Child’s Play Buildings

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When SANAA’s New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York was completed last year, it caused a sensation. The building’s distinctive feature, its askew stack of white boxes, was not an isolated phenomenon, as Witold Rybczynski points out. He calls the new vogue for buildings made up of haphazardly stacked boxes the “Jenga effect” after the Hasbro game. These buildings all violate the ancient tenet that buildings should appear solid and rooted in the earth. They should assure us that they’re not going to fall down on our heads.

“The fashion for stacked buildings might be an architectural metaphor for our shaky times,” Rybczynski says, “but it comes across as an unconvincing and unarchitectural one-liner.” The “granddaddy of real stacked buildings,” Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, was designed specifically to maximize the views from each residential unit. As a result, the building has proved to be an “exceptionally popular place to live.” Rybczynski is dubious about Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s 56 Leonard St. building (above) because it soars 57 stories above Tribeca. To my mind the building most closely captures the dynamic arrangement of Habitat 67, but I have to agree with Rybczynski that 57 stories seems excessive.

Le Corbusier once dismissed Manhattan’s skyscrapers as “child’s play.” They were immature, the “adolescents of the machine age.” The same thing could be said for the stacked buildings. One could argue in their defense that they deconstruct the idea of the tower as a mere container for business operations. However, the stacked buildings have no internal necessity determining their form. For all their playfulness, they don’t interact with any buildings around them. Nothing holds them together except conventional internal skeletons. They don’t create new spaces. While some of them are intriguing to look at, like the New Museum, it’s hard to argue that they represent much of a step forward. They’re not always even designed primarily to be functional spaces so much as the starting point for web-based marketing materials.

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