The new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens is called Tall Buildings and shows models of 25 high-rise buildings from all over the world featuring the cutting edge of modern architecture.
All have been built or designed within the last 10 years, so we are talking contemporary, up-to-date and technical wow.
The models are exceptionally well made, and are an art form all their own. Combine this with what the models actually represent, a quantum leap from familiar architecture, and the result is an exhibition that rivets the attention of the viewer.
Gathered together as these models are, makes the situation overwhelmingly obvious: for 20 years, architecture which seemed to have lost its direction in the confused and over-thought era of post-modernism has, instead, been quietly pushing out of its chrysalis to produce magnificent flights of imagination, startling in vastness and originality in far-flung places.
The co-curators of the exhibition, Terence Riley and Guy Nordenson, started work on the exhibition two years ago, stimulated by the public interest in tall buildings following September 11th. Riding the current obsession with democracy, they would like us to understand that the construction of tall buildings is, in a sense, highly democratic.
The architect, engineer and client share the same intense vision and lead and enthuse others from different walks of life, to pitch in their energy and expertise. The end results benefit everyone in society.
The exhibition will run until September 27th and although it is unlikely to entertain children below about 10, it will fascinate adults who can still remember their childhood enthusiasm for dollshouses and model train sets.
Models and dioramas of any kind have an unexplainable way of drawing the observer into themselves. What would it be like to enter and be in the space? And so it is with the 25 models at MoMA. The observer enjoys a spatial experience; if you cannot go to Berlin, Mexico City, Beijing or London to see these assertive, costly jewels-of-our-time, this is the next best thing.
Some of the models are illuminated with tiny lights: in the case of “Industrial Housing System—Korea,” the lights are set into the stair treads and at the end of a boat quay: in “Monte Laa PORR Towers—Vienna/Austria, tiny down-lighters shine forth from outrageously cantilevered projections on the top floor, in reality 300 feet or so in the air.
In the case of “Highcliff and The Summit—Hong Kong,” lights from underneath make the transparent Perspex model sparkle like crystal.
Scale, the all-important element of architecture, is given by reference to human beings, cars and trees. At the base of the model “Turning Torso, apartment and office building in Malmo, Sweden,” the modelers have taken great joy in inventing the tiniest people from young to old, carrying bags and briefcases, astride bicycles, crossing paths, going about the business of humanity.
It is of course this very activity that is most difficult to emulate in a tall building, where elevators define where people move, and security prohibits awareness between floors. It is the problem that architects and their clever engineers spill their guts to solve, because the vertical street can never be as richly varied as the horizontal one.
It is notable that seven of these wildly contemporary buildings have been, or are being built in China, Korea and Japan. The 1,380-foot high Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai that looks something like a huge candle with an extended wick, is photographed from the Yangtze River surrounded by other tall, but not as high, buildings.
There is a message here, from Asia, which is being shouted to the world, for it is impossible to hide such dramatic buildings that “change the dimension of the city.”
Tall buildings may be democratic in their construction, but if we are to believe the famous nonagenarian architect Philip Johnston, they are also about the pushing and shoving of the commercial world, power and dominance.
These are issues we do not like to talk about, but are human desires that need expression. Behind the sleek elegance, technical bravado, and visual look-at-me, the models and buildings they represent are more about this, than the democracy, urbanism, and “programmatic purposes” urged on us by the co-curators.
MoMA is located at 45-20 33rd Street, Long Island City. Call 212-708 9400.