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Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent,” wrote EF Schumacher in 1973, “but it takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”
His book was titled Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Hugely influential, it chimed with an impending sense of doom, of mankind sowing the seeds of its own destruction with nuclear proliferation, pollution, overpopulation and economic stagnation.
The same era in film was peppered with paranoia. In The Conversation, The Parallax View, Klute, Chinatown, The China Syndrome and The Stepford Wives, conspiracy and suspicion of cover-ups and sinister global corporations were the backbone of a society recovering from counter-cultural dropout and the end of the postwar consumer boom. Small seemed to be an antidote to the military-industrial complex.
New York’s Twin Towers opened at this time in 1973; huge, dumb towers rearing their slightly sinister mass over the delicate, filigree skyscrapers of the old city. They embodied the idea that big was beautiful but they heralded the economic collapse of the city and its descent into violence, vandalism and decay.
They became a symbol of big business crushing the old world of tight streets and close communities. The area had been Radio Row, the city’s centre of electrical repair shops with family businesses making good and recycling, the epitome of Schumacher’s miniaturised economy. Now they were replaced by fiercely windy plazas and placeless subterranean shopping arcades.
In the wake of 9/11, the era of suspicion and conspiracy theory returned, amplified by recent revelations of data harvesting on a huge scale by the US National Security Agency. The reaction to the 2008 financial crash, the occupation of Zuccotti Park, around the corner from Ground Zero, of St Paul’s Churchyard in London and of Madrid’s squares seemed to indicate a desire for a return to localism and human values.
Yet, even in the midst of the crises, it was size that prevailed. The Freedom Tower, now known as One World Trade Center, continued to rise on its fortified concrete base. Dubai’s bubble may have burst, leaving the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, looking like an empty gesture, yet size remained the criterion for skylines.
The last few remains of Mecca’s old city are being crushed by a spurt of tower building to accommodate the pilgrims of the Hajj, and the foundations are being constructed for Saudi Arabia’s mile-high Kingdom Tower (since demoted to kilometre-high tower as the bedrock proved too weak to support a mile).
Even London, with its Roman and medieval street plan, has fallen victim to gigantism. For decades the city’s low, grey sky was punctured only by a few stray towers; now the City bristles with huge skyscrapers. The Shard became western Europe’s tallest tower while the Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and the others are dwarfing the once dominant Gherkin and Tower 42.
But all this is nothing compared with China, where every new city, every former fishing town, seeks to mark itself with towers and a skyline to compete with New York or Hong Kong. Cities that were barely on the map a decade ago now contain the population of London and are building five-runway airports. Scale is the language of the emerging city and it consequently becomes the language of the established cities that are trying to keep pace with the upstarts.
The best analysis of the phenomenon of “Bigness” was delivered by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect, in an essay of that name of 1994. In it he explains how the technological advances of the past century, the lifts and escalators, air-conditioning, steel structures and services, allowed a new condition for architecture in which the exterior of a building no longer needed – or indeed was able – to bear any relation to its contents.
This condition, which he termed “Bigness”, has become the default mode of contemporary construction. The airports and malls, big box retail sheds, battery farms and agri-sheds, distribution centres and supertall-skyscrapers form our contemporary environment. Architecture becomes infrastructure.
Koolhaas, arguably the most acute commentator on the contemporary city, takes a position on both sides of the fence, simultaneously critical of and engaged with the new paradigm. A decade ago he published an essay entitled Kill the Skyscraper. “The skyscraper,” he wrote, “has become less interesting in inverse proportion to its success. It has not been refined but corrupted ... negated by repetitive banality.”
Accepting an award from the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in November last year for Skyscraper of the Year, Koolhaas said: “The fact that I am standing on this stage now, in this position, meant that my declaration of war went completely unnoted, and that my campaign was completely unsuccessful.”
He won the award for the headquarters of Chinese State TV, CCTV, a looped and twisted monument which looms portentously over Beijing’s skyline. It is structurally brilliant and aesthetically ominous, a building that seems to express something of the sheer power of the state, its crushing domination of the media as well as a faith in modernity.
Koolhaas’s vast De Rotterdam complex, which looks like a cluster of skyscrapers bonded together into a huge glass and steel slab, illustrates his continuing mission to find alternatives for the tower. However, the message is clear: less might still be more, but bigger is better.