Friday, 23 January 2015

Roll over Bruno Taut

I never did understand the social implications of 'die Stadkrone', or 'City Crown' as a concept of urban planning put forward by German expressionist architects, and particularly championed by Bruno Taut in the early part of the 20th century.  As Wikipaedia helpfully summarizes: 'it was often conceived as an inspirational, crystalline form or something with a homogenous formal vocabulary in the centre of a town, with huge impressive scale, analogous to, but not necessarily Skyscrapers. The physical forms were notions of social restructuring with subordination of individuals to the collective good and sometimes ideas of a return to an agrarian existence'.

So I am suitably bemused by developments in the City of London. If a recent piece in Architizer is any guide, they are definitely on the way to realising Taut's vision .

Hidden in Plain View: Is This the World’s First Contextual Skyscraper? is actually a very readable article by anonymous author, The Angry Architect, discussing the proposed new addition to London's skyline.  To quote:

"The angular skyscraper — officially named after its address, 1 Undershaft — is intended to correlate closely with its surroundings, its form dictated by a careful analysis of adjacent masses to create a structure that combines maximum leasable floor space with the lowest possible visual impact. As low an impact as you can achieve with a 250-meter high building, at least…"
The images that accompanied the article draw on an 'enigmatic set of renderings' recently published in the Architects’ Journal.  Architect and academic Richard Weston – himself famous for virtuosity in glass, as well as a published entry in the Grand Egyptian Museum competition – describes it as a new genre of high-rise building: the "contextual tower."

It turns out, that the contextualism is mainly formal, with relatively simple parametrics allowing an angular crystalline form to be added and subtracted, such that there are explicit relationships established with the various existing and (to a lesser extent) planned nearby modest skyscrapers.  And with an obligatory nod to the formulaic 'views of St Paul's'.  If there is any other dimension to this contextualism, ironically it is 'social'; acknowledgement of the placeless dynamic of downtown office workers in the financial sector.

Most striking to me is the quote from the head of planning for London’s Square Mile for the past 30 years, Peter Rees. Rees has likened the City’s skyline to a mountain range, with the cluster’s ‘Everest’ intended to be the stalled 304-meter-high Pinnacle, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox.  I have to wonder whether he really meant the particular manifestation now emerging. As the Architizer article thoughtfully concludes:
"If this new typology proves successful, we could soon see a forest of contextual towers growing in the heart of metropolises across the globe. Some of the most famous skylines might begin to resemble curious crystalline formations, the antithesis of the novelty high-rise chaos planned for urban centers such as Daniel Libeskind’s Yongsan business district in Seoul.  Would such a turn of events be beneficial to your home city?"
It is a question worth pondering at many levels.

To me, the purely formal, the iconic in-your-face views of city skylines like Manhattan and Sydney are of intrinsic value.  But quite frankly no greater value than a truly spectacular, emergent crystalline assembly. I would almost argue that the latter is likely to be much more subtle and engaging, certainly more contemplative.
But this all hides a myriad of other considerations. What would it be like within the matrix of bewildering refractions and reflections, rather than viewing them from afar? What does it mean to be seduced into building the city almost exclusively from high-performance glass? Or has that question already been long superseded by the ubiquity of the curtain wall? Even if it has, are we truly in control of the amenity and environmental performance at city scale, rather than the individual building?
 I actually have no idea what are the answers. I only know that the discussion shows every sign of being hijacked at the very superficial aesthetic level.  If we are to have any chance at all of investigating all those other issues, we at least have to talk about them.

See the original article at

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