It gets harder and harder to say anything positive about lavish, gigantic, costly, vacant buildings. But leave it to the architectural press to find faint words of praise for Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing, SOM’s Burj Khalifa (minus the word Dubai) in Dubai, and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI building in Rome. Looking more and more like gigantic follies on a planet struggling to survive an economic and environmental crisis, these buildings were conceived during a decade of decadence and and unbridled consumption seen last only during the fall of the Roman Empire. Of the three multi-zillion square foot monstrosities, only the Holl building stands a chance of gaining tenants, at least when the Chinese figure out how to sell leases for spaces in locations so bizarre that most residents will never find them.
Each work, by a bona fide “starchitect,” is based on a conceit that is neither new nor timely, despite statements to the contrary. A veritable Tower of Babel, the Burj now stands over 2600 feet tall, 1000 taller than any other human-made object, amidst a desert city that may never recover from its glut of spending and borrowing during the past decade. Since its floors are too small to fit offices, the developer insists that the mega-rich will want to purchase luxury apartments on most of its 160 floors. So far demand has been, shall we say, tepid in a place that is usually very hot. Perhaps this ugly needle will herald the end of the skyscraper sweepstakes, a contest that reached its artistic apogee with the Chrysler Building almost a century ago.
Then there is the Hugh Ferris parody called “Linked Hybrid.” (Some of us remember Ferris as the visionary renderer who drew “streets in the air” during the 1920s in his Metropolis of Tomorrow–but recent critics don’t seem to recognize these precedents.) As if to remind us that the World Trade Center was a bad idea, Holl has given the world another building with a gridded, structural exoskeleton that purportedly provides miles of column-free space hundreds of feet above the ground. Actually there are interior columns, disguised as L-shaped walls, probably also built to enclose plumbing and HVAC chases. The concept of sky bridges hasn’t proved successful in cities like Minneapolis or Houston, where climate drives pedestrians indoors, so why does Holl insist that his 650-unit high rise will “have enough density to keep both loops active,” meaning the ground areas and the high wire swimming pool bridges. Yes, there is a swimming pool in one of the links–go figure. Should we be surprised that the developer has spent 12 months trying to sell just one merchant on the idea of renting space in one of the zooty sky bridges? Again, the future looks a lot like the Modernist past, repeating failed ideas in new packaging.
It’s even harder to take the MAXXI seriously, since even its architect can’t be bothered to justify its vacuous formalism. With only 13 buildings to her credit, Hadid is “the prophet of what has come to be known as digital architecture,” notes John Seabrook in a New Yorker profile. Though MAXXI is actually an acronym for the museum’s title in Italian (Museo delle Arte nello Siecolo XXI), it is hard not to consider it some kind of strange feminist pun invented by the iconoclastic architect. In the profile she comes off as a Hollywood prima donna obsessed with her appearance, clothes, eating, texting on her phone 24/7, and intent on shocking the public with both her buildings and her behavior. A cross between Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga, the Baghdad-born English architect continues to dazzle critics with her Futuristic, increasingly anti-functional designs. The capital F is for Futurism, the early 20th century Italian art movement that Hadid uses to fuel her imagination–her aesthetic is a rehash of the speed freak ideologies of a bygone age. In the MAXXI, the Italians got Futurism a century late, and still can’t quite understand it. No 21st century art hangs in the galleries, since there are no walls on which to hang paintings. No sculptures are there to compete with the concrete strands of “fettucine” that Hadid uses for structure. Videos and laser art won’t be noticed either, because the building is center stage. During the opening, the only art appeared to be the architect herself, who was dressed in a “short, diaphanous petrol-blue chiffon cape” and a “white-gold pendant that looked like a sommelier’s cup.” It is hard to imagine a more extreme example of the art museum as a monument to its architect–and this after Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim, and Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum with the same name, seemed to exhaust the genre.
The Emperor of Ice Cream is still creating castles out of thin air. When will we realize that the eye candy we’re eating is just dust?