Sunday, October 30, 2005

Killing the Architect and Marrying the Building


Slate's Witold Rybczynski reviews Deyan Sudjic's book, The Edifice Complex, about the relationship between starchitects and the corporations that commission them to build sweet headquarters and project themselves as major corporate players:
The book is a catalog of well-known and obscure examples of how presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and despots, millionaires and mayors, have exploited architecture. Along the way Sudjic, a British architectural critic who writes for the Observer, takes on such examples of architectural self-promotion as American presidential libraries, Gianni Agnelli's art gallery (designed by Renzo Piano), and Rem Koolhaas' commission for Chinese state television. All underline the fact that, as the author observes, "Architecture defines a regime, but it is never the architect who frames the meaning of the definition."

But, Rybczynski points out, Sudjic misses out on "Parkinson's Law," which states that, when someone in a position of power builds an awesome structure as a self-tribute, it's an indication that that someone is on their way to a different position--prone:
St. Peter's in Rome was built by popes who were enmeshed in worldly affairs and had lost much of their moral authority; Louis XIV built his palace at Versailles several decades after his great military triumphs and at a time when his power was in decline; exactly one year after the Viceroy of India moved into his new imperial capital of New Delhi, the Indian Congress demanded independence. One can add more. When CBS built "Black Rock," its imposing black granite headquarters in Manhattan, Edward R. Murrow was gone and infotainment was just around the corner. Pan American Airways built its huge headquarters on Park Avenue long after it pioneered transoceanic air travel, but not so long before it ceased operations.

So, contrary to Sudjic's claim, the rich and powerful don't shape the world. They build what are, very often, glorious tombstones. Neither Microsoft nor Google has erected a "world-class" headquarters on Madison Avenue yet; when they do, watch out.

Link. This all makes me think of the direction Philadelphia is heading. As I walk through the streets of my fair city, my bosom has been known to swell with the pride of living here at a time with so much new skyscraper construction. The Cira Centre, pictured above, is West Philly's latest and first skyscraper and the home of the firm that may be my employer next summer and beyond. Lucky for them, Parkinson's Law doesn't apply: they didn't have the edifice built, but just moved there. Elsewhere in the city, Comcast is constructing a massive erection known as--dig this--the Comcast Center, which upon completion will be the tallest building in the state by thirty feet. If Rybczynski is right, this does not bode well for cable.

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Photo credits: Cira Centre # 18 by Many Cats 4 Me, acquired via Creative Commons license.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great example: Ceausescu's colossal "Victory of Socialism Centre" in Bucharest, Romania (which The Good Reverend and I toured this past summer). His grand design didn't work out quite as planned:

"Ceausescu tried to escape in 22-Dec-1989 using a [helicopter] that took off from the Royal Palace on actual Revolution Plaza crowded with [angry] Romanian Revolutionaries. Ceausescu was captured by the people and army forces and was executed on Christmas Day, 1989. At that time only the outside fa├žade and three interior rooms had been completed."

The palace was later completed to house the Romanian Parliament.

1:11 PM  

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