1 s t A n n u a l
S l o u c h i n g T o w a r d s A l p h a v i l l e
A w a r d
ND THE WINNNER IS: the New York City Olympic Committee, NYC2012, for the NYC 2012 Olympic Village Plans. They get the inaugural award because when you look at the plans, it's as though Jane Jacobs never lived in New York, or as if the last fifty years never happened or as if New Yorkers had never seen a real city. That New York our most urban cityshould be the one to promote the retrograde, anti-urban Olympic Village plans shows how much we're in the thrall of The Wow Moment at the start of the 21st Century.
The Wow Moment is the new name for what until recently was called "A Bilbao." It's the idea that the way to prime the pump of economic development is to hire a Starchitect. Let's ignore the fact that the architect of Bilbao is 75 years old and has only come up with one Bilbao (No, Disney Hall is not another.) And that no other city or Starchitect combination has come up with one either.
After the first round of plans for Ground Zero, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the New York Times, its esteemed [sic] architecture critic, the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (and its propaganda wing, New York New Visions) started aggressively promoting the idea that the hand-picked Starchitects in the second round would come up with exciting, unprecedented ideas that would solve all the problems of the first round and startle the public with their brilliance.
The reality was that the plans were met with a resounding silence. "Huh?" people seemd to be saying. "Is that what all the excitement was about?" There is no evidence that Libeskind's winning plan, or any of the plans, were popular.
The Olympic Village plans are the same but more so. All of the plans show the current architectural fashion for urban design that forgets everything Jane Jacobs taught us about "urban removal" in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. We are right back to where we were when Starchitects like Jim Stirling were building award-winning housing projects in Britain and America which became such behavioral sinkholes that they were dynamited within a few years of their construction.
In St. Louis, we had award-winning Pruitt-Igoe. In Britain, the housing authorities had so many complaints about Stirling's design that until they dynamited it, they used the housing like solitary confinement for their worst tenants.
Early Modernists had the virtue of ignorance and good intentions on their side. Not being able to build their designs for the middle class, they thought they would improve the lives of the poor by bringing Modernism to them. In retrospect, we can see this was experimenting on the the poor, not completely different than the the Russian radiation studies carried out on unsuspecting victims, or the American militarys secret program of giving LSD to enlisted men to see what happened. Modernist theories of architecture and urbanism were equally untested.
Today, after Pruitt-Igoe and Jane Jacobs, architects can't pretend to have the virtuous ideals of the early Modernists. They know what urban and social disasters these Megastructure and Towers in the Park schemes were but build the inhuman, alienating spaces in the name of art. For slide shows of all the schemes, click here
Notes for the Young: Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the title of a 1968 collection of essays by Joan Didion. The title refers to the last line of The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
Alphaville is the title of a 1965 movie by Jean Luc Godard, as well as the name of the setting for his horrific view of the future. Filmed in the contemporary Modernism of the Parisian banlieues, which are used to evoke the sterile, technological life of the future, Alphaville is almost indistinguishable from some of the Olympic Village views. Criterion has recently released a remastered DVD.
Criterion has also released a remastered DVD of Mon Oncle, another French film for its critique of Modern architecture. But on rewatching Mon Oncle, one finds it is a critique of Modernist architecture and urbanism. In the film, as in traditional urbanism, the city is more important than the building.