Monday, August 23, 2004

For Banal Skyscrapers: Off With Their Heads!

Alan Riding in London:
… architects, along with urban planners and developers, have a unique responsibility. If you don't like a movie, you can walk out; if you don't like a song, you can change radio stations; if you dislike a painting, you can even turn it to the wall. But alone among artists, architects can impose their aesthetics on the public at large. And the public rarely has a say.

True, there are structures like the Eiffel Tower that at first seemed shocking and in time became icons. But even in Paris, a city that happily escaped wartime bombing and chaotic postwar rebuilding, the 1970s permitted construction of the 56-floor Tour Montparnasse, a banal monstrosity that towers over the Left Bank and has been detested since the day it was planned. And from the 1990s, Dominique Perrault's new French National Library is hardly more loved. …

Many countries routinely shield historic buildings from the scourge of philistine developers by listing them as part of their national heritage. But in Britain, where three grades of protection of buildings already exist, a fourth — more radical — category has now been proposed: Grade X to be attributed to buildings ... that deserve to be torn down. …

"I have been speaking out against landmarkism," [George Ferguson] said from Nîmes while admiring the Carré d'Art, a contemporary art museum designed by Norman Foster and situated beside a Roman monument. "I think we are being seduced by architectural photographs and architecture magazines. I believe in making places. Urban design and master planning, including scale, are more important than architecture. That's why I am studying places."

… to the old refrain that architects cannot bury their mistakes, Ferguson's Grade X rating offers an alternative. The Financial Times, for one, finds it appealing. "Down With Eyesores," it declared in an editorial endorsing the idea. And it added: "This will strike a chord wherever brutalist buildings erected in the last 50 years have ruined the character of great cities."

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