Tag Archives: EMPIRE STATE BUILDING

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 Betsy Staes)

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.

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.

© Poon Design Inc.