Towers Will Change the Look of Two World Cities
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
The current mania for flamboyant skyscrapers has been a mixed blessing for architecture. While it has yielded a stunning outburst of creativity, it has also created an atmosphere in which novelty is often prized over innovation. At times it’s as if the architects were dog owners proudly parading their poodles in front of a frivolous audience.
This mad new world was much in evidence last week when planners announced the results of two major international competitions that included some of the world’s brightest architectural luminaries. In each case, a tower design will significantly alter the skyline of one of the world’s most beloved cities. But while the design for the Phare Tower in Paris is a work of sparkling originality that wrestles thoughtfully with the urban conflicts of the city’s postwar years, the other, the gargantuan City in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a bone-chilling expression of corporate ego run amok.
Together, they train a lens on the range of architectural approaches to a daunting problem: the clash between the classical city and the inflated scale of the new global economy. And they underscore the limits of the creative imagination when it is detached from historical memory.
Designed by Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles-based firm Morphosis, the Phare Tower will rise amid the office towers of La Défense, the western business district conceived in the late 1950s as a way of expanding the city while protecting its historic core from overdevelopment. Embedded in this maze of generic towers and blank plazas, the tower will overlook the hollow cube of the 1989 Grande Arche and the elegantly arched concrete roof of the 1958 C.N.I.T. conference center.
Given the array of talent involved in this competition, the results overall were surprisingly tame. The lipstick form and vertical gardens of a tower proposed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are virtually a cliché of contemporary architecture at this point. And while Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel made sincere efforts to address the nature of the site, both capped their towers with brutish geometric forms that feel strangely tacked on: in Mr. Koolhaas’s case, with four blocks that cantilever out from near the top of the tower, and in Mr. Nouvel’s with an upside down U-shaped mirrored form that suggests nothing so much as a gigantic magnet.
By comparison, Mr. Mayne dug deeper into the site’s convoluted history to create a building of hypnotic power. Viewed from central Paris, the building’s gauzy skin, draped tautly over the tower’s undulating form, will have the look of luxurious fabric. But as you draw closer, the forms will appear more muscular, with massive crisscrossing steel beams supporting a perforated metal surface.
The aura of the veil has a titillating vibe, but there is nothing superficial about this design. By drawing on what energy the site has — a tangle of roadways and underground trains — the tower transcends La Défense’s deadening urban reputation. Supported by a series of gargantuan steel legs evoking a tripod, the tower straddles the site, allowing pedestrian and train traffic to flow directly underneath. The skin lifts up to envelop a nearby plaza, linking it to an underground train station. Beneath this perforated metal skirt, gigantic escalators shoot up more than 100 feet to a lobby packed with restaurants and cafes.
The approach recalls the machine-age fascination with physical and social mobility that yielded masterpieces like the Gare de Lyon in Paris and Grand Central Terminal in New York. Pushing the idea further, Mr. Mayne rips the top off an existing plaza to reveal the trains and traffic passing underneath. As you ride up escalators linking the plaza to the lobby, seams open up in the building’s skin to create vertiginous views of both an underground world of shadowy figures and the monuments of the beloved city past the Arc de Triomphe to the east.
The notion of building as machine is tempered by the structure’s earnest environmental agenda. Double-layered skin on the south side of the building will deflect the harshest sunlight. On the north side, the surface peels apart to reveal transparent glass skin. The tower’s peak, conceived as an extension of the skin, seemingly fraying apart in the breeze, consists of a cluster of antennas and a wind farm that will generate electric power.
By embracing a populist lineage that stretches back through the Pompidou Center’s exoskeletal structure to the grand lobby of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, Mr. Mayne extracts unexpected beauty from this psychologically isolated site. In so doing, he redeems a scorned area of the city while forging one of the most powerful works Paris has seen in a generation.
If the Phare Tower demonstrates architecture’s potential as a civilizing tool, the design for the Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom matches Paris’s catastrophic 1972 Montparnasse Tower in its disdain for the architectural legacy of a world city.
The competition, won by the London office of RMJM, involved many of the same architects as the competition for the Phare Tower, from Mr. Koolhaas to Mr. Nouvel to Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron, but its obscene scale dwarfs that of the Paris site. Dominated by a lone 77-story tower, the project includes more than two million square feet of office space on a site at the edge of the Neva River overlooking the Baroque dome of Smolny Cathedral. Gazprom plans to triple the size of its development there in subsequent phases of construction.
RMJM’s design is conceived as a pentagon that twists as it rises, culminating in a point akin to a spire. A second skin is wrapped around this structure with the goal of giving it a sleeker, more organic appearance. The tower rests on a banal corporate winter-garden lobby covered by a rooftop garden that slopes down to meet the ground at each end, in an intended echo of the classical gardens of St. Petersburg.
The architects claim that the tower’s form echoes the glorious spires that puncture the city’s skyline; they compare the second skin to a fur coat that would create a buffer zone insulating the interior from the city’s harsh winters. No matter how they seek to mask it in metaphors, however, this is a conventional corporate tower of the sort that can be found in abundance in Dubai, Singapore and Beijing. The mixed metaphors are a painful trivialization of history — and a sorry attempt to hide uncomfortable realities behind postcard images and trite advertising.
But RMJM was not the only culprit in this regard. Mr. Nouvel submitted a design for a row of slender towers encased in a transparent glass shell — a skyline frozen in a block of ice. A proposal by Daniel Libeskind consists of two asymmetrical towers whose swooping golden forms join to form a so-called “welcoming gateway” for the city.
Mr. Koolhaas doesn’t pretend that such a mammoth project can relate to the classical city. Instead, he proposes to compete with it. Conceived as a cluster of towers of uneven heights, some of which seeming to hover above the ground, his project churns with all the desires and fears of the traditional city. Huge floor plates that connect the towers at midpoint are conceived as vast social mixing chambers packed with auditoriums, cinemas, restaurants and bars. A series of smaller office structures are scattered around the building like stacked ice cubes.
The design is derived from an unblinking analysis of St. Petersburg’s darker history — from the regimented architectural planning under Peter the Great, an expression of the barracks mentality of a despot, to the city’s relative detachment from Modernism after power shifted to Moscow during the Soviet era. Mr. Koolhaas’s blocky forms, for example, are an echo of Kasimir Malevich’s abstract urban visions for a revolutionary society. His stacked cubes, arranged in a neat grid at the center of the development and more haphazardly along its edges, nod to the Soviet-era housing slabs that flank the site to the north.
RMJM’s winning design bypasses that history in favor of the banal reductivism of the global marketplace. But not even Mr. Koolhaas’s critical eye could have overcome the profligacy of this project, whose scale and grandiosity Stalin might have appreciated.
If Paris is proof that it is still possible to build big buildings that enrich a city’s meaning, Gazprom may finally reveal the limits of colossalism.
A quick Google search will find pictures for the Gazprom proposal, which I prefer to the Mayne building (I really do not like any of his work, Toronto's included). Just my 2 cents.