A Hole in the Ground

Recently the
architect Steven Holl was asked why so many large-scaled modernist architecture
projects were taking place in China and the Middle East. His reply was blunt:

In America, I could
never do work like I do here. We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they
want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to
make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make
everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.

Is forward-looking,
innovative architecture dead in the United States? Have developers become too
conservative, too bottom-line focused? Nicolai Ouroussoff reports
that "There is evidence that serious architecture is still being
made," but his examples are from projects in China (including Steven
Holl’s housing development in Beijing), the Middle East, and the east and west
American coasts.

Further inland, the
outlook isn’t so bright. Richard Nilsen looks
Phoenix and sees a skyline with all the design flair of a set of
ATMs. He blames what he calls rise of "corporate architecture" over
the last decade. The new downtown "buildings wear their duo-toned bands
the way a CEO wears his striped tie, as a sign of his fiscal dependability –
the equivalent of the Greek columns that banks used to brandish on their
facades: ‘You can trust us with your money.’" Nilsen allows that these
button-down towers are "tasteful," but they say nothing about Phoenix
except that it’s another sun-baked generic city with a business-friendly tax

Here in Chicago,
we’re enjoying a mini-renaissance of imaginative architecture, but the city
hasn’t produced a great major building in decades. The Chicago Spire promises
to be a great major building, but as Blair Kamin notes, it still has a long way
to go. Kamin convinced Zbigniew Bzdak, a Tribune photographer, to fly over the construction
site, which is currently just a big hole. The building is scheduled to start
climbing out of the hole by next summer, but the developer hasn’t hired a
contractor to build a superstructure. The local development and architecture
community has been skeptical of the project from the beginning, partly because
both the developer and the architect are foreign (Garrett Kelleher from Ireland
and Santiago Calatrava from Spain, respectively). Our giant piece of haute
couture architecture is an import, and no one here has much investment in its
completion. The building just seems to have landed here from some faraway land
with bigger dreams, and we’re not going to do anything except wait for it to
move on. Kamin zeros
on the problem with the Spire: "in this ever-shrinking world, where
dazzling images fly across the Web at breakneck speed, that the Spire
eventually will be built somewhere–in Shanghai or Dubai, if not in
Chicago." In China and the UAE, they may not always have impeccable taste,
but they still have nerve.



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