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Some Assembly Required

michael sorkin
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Some Assembly Required
    Book Description:

    Michael Sorkin is widely hailed as one of the best architecture critics writing today. Iconoclastic and often controversial, he is a witty, entertaining, yet ultimately serious writer. In this new collection, Sorkin reviews the state of contemporary architecture and surveys the dramatic changes in the urban environment of the past decade. From New York to New Delhi, from Shanghai to Cairo, Sorkin offers a sweeping assessment of the impact of globalization, environmental degradation, electronic media, rapid growth, and the legacies of modernist planning.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9101-2
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xii)

    Recently, sitting on yet another panel about architecture and globalization, I listened to the Dutchman to my right metaphorize world culture as a huge ocean wave and offer—as an architectural strategy for dealing with it—the figure of the surfer, riding the crest. Although this image has a certain détourning charm, the “wave” model is all wet, camouflaging the reality of a constructed culture as a force of nature. Confronted by the massive sameness of sprawl—the urbanism of global capital—my colleague chose not to resist but to go with the flow, to invent it as the inevitable...

  4. Part I. Cities/Places

    • Eleven Tasks for Urban Design
      (pp. 3-9)

      Urban Design is a rump. Founded in a vacated crack between architecture and planning, its aim was to rescue physical urbanism from the humongous onus of “planning.”

      Not an unreasonable aim. The yoking of the roughshod therapies of urban renewal with the enervated stylings of modernism—the double culmination of the long march of a universalism that had long since lost its way—had, by the sixties, given planners a permanently bad name. Like the craven lie of Vietnam, the decimation wreaked on neighborhoods “for their own good” exposed a contradiction that could not but collapse the structures that produced...

    • Branding Space
      (pp. 10-12)

      We have been hearing for years that Times Square is becoming a theme park, and so it is. But the million and a half revelers who gather on New Year’s Eve may have some difficulty—as I have—discerning exactly the theme. When their cameras flash at midnight, what will they be photographing beyond a million and a half other flashes?

      A few weeks ago, I was walking by the building where JFK Jr. used to live, wrapped in this conundrum, when I noticed that a tourist in the usual knot photographing the place was carrying an “NBC Experience” plastic...

    • Times Square: Status Quo Vadis
      (pp. 13-15)

      The ongoing debate over Times Square reminds me of last year’s dustup over Milos Forman’s bio-pic about Larry Flynt. That debate was not so much over a movie that glorified a purveyor of misogynistic smut but over the choice of a pornographer as a kind of ideal violator of public values and hence a suitable subject for a film in celebration of freedom of speech. In constructing him as an avatar of free expression, Forman foregrounded Flynt’s roguishness, vulgar charm, and old-fashioned uxoriousness. And by choosing the amiable and attractive (and young) Woody Harrelson to portray Flynt, Forman was better...

    • Round and Round
      (pp. 16-20)

      Walking around a bend in Riverside Drive a few days ago, I was startled by the sight of Donald Trump’s Riverside South complex looming over the rooftops. Twice the height of the surrounding buildings, the first two of an eventual dozen towers seemed massive and alien, harbingers of a radical scale change that will forever deform the profile of Manhattan.

      The vaguely deco buildings are postered with large testimonials to their superlativeness by Trump, Philip Johnson (the first building’s architect), and Brendan Sexton, outgoing president of the Municipal Art Society and incoming president of the Times Square Business Improvement District....

    • Cranes over TriBeCa
      (pp. 21-23)

      Today is the first day of autumn, and the city is lovely, the air crisp and clear, and the pace everywhere quickening—our best season. As I write this, I am sitting in my studio in groovy TriBeCa, rapidly become the city’s most covetable neighborhood. My building—a sturdy, thirties-vintage, high-rise loft—has, until recently, been home to a wide and delightful variety of art and industrial uses (printing has a long history on lower Hudson Street) but is now largely vacant, we remaining tenants living on borrowed time. Not that no one wants the space, but the go-go regime...

    • Big Deal
      (pp. 24-28)

      The architectural event of early summer—the first IFCCA (International Foundation for the Canadian Centre for Architecture) Prize “competition” for the design of cities—had a certain Hillary-esque dimension. As she campaigns through the state in the guise of a “listening tour,” Hillary (never having lived here) is sniped at relentlessly as a carpetbagger. And so indeed she is. I admire her frank opportunism: no one is under any illusions that Hillary Clinton is on a crusade to save New York. Phyllis Lambert on the other hand—the author of the IFCCA, its chief financier, the head of the jury,...

    • A Passage through India
      (pp. 29-37)

      An indelible image of India. As I prowled the New Delhi acropolis, a truck pulled up in front of one of the Herbert Baker ministries flanking the grand, Lutyens-culminated King’s Way axis. On the truck was an enormous model ship—the Indian navy’s latest frigate—bristling with Plexiglas missiles and guns. Thirty men in ragged kurtas and bare feet—directed by a naval officer in crisp white uniform—shouldered the ship and shuffled, whooping and shouting, through the portal of the vast Euro-Mogul pile.

      This near surrealist sense of juxtaposition is ubiquitous in the daily life of India: the cows...

    • Instrumental Cities
      (pp. 38-44)

      As Disraeli famously remarked, “The East is a career.”

      Indeed. China has become American architecture’s wet dream. The skylines of Hong Kong, Shenzen, Guangzhou, and Shanghai map a staggering commodification of space: skyscrapers sprout like weeds in a mind-boggling volume of construction. On my first trip to China, my own reaction was salivary: how can I get a piece of this action!

      Greed is always embarrassing: the spectacle of development evoked in me a colonial fantasy that was surely of a piece with the acquisitive incursions of centuries. And just as quickly the guilty liberal counterreaction set in: what business...

    • Containing Cairo
      (pp. 45-53)

      Arriving in Cairo a few months ago, the plane followed an approach from north to south over the eastern edge of the city, began a wide U-turn above the pyramids, finally descending to the north over the city’s eastern side. Taken together, it was a view that encompassed all of Cairo, like looking out the window of a chariot of the gods.

      What struck me was that the city did not seem large enough. Like many cities in the developing world, Cairo has a different kind of an edge than American cities. Although Cairo is huge, it does not yet...

    • Second Nature
      (pp. 54-58)

      Flying into Albuquerque, it is possible to see—scraped in the desert in front of the long range of hills to the east of town—the ghostly outlines of the streets of an abandoned subdivision. From the air, it is just a drawing (perhaps one of the world’s largest), and the first association is with crop circles and Machu Picchu, alien artists trying to send us a message. The pattern, though, is no mystery, merely the disappearing evidence of a bubble of eighties hype, a broken promise made to a legion of visionary suckers.

      The traceried subdivision may not have...

    • Millennium in Vegas
      (pp. 59-63)

      I think I will do the millennium in Vegas: The place is sotemporal.What could be more in the moment than the intensely lit clocklessness of the casinos, than being able to eat a cheap steak at any hour, paradise for a routinebeleaguered world. In a flip of normal American life, with all its battering messages of healthy self-denial, self-indulgence is the antidote to death in Las Vegas, thelifestyle.Such hyperabundance defeats time: I watched mesmerized as a man—easily 350 pounds—meticulously removed the meat from an enormous mound of crab legs (his only choice from the...

    • Acting Urban
      (pp. 64-69)

      Robert Duvall’s recent filmThe Apostlestands out for its uncannyauthenticity.The acting, by a variety of both professional actors and everyday people, is so natural as to retreat to invisibility. And the settings, directly sampled from Texas suburban and Louisiana bayou landscapes, blend with Shakespearean connectedness into the narrative, as particular asThe Tempest.

      There is a moment when the issue of authenticity surfaces explicitly in the film. After the charismatic Duvall character has begun to preach over the radio, someone remarks admiringly that white listeners assume he is black. For a moment, the film seems to strike...

    • Notes on Vibe
      (pp. 70-77)

      Unlike Clinton, I inhaled.

      Recently in Amsterdam for a lecture, I had bid farewell to my companions after the obligatory academic dinner. Wandering through the lively late-night streets and along the web of canals, I passed a number of “coffee shops,” and smelling musky pot, I decided to check it out. Who am I kidding, I had been looking forward to it for days.

      After a pleasant hour, I was ready to go. I pocketed my tiny stash, picked up the roach, and contemplated the street. There were, however, questions of etiquette to be dealt with. I wondered whether I...

    • Phoenix Rising
      (pp. 78-85)

      Night flying into Phoenix, inky emptiness abuts the grid of lights, the desert lapping at the edges of town. As the plane circles and drops to land, the glimmer of energy seems to spread to infinity, and a paradox becomes visible: growth kills the resource that makes the city great. Climate and landscape are sunk in a miasma of development, sprawl without end. Sufferers fleeing their allergies find them again as the city urbanizes itself out of health.

      The growth of Phoenix has been rapid, its settled area expanding even more rapidly than its population, the very formula for sprawl....

    • Remembering the Future
      (pp. 86-90)

      I was sitting in a darkened room a couple of weeks ago in London, taking in slides at a conference on the legacy of modernist urbanism. I love those happy views of that old bright future: Nikolai Miliutin’s linear cities, Radburn’s greenways, Berthold Lubetkin’s heroic failure at Peterlee (this was mainly a local crowd). All suggest how far we have come. Or do they? The slide that wasmostprojected at the conference was that familiar perspective sketch of Corb’s City of Three Million, the one with three huge cruciform slabs single pointing on down the line.

      There often is...

  5. Part II. Architects/Buildings

    • Animating Space
      (pp. 93-103)

      In front of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao stands an enormous Jeff Koons topiary puppy. Supported by a complex but unseen armature and enabled by a fiendish system for watering and fertilizing, the floral dog dominates the museum’s foreground. I wanted to hate that puppy but found myself charmed . . . sort of: once the irony was scraped off, beneath lay treacle. Thus laid bare, no longer an appropriation of kitsch, I was able to see the huge dog as pure kitsch—charming, goofy.

      Architects I know who had the pleasure of visiting the Guggenheim while it was under...

    • Siza the Day
      (pp. 104-108)

      Until I went to Portugal a month ago, I had thought Alvaro Siza was simply an invention of Ken Frampton, the perfect, self-effacing modernistregionalist. In spite of his 1992 Pritzker, and in spite of the reverential tones in which he is often spoken of, Siza’s work had somehow escaped me. I just had not seen any, knew it only through photography. I expected sun-baked Aalto, desiccated curves, dried of their snap, white boxes in picturesque settings.

      I had an object lesson in the perils of such distance viewing within half an hour of my arrival in Porto. There is a...

    • The Borders of Islamic Architecture
      (pp. 109-115)

      The winners of the Aga Kahn Award for architecture were announced the other day, and it is an interesting list. This is the eighth cycle of the award—begun in 1977 and given every three years—and the winners reflect both the strengths and the idiosyncrasies of the program.

      Idiosyncrasy is especially important. For a prize that has as one of its objectives the celebration of the idea of architectural plurality, the ability to acknowledge a set of cultural differences that can be extremely local is crucial. Idiosyncrasy is also the great hedge against the kind of spurious universality that...

    • Filming Wright
      (pp. 116-120)

      Ken Burns’s new documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright is an interesting and enjoyable film, very much in his familiar stately, plump, and elegant style. The viewer is immediately (and extensively) immersed in Wright and his work: as inThe Civil WarandBaseball,Burns wants to tell the whole story from beginning to end in languid chronology. The film is great to look at, although—until its climax at the Guggenheim—it keeps its buildings empty in fine ESTO style, fires crackling in summer, flowers just so, drawings rolled out with period drafting equipment lying ready to use. The buildings...

    • Inside the Biosphere
      (pp. 121-125)

      At Davis Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, standing wingtip to wingtip as far as the eye can see, four thousand decommissioned military aircraft stand baking in the Arizona sun. Made surplus by the end of the cold war or simply too old to fly, they await cannibalization, the scrap heap, or a crisis.

      Most evocative are the B-52s, hundreds of them in various states of decay, huge wings drooping to the ground. Eerily herded, crewed by rattlesnakes and memories, they stand as an intense moment of the American sublime. Three times a day, a Russian satellite passes over the...

    • Come and Getty
      (pp. 126-130)

      The fantasy was this: against the uniformly dreary assessments of the Getty Center, I would rise in defense of a project that could not possibly be that bad. After all, it has been branded in the press as everything from cultural imperialism to elitism to autoplagarism to gigantism. Burdened by its brush with the millennium, its giant budget, and extended gestation, the Getty has even been saddled, it seems, with a duty to account for the very existence of Los Angeles.

      Some of these criticisms would have been advanced for any project on the site that represented such a huge...

    • Habitat and After
      (pp. 131-136)

      Habitat gave Clarity to one of modernism’s main befuddlements: the styles of equality. We know that modernity has both technical and political vectors, that it was enabled by ideas of both science and rights. This conjunction produced a predictable consequence: the attempt to measure the dimensions of right. For architecture, there were a number of implications. Perhaps foremost, housing became the privileged site of architectural modernism. Only logical. Shelter isthefundamental right in architectural terms. And mass housing maps a relationship of social breadth, encapsulating a theory of equality: it specifies.

      If Marx’s great contribution was to clarify the...

    • MOR Is Less
      (pp. 137-141)

      In an embarrassment (of this more later) of riches, the Museum of Modern Art in New York currently boaststhreearchitecture shows, surely a record. There are “Fabrications,” a set of installations in the garden that is part of a joint project with the Wexner Center at Ohio State and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; a retrospective of the work of Alvar Aalto on the main floor; and in the design galleries, an exhibition of the submissions of the three finalists for the recent competition for the museum’s own expansion.

      The first architectural piece I wrote for the...

    • Far, Far AwAIA
      (pp. 142-144)

      Here is the nightmare. Vincent Scully has been taken ill. I find myself at the lectern in the front of a darkened auditorium as pairs of slides flash on the screen. The pressure is on for a lecture both witty and deep. I do not recognize most of the buildings.

      Crouched over a loupe, staring at pairs of slides of the winners of the 1997 AIA awards, I am having a similar feeling. The pressure is a little more attenuated, but it is still the job of an old-style CIA Kremlinologist, trying to come to sweeping generalizations from satellite photography....

    • Amazing Archigram
      (pp. 145-149)

      1964 was the year of the great British Invasion. Capped by the world historical appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, a deluge of male rock groups, including not simply the Fab Four but the Rolling Stones, the Searchers, the Animals, Jerry and the Pacemakers, and Herman’s Hermits, took control of the charts and held on for almost a decade.

      The British Invasion was, among other things, the return of the repressed. In the post-Elvis years, American rock and roll had become anemic and stupid, filled with Fabians and Bobby Rydells, Elvis wanna-bes whose music was both saccharine...

    • Admitting the Fold
      (pp. 150-155)

      One of the problems of living in New York is the Visiting Fireman Question, the call from an out-of-town colleague who wants to know what interesting new buildings to see. This is tough. While plenty have been built in recent years, their interest has generally been more cautionary than aesthetic, examples of too big, too commercial, too bland, too bad. Major projects in the city have gone to business-as-usual corporate firms, while local talents languish at home with shop fronts, interiors, and competitions and build their careers out of town. By my estimate, the last really convincing building in Manhattan...

    • Forms of Attachment
      (pp. 156-160)

      Is anything more confusing than adjacency nowadays? Adjudications of the juxtaposable, of what goes with what, comprise the main artistic activity of postmodernity. The era prefers legislation to invention, disputations at the margin to the more lusty speculations at the center of things. When it is not simply about money, so much of our art seems to be merely about art, all Jeff Koons, Jesse Helms, and Jenny Holzer. Real politics and its aesthetics, though, both lie at the seam.

      To be sure, it is tough to make sense of what goes with what in the age of television. TV...

    • Airport 98
      (pp. 161-166)

      The young architect from Norman Foster’s office who was showing me around the new Hong Kong airport wanted to talk about shopping. It was not simply that he had spent months sweating over aisle dimensions, signage control, and fire-suppression systems for doorless boutiques, it was that retail was a major driver in the project’s form. Like all new airports, shopping is increasingly the financial foundation: at Hong Kong, something over 40 percent of revenues are derived from retail sales, which gives the disposition of shops a fairly compelling programmatic imperative.

      In the Hong Kong terminal, the points of purchase are...

    • No Sex Please, We’re British
      (pp. 167-172)

      Something over twenty-five years ago—back in my student days—Sandy Wilson came to MIT to present his scheme for the British Library in London. A certain aura sparkled around (the much younger) Wilson, the result of his having won what seemed to be the commission of a lifetime at what was—for an architect—a tender age. Wilson could scarcely have imagined then that it would also take a professional lifetime to get it built.

      Finally complete after a thirty-six-year slog (the same time, as the architect likes to point out, as it took to build Saint Paul’s), the...

    • How French Is It?
      (pp. 173-177)

      What’s with the French? For many years, France seemed to have an architectural death wish. It was not simply that no work of interest was coming out of the land of Ferret and Le Corbusier, it seemed an entire culture had forgotten its taste and sense of proportion. Paris was fouled with mediocrity, from the skyline-blighting Tour Montparnasse to the array of penitential projects in thebanlieue.How to explain this incredible lapse, a country that had lost its eye?

      “Premises: Invested Spaces in Visual Arts, Architecture, and Design from France: 1958–98,” an enormous exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim...

    • Upstairs, Downstairs
      (pp. 178-182)

      On the covers of the official guidebooks, Graceland and the White House look pretty much the same. Tight shots on white porticoes—four classical columns each—evoke the big house, our standard-issue national icon of gracious living. And, of course, I am writing this piece because we are all invited for a visit. Indeed, more people visit these two houses than any others in the United States, over a million to the White House annually, three quarters of that number to Graceland (no numbers are available for drive-bys at Rockingham).

      Which brings me to the first big difference: nobodylives...

  6. Part III. Misfits

    • Container Riff
      (pp. 185-190)

      I have a bad reaction to the idea of “containers.”

      It seems a despairing word, a link in a dispiriting etymological chain: containers, containment, contamination.... The word problematizes content and privileges the membrane and its impermeability, raising anxiety about leakage, about the uncontained, about too spontaneous events.

      The word also seems to belong to a critical lexicon that has come to overcharacterize the discourse of urbanism. We are eager to describe the city with a certain fatality. To be sure, our urbanism is out of control, driven by globalizing systems and exponential leaps in scale. The metropolis becomes the megacity...

    • Family Values
      (pp. 191-208)

      The upcoming millennium could hardly be better timed. Unlike the last one, much anticipated but finally a nonevent, things really are about to change. Not to put too fine a point on it, the world as we know it (and I use this phrase advisedly) may soon be gone. Should this happen, architecture will be affected. Indeed, unless we are prepared to do something about it, architecture as we know it may soon be gone. I mean it, and the threat that concerns me is this: space, the palpable and dimensioned territory of architecture, is rapidly ceasing to be its...

    • The Second Greatest Generation
      (pp. 209-214)

      For the past twenty years I have been over thirty, the actual milestone having occurred slightly before the lapsing of the seventies (which was when much of the sixties actually occurred). And I am not the only one. As the boomer bulge in the bell curve grinds toward oblivion, we are driven to ask: what has the aging of youth culture meant for architecture?

      Youth, of course, is strictly a cultural matter. My generation is by selfdefinition—the only one that counted for us—young. Architecture, the “old man’s profession,” has never been congenial to us (among others). We certainly...

    • War Is Swell
      (pp. 215-230)

      I was born after the war, a boomer. “My” war was Vietnam, which I experienced as a resistor. For me, the Second World War is history, pure mediation, and my primary visual source an engineer father who worked virtually all of his professional life at the Defense Department. I recall visits to his office on the Mall, where I was entranced by the display of remarkably accurate model ships, a sight that still inspires my work. I remember the blue copies ofJane’s All the World’s Aircraft and Jane’s Fighting Shipsthat my father brought home every year, with their...

    • Genius Loco: A Success Story
      (pp. 231-248)

      Over and over, the memory recurs. Lobsters, muckling in grandmama’s tub, awaiting the pot. Motley green, moving slow-mo round the perimeter of the bath, invulnerably carapaced. Or so I thought.

      Later, chucked into the boil, battering their death tattoo against the tin, pockmarking the sealed cylinder of their doom.

      Then the emergence, the miracle: masque of the red death. Bright babies. And delicious.

      Chow down, little Lobster, my gramma would tell me, tail cracking and butter dipping, handing over lumps of meat so delectable it was not possible to have enough.

      Afterward, shells in a heap, soaped and washed, handed...

  7. Publication Information
    (pp. 249-250)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-251)