Cities are Hard to See Through the Skycrapers

Un dels aventatges que les ciutats europees tenen respecte de les asiàtiques i les americanes és la personalitat que els dóna la història. A Londres-París-Barcelona parlo de la profunditat que la continuïtat i la personalitat donen al poder, i també de com algunes societats es venen el passat quan ja no tenen força per treure’n un profit creatiu. Europa té història, però l’economia dels seus països rics s’ha anat tornant dependent de les inversions urbanístiques generades pel capital provinent de països autoritaris. Això es nota en el paisatge urbà i és possible que cada vegada es noti més: “Potser el destí de les ciutats globals és assemblar-se totes a Hong Kong”, escric en el llibre. John Gapper ho explica en aquest article  a través d’un concepte que m’agrada molt: “Generic city”

Everywhere one ventures in cities, skyscrapers are being built or planned. Even Paris is getting one. The French capital last week backed plans for a 180-metre high triangular tower by Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland, its first in four decades.

There may never have been a better time to be an ambitious young architect. For an office skyscraper at the World Trade Center site in New York, James Murdoch, scion of the media dynasty, has just replaced a design by Britain’s venerable Lord Foster with a jazzier idea by Bjarke Ingels, the 40-year-old Danish architect.

There is plenty of work to go around for any global “starchitect” who can produce an iconic museum, office or residential tower from London to Chongqing. Mr Ingels is building a campus for Google with Thomas Heatherwick, the UK designer; Herzog & de Meuron are to remodel Chelsea’s football stadium; Rafael Viñoly is finishing an apartment block at 432 Park Avenue that is New York’s second-tallest building.

Every first-tier global city, and many a second and third-tier one in Asia, wants to put itself on the map with an iconic tower, or several. This creates plenty of strange shapes on the skyline — a firm of architects in Melbourne has just unveiled plans for an undulating 68-storey apartment and hotel block inspired by the fabric-clad dancers in a Beyoncé video.

Such expressions of architectural individuality have the paradoxical effect of making cities look more and more like each other. Once upon a time, Chicago and New York were skyscraper-villes, while European capitals such as Paris and London had muted streetscapes. Now, many are converging on what Rem Koolhaas, the avant-garde architect, dubbed “the generic city”.

This worries some designers. Moshe Safdie, the Israeli-American architect who has designed towers in cities including Chongqing, says some skyscrapers are “objectified, branded ego trips” that are more like giant sculptures than buildings forming parts of a public space. In Asia, “hundreds of towers are being built but you do not get a city from it, just individual pieces”.

The advantage is that the best new towers are superior to what came before — an era of second-rate modernism in which skyscrapers were designed by the large, anonymous architecture firms that still build most offices and infrastructure. The centres of many cities are stuffed with buildings designed mainly to hold bank trading floors.

The City of London’s skyline is sprouting unusual shapes, from Lord Rogers’ “Cheesegrater” Leadenhall Building to Mr Viñoly’s “Walkie Talkie” at 20 Fenchurch Street. But both beat the mundane blocks that dominate Canary Wharf and other financial hubs. The rapid expansion of global finance in the two decades up to 2008 created many boring monuments.

One symbol of changing times is Two World Trade Center, Mr Ingels’ design for 21st Century Fox and News Corp’s headquarters. Lord Foster’s tower, topped by diamond-shaped panes, was designed with banks in mind. Mr Ingels’ replacement is a stack of cubes mirroring Tribeca’s streets while offering a smooth face to the memorial site.

Media and technology companies — the city’s rising forces — are more imaginative clients than banks. They do not want a plain skyscraper but something smarter that they can show off. The pioneer of this trend in New York was Frank Gehry’s curvy IAC building, and Mr Ingels says such buildings “must accommodate diversity, so a single extruded form does not make the cut”.

Another set of demanding clients are high-end property developers, who can secure higher prices if an apartment block has been stamped by a “starchitect”. Mr Gehry and Mr Viñoly have designed such blocks in New York; while Herzog & de Meuron’s new Paris building, with its glass triangle echoing IM Pei’s Louvre pyramid, will hold office space and a hotel.

The proliferation of skyscrapers has its problems. One is that many are being built but only a small number by the most thoughtful architects. Many Asian and Middle Eastern cities are filling with what Mr Ingels calls “perfume bottle” designs — flamboyant towers intended to attract attention rather than to respond to the local setting.

Mr Koolhaas celebrated the notion of cities being “liberated from the captivity of identity”, but that looks better on paper than set in concrete. There used to be no difficulty in knowing whether you were in London or Paris, or which continent you were on, but many cities now resemble a mash-up between Hong Kong and Las Vegas.

The second problem is the one identified by Mr Safdie: that towers are individual sculptures rather than buildings that form part of a streetscape. The best-loved urban constructions are often terraces and rows of houses not single buildings.

This may be inevitable — attempts at central planning of cities in the 1960s and 1970s by razing streets and building towers mostly turned out to be a disaster. For better or worse, this is the era of individual patronage, of tenants commissioning their own fortresses.

Yet the best architecture is often the quietest, taking what is there and knitting it into a public space — from the High Line park in New York to the restoration of King’s Cross station in London. You would not notice either from a distance, but they matter.

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