Monoliths

On Urban Fragmentation

Noting recently, the trend in large building design toward a fragmentation (or deconstruction) of sorts, and wondering: What is at the heart of this uneasy feeling in the Architecture World? Looking up at new skyscrapers today, it seems that sky topping design falls into two broad categories, the Monolith, and its arch-rival, the Fragmented Monolith.

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(Fragmentation of The Urban Monolith. New York 2015. Image by Greg Gordon)

To understand The Fragment one must first turn toward The first, The Monolith; With respect to the history of skyscraper design; With building massing tending toward “a heavy base” with a logical taper to the top. Clean lines and simple form and fine details which intuitively make sense to the observer as logical rationale. Take for instance the grounded form of One World Trade Center, or the recently completed 30 Park Place, which is a historical reproduction of sorts, but in a sensible manner befitting of Robert Stern.

30 Park Place

(Urban Monolith, 30 Park Place, as a standard bearer of logical skyscraper design. 2016)

The second trend which bucks the first is the Fragmented Monolith, or building as an explosive & teetering art form. Exemplified by structures we have previously written about, most Notably The Jenga Box Rising, by Herzog and de Meuron and another uneasy structure in Jersey City rising dubbed Urban Ready Living. These structures, while true to form from the outset, defy logic by taking an attitude tending toward uneasiness to the observer, with building parts that are either pushed and pulled about, or outright missing. Sudden shifts or deletions of building mass create a feeling of discomfort. Why was the building designed this way?

Urban Ready

(Urban Ready Living, Jersey City, New Jersey. 2016. Image via Skyscraperpage)

A rational answer may be Vanity. A cultural conniesuership of The Object. Where buildings get reduced to what amounts to a recognizeable sound bite in the audio world. These visual bites are candy for the eye and create an instant feeling, unsatisfying to many; a trick which is likely to fall within the “passing trend” category of building design….or, “Those buildings from the 20-Teens which bob and shift about”…how passe’.

Not that this trend is undeserving of Its Time. Perhaps this is a reflection of the destabilizing forces at work in the socio-political arena, as Architecture, often is, a reflector of The Times. So perhaps the trend toward destabilization in our visual sphere is appropriately a marker of The Present.

A summary would attempt to reconcile the two disparate logics at play in an attempt to move forward. They can be rationaled into categories of Classicism and Modernism, or Fragmentationalism (this was made up), or whatever moniker the academic community projects onto the built world.

Or perhaps reconciliation is undeserved, and the Fragmented appearance of this new form of building is-what-it-is, and not much more: An arbitrary counterpoint to the known and familiar.

Menhir’s of Manhattan

Curbed Skyline

Menhir’s of Manhattan, Soon to stand guard over an ever expanding New York

Definition: A Menhir (French, from Middle Breton: men, “stone” and hir, “long”[1]), standing stone, orthostat, or lith is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found singly as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably, but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top.

Alas, the latest round of phallic symbols Super Tall Towers is rising. Our friends at Curbed New York have posted a round of renderings, courtesy of City Realty which superimposes the simulated forms of these skyscrapers-to-be (depicted in Brown) which will grace our Urban Skyline in the years to come. Impressive indeed.

Merrivale Menhir of Devon

The Merrivale Menhir of Devon, England

The definition of Menhir, or an upright standing stone, has been used in urban lore throughout history to describe a symbol of place, usually vertical and omnipresent, which stands to endure. Akin to a totem, the Menhir implies a connection to place and acts as a symbol for connection. In the case of Manhattan, it is the vast collection of these monoliths which act in a force of gravitational pull, while simultaneously pushing up into the skyline. 

Urban Menhir’s, the Supertalls of This Century, are acting to redefine this century’s skyline. Look out, and be sure to always look up.

Links of Relatable Note:

The Megalithic Portal. An interesting UK based site for Menhir aficionado’s.

Super Thin, Super Tall. From Gordon’s Urban Morphology.

New York’s Next Tallest, Climbed. From Gordon’s Urban Morphology.


Beasts of The West Side

Beast 1

(West Side Beast, AVA High Line, West 29th St, New York. April, 2014)

The Urban Critic: There is a type of development taking place in The City which is having an irreversible and destructive effect on the form, and the future form of our urban core. These developments are the immense and bland superblock buildings which are appearing on Manhattan’s West Side. Their land plots are cobbled together over years of deal making and lot assembly; then the developer strikes when the iron is hot, hires the most cost efficient architect who will sacrifice their imagination, and proceeds to plunk down these monsters of mediocrity.

Beasts of the West Side unravel the Core Tenet of Jane Jacobs’ philosophy about urban density and variety, which she so famously wrote about in “The Death And Life of Great American Cities” (Random House, 1961). Variety, she professed, is a central driver of a City’s economic and social success with the intermingling of classes and a vibrant street life. In direct opposition to her philosophies, these massive structures divorce society from any true pedestrian scale and day-to-day interaction. Banal, uniform, and unforgiving; These building exteriors create wind swept streets of nothingness.

Beast 2

(The “Anti-Jane Jacobs” perspective of Urbanism, Streets of Nothingness)

In all due respect, development is good when it is thoughtful and has an intention to fulfill a purpose for greater Mankind. This attitude of optimism is seen at Hudson Yards, where, although the scale is still very large, the developers are thinking about public space and how people move out and about. This thoughtfulness is lacking in the Monolithic Beasts of The West Side. Manhattan deserves, and expects, something much greater than the least common denominator.

Referenced Offenders:

AVA High Line

Gotham West