Bold buildings strike a hopeful note

Bold buildings strike a hopeful note

pathbreaking A rendering of Preston Scott Cohen’s Amir Building.

Preston Scott Cohen’s first major work, the Amir Building at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year.

The museum’s faceted surface is intended to express the strains inherent in the design, which required jamming big rectangular galleries onto a cramped triangular site. Halfway around the world Zaha Hadid’s opera house is scheduled to open in Guangzhou, China, in November. A matrix of flowing concrete forms, the building melts into its surroundings as if it were made of mercury.

And a three-hour flight away, in Beijing, the ribbon is finally scheduled to be cut on Rem Koolhaas’ colossal CCTV building – after years of delays that included a major fire – in time for the Chinese New Year in February. But it has already become one of the most potent symbols of a rising China, one whose message is more ambiguous, and nuanced, than it at first may seem. It may be the most important building of our young century.

What ends up being most striking about these projects, however, is not their aesthetic range but how oddly out of place the most euphoric of them feel in today’s world. The mood in architecture, especially American architecture, is generally down. The economy is still in a funk; there’s little new work.

Many architects who are at the top of the profession today – and who formed their ideals in response to the soulless functionalism of the postwar era – are now under attack themselves, mostly for focusing too much on aesthetic experimentation and not enough on the basic concerns of everyday life.

Meanwhile, two years after the financial meltdown, the big new government projects that architects once fantasised would result from stimulus spending – schools and bridges, public housing – have yet to materialise.

One promising sign that people are at least thinking about these issues is “Small Scale Big Change,” a show opening in October at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition looks at 11 architectural projects on five continents that have had a significant social influence on poor urban communities, despite their modest budgets.

A number of them – like the Museum of Struggle in South Africa by the architect Noero Wolff – offer thoughtful solutions to entrenched social problems within an aesthetically considered framework. But architecture, generally speaking, is in a slump worldwide, and no one knows for certain how or when it will emerge from its doldrums.

When it does, it is not likely to be in the United States, but in China, South America or the Middle East.

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