Apparently, not all Americans dislike this tower.
Towers to transform skylines of Paris and St. Petersburg
By Nicolai Ouroussoff / The New York Times
Published: December 3, 2006
The current mania for flamboyant skyscrapers has been a mixed blessing for architecture. While it has yielded a stunning outburst of creativity, it has also created an atmosphere in which novelty is often prized over innovation.
It is as if the architects were dog owners parading their poodles in front of a frivolous audience.
This mad new world was much in evidence last week when planners announced the results of two major international competitions that included some of the world's brightest architectural luminaries. In each case, a tower design will significantly alter the skyline of one of the world's most beloved cities.
But while the design for the Phare tower near Paris is a work of sparkling originality that wrestles thoughtfully with the urban conflicts of the city's postwar years, the other, the gargantuan Gazprom City in St. Petersburg, is an expression of soulless corporate ego inflated to the scale of the new global economy.
Together, they train a lens on the range of architectural approaches to a daunting problem: the clash between the classical city and a runaway global society. And they suggest how the architect's creative imagination is hobbled when it is detached from historical memory.
Designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, a firm based in Los Angeles, the Phare tower will rise amid the office towers of La Défense, the western business district that was conceived in the late 1950s as a way of expanding while protecting the historic center of Paris from overdevelopment. Embedded in this maze of generic towers and blank plazas, the tower will overlook the hollow cube of the 1989 Grande Arche and the elegantly arched concrete roof of Pier Luigi Nervi's 1958 CNIT center.
Given the array of talent involved in this competition, the results over all were surprisingly tame. The lipstick form and vertical gardens of a tower proposed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are virtually a cliché of contemporary architecture at this point. And while Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel made a sincere effort to address the nature of the site, both capped their towers with brutish geometric forms that simply feel tacked on.
By comparison, Mayne dug deeper into the site's convoluted history to create a building of hypnotic power. Viewed from central Paris, the building's weblike skin, draped tautly over the tower's undulating form, will have the gauzy look of fishnet stockings. But as you draw closer, the forms will appear more muscular, with massive crisscrossing steel beams supporting a perforated metal surface.
The aura of the veil has a titillating vibe, but there is nothing superficial about this design. Drawing on the energy of the site - a tangle of roadways and underground trains - the tower transforms La Défense. Supported by a series of gargantuan steel legs evoking a tripod, the tower straddles the site, allowing pedestrian and train traffic to flow directly underneath. The gauzy skin lifts up to envelop a nearby plaza, linking it to the CNIT center. Beneath this perforated metal skirt, gigantic escalators shoot up 10 stories to a lobby packed with restaurants and cafés.
The approach recalls the machine-age fascination with physical and social mobility that yielded masterpieces like the Gare de Lyon in Paris and Grand Central Terminal in New York. Pushing the idea further, Mayne rips the top off an existing plaza to reveal the trains and freeway passing underneath. As you ride up escalators linking the plaza to the lobby, seams open up in the building's skin, creating vertiginous views of an underground world of shadowy figures and the monuments of the beloved city past the Arc de Triomphe to the east.
The notion of building as machine is tempered by the structure's earnest environmental agenda. Double-layered skin on the south side of the building will deflect the harshest sunlight. On the north side, the surface peels apart to reveal transparent glass skin. The tower's peak, conceived as an extension of the skin, seemingly fraying in the breeze, actually consists of a cluster of antennas and a wind farm that will generate electric power.
By embracing a populist lineage that stretches back through the Georges Pompidou Center to Charles Garnier's Paris Opéra, Mayne extracts unexpected beauty from this psychologically isolated site. In so doing, he redeems a scorned area of the city while forging one of the most powerful works Paris has seen in a generation.
If the Phare tower demonstrates architecture's potential as a civilizing tool the design for the Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom matches Paris's catastrophic 1972 Montparnasse Tower in its disdain for the architectural legacy of a world city.
The competition, won by the London- based RMJM, involved many of the same architects as the competition for the Phare tower, from Koolhaas to Nouvel to Herzog and de Meuron, but its scale dwarfs that of the Paris site. It might well have pleased Stalin. Dominated by a 77- story tower, the project is on a site at the edge of the Neva River overlooking the baroque domes of Smolny Cathedral. Gazprom, a government-controlled oil and gas conglomerate, plans to triple the size of its development there in subsequent phases of construction.
RMJM's design is conceived as a pentagon that twists as it rises, culminating in a point akin to a spire. A second skin is wrapped around this structure with the goal of giving it a sleeker, more organic appearance. The tower rests a banal corporate lobby covered by a rooftop garden that slopes down to meet the ground at each end, in an intended echo of the classical gardens of St. Petersburg.
The architects claim that the form of the tower echoes the glorious baroque spires that puncture the city's skyline; they compare the second skin to a fur coat that would create a buffer zone insulating the interior from the city's harsh winters. No matter how they seek to mask it in metaphors, however, this is a conventional corporate tower of the sort that can be found in abundance in Dubai, Singapore and Beijing. The mixed metaphors are a painful trivialization of history - and a sorry attempt to hide uncomfortable realities behind postcard images and trite advertising.
But RMJM was not the only culprit in this regard. Nouvel submitted a design for a row of slender towers encased in a transparent glass shell - a skyline frozen in a block of ice. And Libeskind's proposed two asymmetrical towers whose swooping golden forms join to form a "welcoming gateway" for the city.
Koolhaas was more willing to acknowledge and exploit the project's gargantuan scale. He proposed a cluster of towers of uneven heights, some of which seeming to hover several stories above the ground, a project churning with all the desires and fears of the traditional city. Huge floor plates that connect the towers at midpoint are conceived as vast social mixing chambers packed with auditoriums, cinemas, restaurants and bars. A series of smaller office structures are scattered around the building like stacked ice cubes.
The design is also derived from an unblinking analysis of St. Petersburg's darker history - not just regimental architectural planning under the tsars, underlining the barracks mentality of a series of despots, but the city's complete detachment from Modernism after power shifted to Moscow during the Soviet era. Koolhaas's cubes, for example, arranged in a neat grid at the center of the development and more haphazardly along its edges, are a nod to the Soviet- era housing slabs that flank the site to the north.
RMJM's winning design bypasses that history in favor of the banal reductivism of the global marketplace. If Paris's future tower shows us how a big building can lend new meaning to the past, the Gazprom tower suggests a local history eclipsed by the grinding wheels of world capitalism.