CITYSPACE: LANDMARKS, PINNACLES, PASSAGES
The CN Tower got leap-frogged, the Royal Ontario Museum got crystallized, Vancouver got a little more playful, and some architectural masters were lost forever
LISA ROCHON Saturday, December 29 2007
On Sept. 12, 2007, the Burj Dubai surpassed the CN Tower as the world's tallest free-standing structure. This, in the middle of the Arabian Desert, in the new, illusionary city called Dubai, United Arab Emirates. At the time of this writing, the Burj Dubai had reached a height of 598.5 metres (1,964 feet), with 158 completed floors and the promise of many more to come. That's one way to think about architecture in 2007: that it's becoming hyper iconic and super tall.
Architecture in Canada works on a smaller scale, with the potential to send significant ripples out into the community. Architects in this country have produced affordable housing that is being blended intelligently into the historic fabric and into the collective memory of the public. A church becomes a community centre to anchor an elegant housing complex by ABCP Architecture et Urbanisme for senior citizens in Montreal. In Toronto, garden roofs are being designed to feed the poor: Urban agriculture enhances the city.
With the emergence of public-private partnerships (P3s), the healing potential of hospital design has come under threat. And judging from the e-mails following my article on hospital design and Moshe Safdie's decision to resign from a commission master-planning the McGill University Health Centre, the public is outraged by the government's capitulation to developer interests.
In 2007, architects are expected to work within a strangely polarized world. True, the public understands the power of architecture. Political leaders understand that architecture - unleashed - can give even a steel city or coal-mining town a chance at reinvention. And, with Brad Pitt as chair of your jury, it's possible to watch an eco-housing development in New Orleans be designed, constructed and opened to the public, two years after Hurricane Katrina.
But otherwise, the news is not so good. Governments, private citizens and developers mistreat the profession of architecture, forcing impossible amounts of work for little pay, endorsing formulas over innovation. In 2007, architects have never been as celebrated, never as generally misunderstood.
Best New Incomplete Building: The Art Gallery of Ontario by Frank Gehry
The Art Gallery of Ontario, designed by hometown boy Frank Gehry, isn't slated to open until next winter, but already it looks to be a winner. Thank goodness. Otherwise, it would have been a rather sad homecoming parade for the Los Angeles-based Gehry who has, until now, never built anything in Canada. Though this is hardly the site for another Bilbao - and who would want another repeat when the swirling forms are being cut-and-pasted around the world - Gehry's reinvention of the AGO is triumphant, exhilarating and warm to the touch.
There are death-defying spiral staircases on the back side of the building, and one that plunges into the historic Walker Court. At the front of the gallery, a glass sculpture gallery extends a full city block along Dundas Street. What might have added up to something heavy and monotonous has been saved by the interruption of curved timber columns.
Inside, every attempt has been made to honour craft and materiality. Expect not only masterpieces from the Thomson art collection, and naturally lit contemporary galleries, but also oak flooring, Douglas fir panels, stone, and custom-designed display cases. All of this sensitively sashayed into a downtown Victorian neighbourhood, another reason pre- and post-Gehry to admire what matters in Toronto.
Building Most Likely to Come Down in the Next 20 Years: Daniel Libeskind's Royal Ontario Museum makeover
The Royal Ontario Museum redevelopment by Daniel Libeskind is an architectural trope designed to excite us with the violence it does to the street. It opened, 18 months behind schedule, in June. Had it been imagined for a Holocaust museum (as in Libeskind's astounding Jewish Museum Berlin), the jagged, angry outburst might have made perfect sense. But given that the ROM is beloved for its collection of gems, dinosaurs and art-deco furniture - and other bits and pieces that point to the remarkable unfolding of civilization - the outburst seems as overworked as a teenager baring all on Facebook.
Still, the ROM Renaissance project might have worked its way into our consciousness and, ultimately, been forgiven as a stylistic moment in time. But with its dreary, badly lit lobby and not-so-dramatic exhibition spaces, it's the product of a design firm more interested in marketing its own rhetoric than refining design drawings.
Put the ROM down as a $240-million constructed indulgence of a silver-tongued architect at a particularly rich time in Toronto. Then watch for the wobbly drywall and clangy metal-grate flooring to be ripped from the complicated steel structure. In its place, within the original, welcoming courtyard of the ROM, a garden for the next Babylon could flourish. How's that for rich rhetorical effect?
Best Development Deal: The Jean Nouvel-designed tower on land sold off by the Museum of Modern Art
During the latest redevelopment of the Museum of Modern Art by the sublime minimalist Yoshio Taniguchi, several neighbouring parcels of land became available. Museum trustees urged Glenn Lowry, the MoMA's director, to buy the land. "I put together a war chest," Lowry told me in a recent interview, "with an assembly I imagined would take over 15 years, but which, in fact, we ended up getting very quickly." The museum paid "a relatively modest amount - we got very lucky," said Lowry.
And, as MoMA is not in the development business, it sold a prime piece of adjacent land to the Heinz real-estate-development firm. Last month, Heinz announced the appointment of French architect Jean Nouvel - maker of magnetic architecture - to design a 75-storey tower between 53rd and 54th streets just west of the MoMA. Besides a 50,000-square-foot expansion of MoMA's galleries (levels two, four and five), the Nouvel tower will embrace a 100-room, seven-star hotel (isn't that illegal?) and 120 highest-end residential condominiums on the upper floors.
The project will likely commence presales in late 2008. More construction in the neighbourhood is hardly desirable. But the Nouvel building brings an extra level of je ne sais quoi to the chic enclave where some 2.5 million people flock each year to get inside the museum. Besides that, the land sale to Heinz allows the MoMA endowment to grow to $800-million (U.S.). Now that's one way to make private developers work for their profits.
Most Picturesque City Still in Search of Architecture: Vancouver
Vancouver's chief urban planner, Larry Beasley, has resigned as uber-playmaker to become one of the principal eco-advisors to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, a 38-year-old planner from Calgary, Brent Toderian, has taken up the challenge of creating a 21st-century city of sustainability in Vancouver - a laudable mission, especially if the city can also solve the problem of its crack heads and heroin addicts.
The sad reality is that visionary architecture has been largely value-engineered out of the Olympic venues, though the athletes' village in False Creek holds some promise as a model sustainable community. For inspired architecture, look to a series of community centres spearheaded by Vancouver's Parks Board. Architects commissioned to bring new life to the play houses of the community include Gregory Henriquez, Peter Busby, Walter Francl, Arthur Erickson and Nick Milkovich, Roger Hughes and Darryl Condon.
The Sunset Community Centre, at Main and 52nd streets, is a visually charged facility designed by local hero and international designer, Bing Thom. At $12-million, its budget may be small but its impact large. The venue is set within a series of gentle knolls created by the excavation of the site. The roof resembles the petals of a flower when viewed from the air. Experienced on the ground, there is a light-filled gymnasium, youth room, fitness centre and preschool, all designed with geothermal heating and cooling, radiant floor systems and high-efficiency glazing, allowing it to qualify for a LEED Gold environmental rating.
On Mortality: Kisho Kurokawa, Herbert Muschamp and Macy DuBois
We lost Kisho Kurokawa on Oct. 12. Kurokawa was one of those sages fuelled by the energy of an ageless, vibrant mind. A famous Japanese architect, dreamer, failed politician and tireless self-promoter, he handed me three of his monographs during an interview several years ago in Toronto.
His Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo (1972) expressed a commercial and residential building as a series of stacked "capsules" that could be inhabited in singles or multiples to suit the needs of the occupants. The highly flexible structure was made of prefabricated pods that could be clipped into the main tower; it best exemplified the Metabolist movement that Kurokawa founded with Arata Isozaki. That the tower was constructed with asbestos has apparently doomed it to the wrecker's ball.
Kurokawa designed irreverent gestures: glorious stadiums and an exhibition hall for the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum as a perfect, steel-clad oval. During a visit to Malaysia this September, I flew into the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (1998), designed as a hyperbolic paraboloid-shell pavilion supported by mushroom-shaped columns. A rain forest was captured at the heart of one of its satellites. Most airports are deliberate acts of sterility, but this one, though it is one of the world's transportation giants, re-energized this tired traveller with evidence of nature and the human hand. I knew this must have been the work of Kurokawa. One month later, his heart stopped.
Herbert Muschamp died, too, on Oct. 3. At 59, his brilliance was extinguished too early. Muschamp was the architecture critic for The New York Times from 1992 to 2004. He penned reviews with the passion of a Robespierre calling people to go to the front lines and do battle in the name of the city. He demanded iconic architecture: the swirling, provocative forms to rise at the front of the metropolis.
To that end, Muschamp trumpeted endlessly the powerful gestures of his favourite designers: Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Greg Lynn. These names appeared with increasing regularity in his columns and though that became predictable, his roiling, philosophical mind made him one of the few critics worth clipping.
Closer to home, the Toronto architect, Macy DuBois, is also gone - although the bravery of his Ontario pavilion at Expo '67 will live on.
And Apparent Immortality: Oscar Niemeyer
For his 100th birthday this year, Oscar Niemeyer, the legendary Brazilian architect, turned up at his office to sketch, smoke cigars, visit with family, and enjoy a leisurely lunch. For more than half a century, he has defied the hard lines and slab towers of modern architecture, to create sculptural, iconic buildings.
For his own house outside Rio de Janeiro (1953), he designed walls of serpentine glass and curved wooden enclaves protected by a giant floating roof. As architect of the main state institutions for the new city of Brasilia, Niemeyer conjured a complex defined by pure platonic forms at the Plaza of the Three Powers (1958). His latest building, the Teatro Popular, is a sexy wisp of a thing rendered - remarkably - in concrete. It opened this year across the bay from Rio in the city of Niteroi as part of an eight-building cultural complex that spans Niemeyer Way.
Women have always inspired the titan of the curve. He once received Frank Gehry into his studio and, during their visit, revealed a desk covered with pictures of topless women sunbathing on the beaches of Rio. Last year, Niemeyer married Vera, his long-term assistant, who is 38 years his junior.