson’s pithy quote.

But ego can lead to influence, influence to power, and power to arrogance. And arrogance can either drive a project into successful territory or regrettable disaster. For the latter, two projects come to mind.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, a hotly debated project known as Munger Hall has every architect, student, parent, and community member up in arms. For this proposed $1 billion, 1.7 million square foot, 11-story dormitory for 4,500 students, there has been a very little support. For the amateur architect and developer, Charlie Munger (billionaire and partner to Warren Buffet) and Southern California architect-of-record, VTBS (yes, B-S), the wrath bestowed on this project approved is universal. To sum it up, there has not been so much loathing in recent history. There are many reasons for the abhorrence, but the main objection is that 95% of the dorm rooms will have NO WINDOWS. No natural light. No fresh air. No view to the outside.

Munger Hall (drawings and rendering from VTBS), Charles Munger (photo by Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters)

The arrogance of Munger comes from believing that: 1) Fronting the construction cost gives him the unconditional ticket to design whatever he wants, and 2) he and VTBS are convinced that windowless dormitory rooms are not just acceptable, but a creative success, even a bragging right. And everything from science to history, and real life to design guidelines, have proven this idea to be horrific.

Consider the residential estate in Bel Air, California, simply called “The One.” The conceit within that title alone reeks of egotism. Here, this spec house, with an asking price of $500 million, includes 105,000-square-foot, 20 bedrooms with a 5000-square-foot master bedroom suite, 42 bathrooms, a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, 50-car garage, and four swimming pools—to name a few details.

“The One,” Bel Air, Los Angeles, California (photo by Michael Leonard, The Society Group)

Bel Air is a community of wealth, where some of the largest mansions have been built over the years. As seen above, the two circled homes are such mansions of prestige and wealth. And between them is the out-of-scale, gargantuan vanity of developer Nile Niami and architect Paul McClean. The cautionary tale? No one wants such a home. The property recently sold for only $141 million, which is a mere one-third of the asking price.

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (photo by Guy Dugas, Pixabay); Medici family (image from historyhit.com)

Historically, architects were given such power by an omnipotent clients such as the Medici’s, but in today’s culture of individualism and self-promotion, such projects as Munger Hall and The One are fueled by confidence and salesmanship, perhaps even narcissism.

Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices (photo from drtuesdaygjohnson.tumblr.com

Author Meryle Secrest wrote of Frank Lloyd Wright, “If he had intended to live out his life in the columns of newspapers, he could not have acted any more effectively. . . again and again, courting the press . . . Wright’s appetite for whatever might further his career was gargantuan.”

Accusations of megalomania have been projected onto Bjarke Ingels and his company, BIG, with 550 employees in offices in Copenhagen, New York, London, and Barcelona. Ingels himself counters the Miesian platitude, “Less is more,” and instead proclaims, “Yes is more.”

Bjarke Ingels (photo by Thomas Loff); Ingels sketching (photo from youtube.com); W57, New York, New York (photo from claudejobin.com)

Check yourself. When does confidence become righteousness, talent become ego, and prowess become arrogance? How does self-assurance and pride become condescension and smugness? Who shall “inherit the earth”?

BEETHOVEN’S TENTH: IN SEARCH OF PERFECTION

January 4, 2019

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy, by Michelangelo, 1512

If Ludwig van Beethoven (here, here and here) composed a tenth symphony, would he have changed the world? Nearly all classical aficionados agree that Beethoven’s Ninth, his last symphony, is a perfect work of music. My intent of a ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ is to ask this: What is beyond perfection?

What qualifies a creative work to be perfect? What defines a definitive work—a creation that ends the discussion, is agreed upon as the best, and even surpasses its own genre?

Beethoven 390, by Andy Warhol, 1987

The Ninth Symphony is not just music, just as Joyce’s Ulysses is not just a book, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel not just a painting, or Rodin’s The Thinker not just a sculpture.

Architecturally, there are projects throughout history that have become a definitive work of its building type. Here are just a few from each category.

upper left: Empire State Building, New York, New York (photo from chambershotel.com); upper right: Trans World Airlines Flight Center, New York, New York (photo from mimoa.eu); lower left: Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France (photo from blog.massengale.com); lower right: Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Olena Tur)

Skyscraper: Empire State Building, New York, New York, by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931

Airport: Trans World Airlines Flight Center, New York, New York, by Eero Saarinen, 1962

Chapel: Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier, 1955

Mausoleum: Taj Mahal, Agra, India, by Ustad Ahmad Lahauri and others, 1632

Temple: Pantheon, Rome, Italy, by Apollodorus of Damascus and others, 126 AD

House: Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

Concert hall: Sydney Opera House, Australia, Jorn Utzon, 1973

right: Pantheon, Rome, Italy (photo by Kim Mason); upper right: Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (photo from brandonarchitect.com); lower right: Sydney Opera House, Australia (photo from sydneyoperahouse.com)

These projects have evolved far beyond being a mere building. I am speaking of the monument. Similarly, Aretha Franklin’s Respect surpasses its label of pop song, to become a beloved anthem.

The judge of whether a work of art is a masterpiece or merely something wonderful (which is nothing to complain about) is time. The test of time proves that an idea, whether a building, a musical or a novel, will be more than something attractive or intriguing. Most great works, though accepted as incredible on day one, are rarely thought of as a perfect and ideal creative composition, until years, decades and even generations have honored it, as is the Bradbury Building. When completed, the Eiffel Tower was considered a disastrous work of architecture, protested by all to be demolished. Over time, it has become a world monument of beauty and grace.

Though beloved, this office buildings is not a work of art, Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco, California (photo by San Francisco Chronicle)

But works of excellence are not inherently perfect. We are all judges and we all have our opinions. San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid is considered by most observers to be the iconic San Francisco skyscraper, adored and honored by all. Yet, there isn’t a university architectural professor or notable architectural writer who will give this project any attention. They will claim such a skyscraper to be a trite design, pandering to the lowest common denominator.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, 1904, at the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia (photo from joyofmuseums.com)

In the world of perfect creations—imagination, dreams and visions collide to generate a sensation unlike any other heroic artistic effort. When is that gift of talent given to a mere artist that might align himself with the heavens and the angels? Beethoven, this furious artist only wrote nine symphonies. Nine, only nine.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF NEW IDEAS

July 20, 2018

1887 to 1889: Eiffel Tower under construction (photo from eiffeltowerguide.com)

When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, it was criticized as the ugliest work of architecture and a horrific nightmare for Paris. Even prior to the completion of Gustave Eiffel’s iconic project—politicians, intellectuals, architects, and citizens banded together condemning the design.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France (photo from yallabook.com)

Calling themselves the Artists against the Eiffel Tower, they proclaimed, “We . . . protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk . . . all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream . . . like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

These days, the beloved Eiffel Tower represents the pride of France, undisputed as one of the world’s most recognizable monuments, a marvel of engineering, and a landmark of architectural beauty.

Then a mere Yale undergraduate student, Maya Lin’s proposal was chosen from over 1,400 submissions. (photo from pdxmonthly.com)

One century later, the jury selected Maya Lin, only twenty-one years of age, as the winner of the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin’s design immediately sparked artistic debates and fueled controversy about her lack of talent, youth, ethnicity, and gender. Rather than the typical memorial of soldiers carved out of marble celebrating victory, Lin’s design was somber, morbid even. An ambitious concept of abstract art, the young designer envisioned a long wall of black granite cut into the ground—a wound in the earth expressing the thousands of lives lost in this war.

Despite many challenges and negativity, her design opened to the public with universal fanfare and tears of gratitude. Twenty-six years later, The American Institute of Architects placed Lin’s design on their list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.”

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. (photo by Terry Adams/National Park Service)

Architects often deal with clients and the general public who might not embrace our creative visions. At least not at first. I am aware that not every design idea of mine is great. But I grumble here, because most people fear the newness of new ideas. The narrow-minded, the NIMBY’s, those who fear progress, and those with no ambition or imagination—all such members of this righteous audience stand ready to say no. They embrace a naive motto: if it looks different, it must not be good.

Basilica of Saint Denis, France (photo by Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images)
The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China (photo by Songquan Deng / Shutterstock)

How do we explain to this kind of audience that we do know best? Regardless of an architect’s education and degrees, decades of apprenticeship and training, accolades and honors, media praise and client references, it doesn’t take much for a person to react to an architect’s presentation with, “No, nope, it’s not good.” Historically, this type of sentiment has been stated at the arrival of so many respected (later bestowed) works of architecture that has moved the needle of progress forward—from Gothic cathedrals to Chinese temples, from Frank Gehry’s masterpieces to heroic skyscrapers.

right: Flower Building, Prospect Place, London (rendering by Frank Gehry); left: 30 St. Mary Axe, London (photo by Creative Commons Attribution)

If you see a doctor and he says you have cancer, listen to the diagnosis and next steps. You are probably not smarter than your doctor. If you hire a lawyer, she probably has a better legal mind than you. Her experience has prepared her to be your best advocate. Pay attention.

Taegu Arena, Korea, by Anthony Poon (w/ NBBJ, photo by John Lodge)

If an architect proposes a new idea for a city park or a concert hall, an elementary school or a church—don’t have that knee jerk reaction, “I don’t get it. And I don’t like it.” Don’t be the establishment that proclaimed the Eiffel Tower as “monstrous, ghastly and hateful.” Keep an open mind to new ideas.

© Poon Design Inc.