Posts Tagged ‘som’

In-Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

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:)

pruitt-igoe-corridor-conceptioncommunal-space-p-i

Fortune Favors the Bold

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As the film notes get more and more recent (I wrote this almost three years ago), the less I feel like I have to apologize for them. However, one thing that still strikes me about this film is how disastrous the casting choice of Colin Farrell was for Alexander. I mean, look at this publicity photo.

alexander

Alexander (2004), 175 minutes

I’ve often wondered about the relationship between arrogance and architecture (the Ego and the Architect); to what degree is a certain amount of stubbornness and self-aggrandizement necessary to successfully maneuver the complicated and messy business of building buildings and winning clients? When does confidence become arrogance? At the root of all of this speculation is the simple question: how does the architect see himself in relation to others?

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the role of architect is most closely related to the role of the film director. Both films and buildings are dependant on business, yet strive for artistic ambitions. Architects and directors are responsible for the coordination of people in multifarious fields and trades in which they are not experts. They are servants to a client. And films and buildings are both huge financial risks. In each field, there are the safe bets; hiring Ron Howard to direct your film would be like hiring SOM. The populist Frank Gehry to Steven Spielberg; the quiet craftsmanship of Renzo Piano to Michael Mann; the hip Koolhaas to Quentin Tarantino.

It may be said that no director today is more often accused of arrogance, yet lauded as brilliant, than Oliver Stone. In that way, maybe Oliver Stone is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of film. Alexander was Stone’s biggest project up to that point. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it, “There comes the moment in the career of many directors when they are compelled to tell the story of a great man in whose life they seem to see a glimmer of their own image.”

Oliver Stone, a Yale graduate (he shared the New Haven campus with John Kerry and George W. Bush), came to film directing late in life, at the age of 29 after two tours of duty in Vietnam. In this way he is similar to many successful architects who came to the profession after first careers in other fields: Le Corbusier and James Stirling from painting, Rem Koolhaas from journalism, Rick Joy from music, Tadao Ando from boxing, etc. He then set up the most impressive cinematic resume of anybody working today, directing a series of cultural milestone films including Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, but also writing Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, and Evita. Like Wright, Stone is responsible for some of the most recognizable works of his generation.

But most of you may remember that Alexander was Oliver Stone’s biggest box office flop. It was critically reviled. That, in itself, is revealing of the nature of Oliver Stone. If the biggest artistic successes are necessarily the product of the biggest risks, and if an artist is risking anything valuable at all, shouldn’t his or her career be littered with the detritus of failed experiments? But we should be able to see within those works a great ambition, and learn from where and why they fell short. As the tired old adage goes, you learn more from failure than from success—our attitude towards those failures, and our resilience from the inevitable stings of critics (hello jury system), may define our ability to continue working towards our own risky goals. But arrogance will make us blind, and you may end up arguing that Alexander was a flop only because America is homophobic (as Oliver Stone did publicly for quite a while). Arrogance closes doors—to people, perception, and opportunities—and arguably opens none that wouldn’t be otherwise.

And will somebody stop giving Colin Farrell work? He has presided as the lead over the biggest disappointments of the past several years, taking the mojo out of some of the most talented directors working today (most recently Michael Mann in Miami Vice); he is like a director’s succubus.

(originally written 9/26/2006)