Archive for the ‘Metropolis Magazine’ 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.”
Stand on any corner in Los Angeles and ask a few passersby about the Los Angeles River; you’ll learn a lot about the city. Most, like Cris Beam, will say, “River? There’s no L.A. River.” A handful, like architect Dean Larkin, know the river well. “It makes me sad,” he says. “Other cities and towns are built around these beautiful rivers. Our river is a concrete scar. I always thought the term river was loosely applied.”
A few like it for its perverse industrial nature. “I first realized the L.A. River was cool when I was a kid and the game show Truth or Consequences had a competition,” says television writer Alexa Junge. “A guy in a man-made boat had to get from some point in L.A. to the ocean via the river. Another guy got to go on a cruise from L.A. to San Diego. They would show the guy on the cruise with women in bikinis serving him grapes, and then they would show this other guy in a wagon in the concrete river.”
Since the city was settled in 1781-and it was settled there because of the waterway-the L.A. River has been treated worse than just about any natural landscape in the country. It has been water faucet, sewer, dumping ground, and gravel provider. As L.A. grew, the river outlived its usefulness, and its sporadic nature-dry for half the year and then sometimes flooding violently in the winter-became untenable. So its earthen bed was replaced with a 51-mile-long concrete flood channel hidden below a nearly constant maze of highway overpasses. The only people who seem to visit it these days are graffiti taggers and anyone who needs to get rid of a dead car, an old fridge, or a broken air conditioner.
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].”
Dale Quattrochi likes to tell people that parking lots wreak havoc on the weather. He points to the man-made stuff all around–asphalt, concrete, tar, metal–and explains that because of parking lots, streets, and sidewalks, because of the roofs of cars, buildings, and houses, because of all this dark stuff coating urban surfaces, cities are much hotter than they should be. These materials absorb the sun’s energy and concentrate its heat; above every city in the world rises an invisible plume of heat, an “urban heat island” several degrees hotter than the surrounding area. These higher temperatures devastate air quality. They provoke thunderstorms in clouds that would otherwise be placid. They make life less bearable and cost millions of dollars in electricity every year.
People have known about the heat island effect since an amateur climatologist named Luke Howard walked around London with a thermometer in 1818. Since then, scientists have found that cities are heated by a lot of very small things spread all over town. Of course, no one has been able to determine how much heat every object adds; such an undertaking would be impossible. But, according to Quattrochi, only a thorough analysis of an entire city can provide the kind of information that urban planners, architects, and others can use to cool cities off.