Archive for the ‘architecture’ tag
The first time I came to Baghdad was last April, a few days after most of the city fell to U.S. troops. I drove in at night, down a road still heavy with gunfights. It was scary but bearable—until I had to stop my car (there was barbed wire across the road) and in dim light saw those giant crossed swords held up by massive reproductions of Saddam’s hands. Then I was really scared. There was something about that massive self-obsessed testament of personal power that made the whole city feel alive with terror. For the next few days I saw such signs everywhere. Saddam’s portraits were still hanging, a few on every block. His other great monuments—the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the many palaces, the huge ministry buildings—grabbed all visual attention. The new U.S. military encampments—small, ad hoc, functional, uninspiring—couldn’t compete at all. Baghdad felt exactly like what it was: a city that had belonged to one man and had been violently wrenched away. It was a place whose aesthetic—dictatorial solipsism—had been somewhat dismantled but not replaced with anything new.
For some people the worst possible caricature of American architecture came to life at UCLA a few months ago, when a dozen leading architects spoke at a student event called “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.” The stage had the usual two long tables forming a V, with a seat and microphone for each speaker. Strangely the V bent away from the audience and the architects sat with their backs to the crowd, talking to one another as if nobody else was present. There was a lengthy discourse about the importance of deconstructing the path of travel through an art exhibition. For a long time a photo of several clean Dutch children dyeing Easter eggs was used to make a point about the faces of morphing “manimals” and their essential relevance to structure. Most of the work discussed was paper architecture that would never be built; only other architects would ever see it—or understand it. In other words, it was just one more day in the life of progressive architecture.
After an hour or so the oldest architect there, 58-year-old Thom Mayne, was asked to speak. He did something surprising: he turned around, faced the audience, and talked about his feelings and what he was hoping to accomplish in clear language easily understood by the uninitiated. Mayne spoke about built work—buildings he designed that had actually been constructed and exist in the world. He described the Diamond Ranch High School, completed in 1999, which he says moved him from being a paper architect to someone whose ideas and designs interact with the world outside progressive architecture. And, he said, the experience changed his life: “I was over 50 years old and this was the first time I produced a piece of work that I could believe in. This was the first project where the aesthetic act and the social act were singular.”
Tim Macfarlane holds a thick book in his hand. “This has everything you need to build a building,” he says. “It tells you how to use steel, brick, timber, concrete. It has everything except for glass.” The book of standards he’s holding, found on every engineer’s shelf, explains how much weight a support material can carry. Without it, an engineer is blind, with no idea how to arrange things so a bridge, a building, or a house stays standing. With it, an engineer can build almost anything. Macfarlane dreams of the day when this book will contain one of the strongest, most versatile, most exciting materials known to man. He hopes that in the future every good engineer will be able to build with glass.
The 49-year-old Scottish structural engineer says we are just beginning to understand what glass can do. Macfarlane’s recent breakthroughs prove that architects and engineers can now create structures entirely of glass. There is no longer a need to have any other material holding a building up; he imagines suspension bridges held by glass chains, or a gigantic geodesic dome of pure glass surrounding a college campus or an entire city. “That’s just waiting to be done,” he says. “You could build all of Buckminster Fuller’s structures [out of glass].”