In-Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture

pruitt-igoe

Towering Inferno (1974) 165 minutes

The story goes like this: Paul Newman plays the architect who builds the World’s tallest skyscraper only to see it completely engulfed in flames on the building’s opening night party. Of course, the fire was due to cost-cutting wiring by a dishonest electrical contractor, and the architect spends the rest of the film with the fire chief, Steve McQueen, rescuing the occupants of the burning building. It seems funny that an architect with a hubris large enough to attempt to build the world’s largest skyscraper in the earthquake-prone Bay Area would escape blame, but I guess architects have enough public good will so that the electrician gets the blame. The idea of a world’s tallest whatever has seemingly been a bottomless source of inspiration for architects since the Tower of Babel; it immediately calls to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile High Building, Mies van der Rohe’s Crystal Towers, and Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center. The World Trade Center was the tallest building at the time it was completed, only to be surpassed by SOM’s Sears Tower (1974), later Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers (1998), and most recently Taipei 101 (2004). Of course, in Dubai, SOM is building a skyscraper that will top even that (its exact height at the date of completion in 20?? remains a secret) with promotional brochures indicating that it will be expandable, so that it will always remain “the world’s tallest.” Yippitty-do-da. Only in Dubai.

It may be interesting to note that Towering Inferno the movie was released almost at the same time as when Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center towers in Manhattan opened. Mr. Yamasaki seems to have had some extremely bad luck with architecture: he was the architect of both Pruitt-Igoe, the housing project in St. Louis that supposedly killed Modernism (see Charles Jencks) and began Post-Modernism, and the World Trade Center, the urban skyscraper whose destruction supposedly killed irony and ushered in the Age of Terror. I don’t know if that much can be attributed to either of those specific events, and it would certainly make Mr. Yamasaki (an alum of the University of Washington and New York University) something of an architectural anti-Christ. But just for poignancy’s sake below I’m showing two images: one of how Yamasaki imagined Pruitt-Igoe and one of how it looked before it was demolished. And If you Google “towering inferno,” two sets of images come up: those of this movie, and those of the 9/11 attacks.

(originally written 10/30/2006:)

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3 Responses to “In-Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture”

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