Who knew a year ago that we were nearing the end of one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history? What’s more, who would have predicted that this turnaround, brought about by the biggest economic crisis in a half-century, would be met in some corners with a guilty sense of relief?
Before the financial cataclysm, the profession seemed to be in the midst of a major renaissance. Architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, once deemed too radical for the mainstream, were celebrated as major cultural figures. And not just by high-minded cultural institutions; they were courted by developers who once scorned those talents as pretentious airheads.
Firms like Forest City Ratner and the Related Cos, which once worked exclusively with corporations that were more adept at handling big budgets than at architectural innovation, seized on these innovators as part of a shrewd business strategy. The architect’s prestige would not only win over discerning consumers but also persuade planning boards to accede to large-scale urban projects like, say, Gehry’s Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, New York.
But somewhere along the way that fantasy took a wrong turn. As commissions multiplied for luxury residential high-rises, high-end boutiques and corporate offices in cities like London, Tokyo and Dubai, more socially conscious projects rarely materialized. Public housing, a staple of 20th-century Modernism, was nowhere on the agenda. Nor were schools, hospitals or public infrastructure. Serious architecture was beginning to look like a service for the rich, like private jets and spa treatments.
Nowhere was that poisonous cocktail of vanity and self-delusion more visible than in Manhattan. Although some important cultural projects were commissioned, this era
will probably be remembered as much for its vulgarity as its ambition.
Every major architect in the world, it seemed, was designing an exclusive residential building here. With its elaborate faux-graffiti barrier, Herzog & de Meuron’s 40 Bond Street was among the most indulgent, but it had plenty of rivals, including projects by Daniel Libeskind, UNStudio, Koolhaas and Norman Foster.
Together these projects threatened to transform the city’s skyline into a tapestry of individual greed.
Now that high-end bubble has popped, and it is unlikely to return anytime soon. Jean Nouvel’s 75-story residential tower adjoining the Museum of Modern Art has been delayed indefinitely. And developers now seem loath to undertake similar projects. Even if the economy turns around, the public’s tolerance for outsize architectural statements that serve the rich and self-absorbed has already been pretty much exhausted.
This is not all good news. A lot of wonderful architecture is being thrown out with the bad. Although most of Nouvel’s MoMA tower would have been devoted to luxury apartments, for instance, it would have allowed the museum next door to expand its gallery space significantly. It would also have been one of the most spectacular additions to the Manhattan skyline since the Chrysler Building.
And it would be a shame if the recession derailed promising cultural projects like Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art in the meatpacking district or Foster’s interior renovation of the Beaux-Arts New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.