Architecture: that human scale…

There is a story about a press conference with Minoru Yamasaki before construction on the World Trade Center began:

“Why did you scale down your design from 150 stories to 100, Mr. Yamasaki?”
“We wanted to keep the human scale.”

Uh, yeah, right!

What’s up with this building of the Chinese State TV headquarters now going up in Beijing?  It’s designed by Rem Koolhaas, shown here in a presentation drawing.  Is it a Moebius strip?  I can’t decide whether it’s some kind of wonderful or a vision from the hell of 1984.  I don’t like to pass judgments about buildings I’ve never seen, but this one does give me the creeps.  I can imagine the minions of the state propaganda apparatus having a fine old time inside trying to control the minds of the nation.  And they say it is the largest office building in the world next to the US Pentagon.  Talk about human scale…which is something that Koolhaas does talk about.

Architects are a funny bunch.  Creative, ego-centric, perhaps a bit megalomaniac when they turn their hands to urban planning and “urbanism” writ large.  After all, don’t they want to see their drawing board visions brought to life?  Not that they want to impose them…except for our own good…

Here’s a gallery of images of buildings that seem to lack that loving, human touch…starting with a photo of the CCTV in progress:

We’ve got the Chinese TV headquarters under construction, then two shots of the late, great twin towers.  I know it’s heresy to say this, but I think that they destroyed the skyline of Manhattan.  Quite honestly, I hated them and found them to be soulless, overpowering buildings set in a windy plaza above a depressing subterranean shopping mall.  Now I look down from my window and watch their successors take form.

Next up, Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris – knock down the buildings and set up rows of cruciform skyscrapers.  The street must die!  It’s so noisy, chaotic, and…lacking in ORDER!  (Jane Jacobs knew where he was coming from.)  Corbu’s vision was realized in part in NYC in Cooper Village and Stuyvesant town, two mega developments that provided a lot of low-cost living space to WWII veterans coming home.  The towers are dull, even ugly, and set in a rather boring and uninspired “park” setting which is, however, lovingly, even lushly tended.  A saving grace…Now the subsidies are gone and the apartment rents and prices are through the roof.

Some visionary stuff a la Francaise. Claude Ledoux’s spherical house, pure geometry, but not overly large.  Still, what’s the point of living in that other than to prove an artist’s point?  And the Great Arch of La Defense, located on the edge of Paris.  Another exercise in pure form – lovely isn’t it?  Nearby, the National Library, in the shape of an open book.  Nevermind that functionally it is a failure, i.e., it doesn’t store books very well.

Next up, two images of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, the capital of New York state.  “Empire State” is the nickname of  New York (thus the Empire State Building…) but it seems a bit ironic here.  A plaza in the capital of a state ruled by democracy, named “empire,” and in a style that would seem at home in an evil empire anywhere, cinematic, soviet, futuristic fascist, and the like.  It was built by Nelson Rockefeller, a man not known for his humility.  The huge reflecting pool on the left has a pavilion at the end that seems like an imperial Persian review stand on steroids.  And that weird floating thing on the right in the middle picture?  That’s a theater, not a cast-off from The Jetsons.  The last picture on the row, a shot of Brasilia, carries on the theme with a little more elegance.

Closing out, we have some fantastic visions – never built, of course, but today..? – by Etienne Boullee.  A pryamid a la modern, an enormous, cavernous, seemlingly infinite design for a national library, and a monument to Issac Newton.  The latter at least makes a nice match of over the top design with the size Newton’s ego, his subject, and his accomplishments as well.

 

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5 Responses to Architecture: that human scale…

  1. First, I love this blog.

    As far as buildings go—and the ones mentioned and shown here, I think the world would not be the same without them. The human touch is very present in such overwhelming architecture. Starting from the Pyramids of Giza to the WTC. These bold forms stick up from the earth and dominate the landscape. They represent solidity, endurance, chance, adventure, power and a desire to be the best. While not noble qualities in themselves, they nonetheless are on the human scale. Sometimes ugly and big and deformed and odd… but very human.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Scale is a question of relativity. These buildings are arguably soul less only because their shear size dwarfs any means of comparison to the human beings they serve. According to this entry in order for a building to retain its humanity it is to not exceed 10 stories. That is simply silly. The author also seems to have a problem with uniform stream lined shapes. Things don’t have to be rough or improvised in order to be imbued with a so called humanity. Plenty of things in nature are based on ideal shapes and solids, the most banal of all of course: the human skull. Perfectly spherical. Is that inhuman?

  3. lichanos says:

    Skulls are not spheres…no matter.

    Buildings over 10 stories are fine. I love the Empire State Bldg, the Chrysler Bldg, the Woolworth Bldg, to name a few old ones that are much taller than 10. Modern ones too.

    The examples here seem to deny human scale, to reject it, to want to crush it! Big is not bad, necessarily.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting and thoughtful posts on this blog. Appreciate this entry (as well as the one on Duchamp’s Given–which is initially how i landed here). If you’re talking about human scale in architecture, yes there is its physical size in relation to the greater landscape, as in…how well does it play with others on the playground…but there’s also the experience of actual human scale of the interior—how does it relate to the individual being in that space and what is that experience. I think Rem Koolhaas is very aware of the individual human experience and respecting the perceptual intelligence of the participants of his buildings, as well as asking important questions about architecture as space as well as objects in the larger playground of stuff.

  5. lichanos says:

    Anonymous –

    Yes, well, I’m always hesitant to make comments on building I haven’t actually visited! I hope I can see some of Koolhaas’ stuff soon.

    Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment!

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