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The Insolence of Architecture

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Jumanah el-Heloueh/Reuters
Palm Jumeirah island, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008

1.

Rarely do architecture writers convey a sense of place with the observational acuity, physical immediacy, and (on occasion) moral outrage of the British journalist Rowan Moore. Since the turn of the millennium, Moore—a Cambridge University—trained architect and younger brother of Charles Moore, the newspaper and Spectator editor and Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biographer—has been the architecture correspondent for The Evening Standard, then the director of the London-based Architecture Foundation, and is now the architecture critic of The Observer. Michael Sorkin burned up the pages of New York’s Village Voice in the 1980s with his tirades against Philip Johnson, Paul Goldberger, and other voices of the architecture establishment. Since then no other newspaper architecture critic has been as sharp an assessor of the built environment as Moore and as rueful an evaluator of the ever-increasing commercialism and pointless exhibitionism that dominate contemporary construction.

Moore begins his lively, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking new book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, with a devastatingly funny if deeply disturbing set piece that finds him in a helicopter hovering over the architectural theme park that is Dubai, the oil-poor Arab emirate determined to use flamboyant urban development to “brand” itself as a desirable destination for investors and tourists, and thereby to become a global economic powerhouse on the order of Singapore. Although Moore invokes Francis Ford Coppola’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Apocalypse Now, his eye for the grotesque detail reminds me more of the opening of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Christ suspended from a chopper hovers over the Vatican, with arms outstretched in seeming benediction.

The aerial sortie Moore describes so vividly was part of a press trip held in October 2008 (a month after the international market meltdown) to celebrate the opening of Dubai’s $1.5 billion Atlantis Hotel, a promotional event that Moore says cost nearly $22 million, or almost $11,000 for each of the two thousand guests. Profligate though that may seem, I’d wager that at least as much was spent per person for Moore and me on the two occasions when our paths have crossed: first, on a jaunt in 2000 paid for by Santiago Calatrava to see his work in three European cities, and, nine years later, the Greek government’s weeklong extravaganza to mark the opening of Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum in Athens. The latter boondoggle was so lavish that some attendees later joked that following the ruinously expensive 2004 Athens Olympics, our blowout was what propelled Greece’s already shaky economy into the abyss.

Neither Moore nor I have any compunction about biting the hands that feed us, as his corrosive documentation of the Dubai bacchanal corroborates. In my case, I wrote a less-than-appreciative assessment of Calatrava after that otherwise enjoyable journey, which caused the chagrined architect to complain to the New York public relations firm that organized it. “We promised you articles,” the publicist coolly told the architect, “not raves.”

The need for architecture writers to see in person the buildings they write about adds a further degree of potential corruption to the architect/client/critic triad. As the budgets of print outlets have shriveled in recent years, subsidy for travel by the subjects of articles is increasingly hard for publications to resist. Some news organizations still strictly prohibit such freebies, but anecdotal evidence indicates that all manner of end runs are used to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Many journalists get to their destinations by any means possible.

Moore’s helicopter ride was laid on to give him and his fellow journalists an impressive view of one of Dubai’s more ambitious undertakings, Palm Jumeirah island, a development of expensive private houses erected on an artificial coastal land formation in the stylized shape of a palm tree, with water inlets forming the spaces between the sandy “fronds.” (This marvel of environmental madness was executed by Dutch land reclamation engineers experienced in building up the North Sea polders of the Low Countries.)

But as Moore points out—and as is true of all diagrammatic architecture, from Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s unexecuted House of Pleasure (a brothel with a floor plan shaped like a penis and testicles, proposed for his French ideal city of Chaux in the eighteenth century) to, closer to our own day, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C.—such graphic outlines may be clear on paper or from an overhead vantage point, but are hard to see when viewed head-on. In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality. As Moore writes:

The Palm, so impressive when seen on Google Earth, is more ordinary at ground level, where what you see are high walls and close-packed developments that block views of the water. Owners of homes on the fronds found that they faced not so much the sea, as a suburban cul-de-sac penetrated by a tongue of brine.

Moore describes even more unappetizing realities of this dysfunctional fantasyland:

What couldn’t be seen from the helicopter was the crisis in the drains. Dubai’s buildings emptied their sewage into septic tanks, whence they were taken to the Al-Aweer sewage works, on the road out towards the desert and Oman. The sewage works had not kept pace with the city’s growth, and a long line of tankers, some painted with flowers by their Indian drivers, stood for hours in the heavy heat as they waited their turn to offload….
Some drivers, tired of waiting, had taken to pouring their cargo at night into the rainwater drainage system, which discharged straight into the sea. The owner of a yacht club, finding that his business was affected by the sight and smell of brown stuff on the bright white boats, took photographs of the nocturnal dumpings and gave them to the press. The authorities responded, tackling the symptoms but not the cause, by introducing severe penalties for miscreant drivers.

Yet such treatment of migrant workers would scarcely surprise the vast foreign labor force recruited worldwide to construct and maintain the new architecture and infrastructure of Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates, under sometimes appalling and widely documented conditions tantamount to indentured servitude, if not de facto slavery. The preponderance of celebrated architects hired to work in the Gulf States for the “value-added” commercial cachet of their well-publicized names and Pritzker Prizes—including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel—has led to calls that these respected figures boycott commissions there until laborers’ working conditions, pay, and freedom of movement are markedly improved.

However, despite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a member of Gulf Labor, an advocacy group that is seeking to redress this region-wide injustice, earlier this year wrote a chilling New York Times Op-Ed piece.1 In it he quotes the Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, now being built for the 2022 World Cup. She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid has claimed. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

2.

In one of the most absorbing portions of Why We Build, Moore relates his complicated experiences with Hadid, not as a critic but as a patron, in his capacity as director, from 2002 to 2008, of the Architecture Foundation, which terms itself “a non-profit agency for contemporary architecture, urbanism and culture.” He clearly has a soft spot for the hard-hearted Hadid, and his forbearance seems all the more extraordinary in light of the low tolerance he displays elsewhere in this book for the games architects play.

Understandably—though in hindsight doubtless ill-advisedly—the Architecture Foundation felt it necessary to be housed not in the sort of recycled industrial building that has become standard for modern arts organizations around the world, but instead in a new structure created by an internationally recognized architect. Hadid’s having lost out on a remarkable series of unexecuted schemes in Britain was considered something of a national scandal by some. Thus she became an obvious choice for a group that wanted its headquarters to serve not just as an administrative base and exhibition center, but as a high-profile advertisement for its role as champion of advanced design.

Extraordinary hype has surrounded Hadid since the outset of her career. She leapt to international attention in 1983 with her competition-winning scheme for the Peak, a mixed-use private club and apartment development in Hong Kong that was never built. She presented this startlingly unconventional proposal, which looks like a random pile-up of angular glass shards, in a dramatic large-scale painting that resembled a Futurist composition but conveyed scant information about the project’s structure or function. This established the template for her subsequent work, in which, as one writer put it, all of her designs inevitably come to a point (a literal, if many times not an intelligible, one).

When she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, in 2004, Hadid had completed only five structures, by far the smallest number of any of the award’s recipients before or since (and in contradiction of the prior convention that candidates have at least ten finished buildings to their credit). Perhaps the Pritzker jury was swayed by the wildly excessive press coverage she attracted, none more so than Herbert Muschamp’s preposterous assertion, in a 2003 New York Times review of the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, that this poorly conceived and questionably executed structure “is the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.” (This must have come as a surprise to Muschamp’s good friend Frank Gehry, whose widely acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles opened that same year.)

Profiles of Hadid routinely cite her imperious behavior, which she seems to exhibit with particular satisfaction when writers are around. Several articles begin with her keeping the interviewer waiting an annoyingly long time; move on to the architect throwing a tantrum, often at the expense of some hapless underling, in full sight of her visitor; and include a litany of Hadid’s complaints about how she is misperceived, insisting that no one would call her a “diva” if she were a man.

Moore’s portrait of the lady begins with an amusing twist, told in tones that bring to mind Tom Wolfe in his New Journalism heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. Seated in Hadid’s London office, the critic learns of her impending arrival when a flunky arrives with the architect’s large designer handbag—“white and gold and tsarist, Fabergé in its intensity of ornament, but also futurist”—shortly before his subject emerges from “a pearly Chrysler Voyager. She has just been driven from her airy, all-white rooftop flat, two hundred yards away.”

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    Andrew Ross, “High Culture and Hard Labor,” The New York Times, March 28, 2014. 

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