Architecture comes dangerously close to insignificance. It has been a gradual degeneration fueled by whim, ego, novelty and, perhaps, megalomania. Not so surprising, given the socio-economic and political concerns of most countries in the world, each racing against the other. For most of the last century, it was bigger, bigger, bigger, and ridiculously bigger. Until we got bored and barely cared how tall things were.
Humans, given their small size, have always been obsessed with building bigger. The earliest documented towers are at Tell Qaramell (10,900 BCE to 8,850 BCE). Closer to home and within walking distance of my home and studio, the Qutub Minar rises 73 meters – built in 1192. And there were a number of towers between 1192 and now.
The 20e century saw the rise of Rockefeller Center and the Twin Towers, but the race really intensified after the 1990s. great height, the United States, China, Malaysia, England and the United Arab Emirates surpassing themselves every few years to post a new record! Even Delhi made an honest attempt with the 24-story municipal headquarters building on Asaf Ali Road, but the massive delay in executing a winning competition entry removed any claim to fame the project might have had!
After a while, however, the height ceased to matter! So the star architects of the day turned to other novelties — in form: cheese graters, cucumbers, walkie-talkies, shards, bottle openers, with the seriousness of a black-tie diner and lots of architectural posturing. I’m sure if you can name an object, there must be an architectural representation of it somewhere on the globe – cups, saucers, fish, ducks, et al. It’s not a chronologically accurate account of events, but I hope you see the thread of my argument.
When you’re maximizing commercial returns on high-priced properties as an architect, you don’t have much wiggle room. Moreover, the need for savings and optimization of colossal investments would reduce any creative “waste”. So you’re left with what architects like to call “form” – or the making of objects, appropriately glorified.
The norm has become featureless glass towers. And, frankly, you can shape them any way you want. Forms have little or no impact on the locker that thousands of office workers are crammed into during their eight-hour working day! Anything works – a birthday cake, a candle, a giant pickle, even maybe a bottle of the Shah’s favorite perfume. Follow it with enough noise and hype to get the papers talking, drive rental prices up and create a buzz that lasts until the next sight comes along and this one gets forgotten in the long story. of questionable forms and ego tripping that has become the world of tower architecture on a global scale!
In the age of Instagram, even the most breathtaking images of sharp spiers of buildings floating in a sea of clouds that seem to be thousands of feet above the surface of the earth are now scrolled by! Without even a wow!
My last memory of such architectural nonsense was Rem Koolhaas and his theory of Bigness! Yes, great masses of featureless buildings that proclaimed – you guessed it right – Bigness! What a shocking idea! The race for the biggest – it is of course still ongoing, but only half-heartedly discussed in the corners – was over for the most part.
Over the past decade, climate change and sustainability have increasingly become topics of global discussion and concern for architecture and human habitat. The need to respond to, respect and preserve the environment has become paramount. All discussions turned to ways and ideas to respond to its natural systems and intervene in ways that help restore the vital systems of this unique planet. The UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals.
And then in 2020 the pandemic hit! We have seen the world stop! Unnecessary air travel has stopped. Economies had to reform. These were two difficult years globally, years that caused many of us to question the status quo and the market-driven foolish lives we had accepted without hesitation.
Bio-bubbles, self-sustaining, consuming less, nutrition and lifestyle, planetary health were now in everyone’s conversation. The pandemic has been harsh, but it has placed the planet at the center of much consciousness. Sustainability had become the new benchmark for everything – food, fashion, sourcing and, of course, architecture.
And in 2022, as we let our guard down on the pandemic and hope to build a more sustainable future, we are seeing the return of the Mack!
A single building – one hundred and seventy thousand meters long, or as we architects will write by dimensioning the drawing in the accepted metric system, 170,000,000 millimeters – with 500 meter high mirror glass facades reflecting the scorching sun on a dry and inhospitable desert landscape! Claiming to be a “revolution in civilization”.
The line is designed – if you can call drawing a straight line through a desert landscape for 32 km and splitting it into two designs – by the famous American firm Morphosis, casting its name forever in the history of bad ideas in a creativity to sold-out crowds which has been the hallmark of the starchitects!
What do we call it? Longevity? Linearity? Coke? Take that for a minute. Another addition to the recent history of tall, short, fat, thin, round, long, but essentially useless buildings.
I won’t waste precious words arguing the premise of the building and its claims to sustainability. There is NOTHING lasting in an idea like that. Nothing! It’s not even a bad joke. It is tasteless, meaningless, unnecessary and above all a bad precedent in ecologically critical times. The planet is in crisis. And much of this crisis is caused by “development”. A 172 km long building in a desert landscape is only juvenile.
If it was an architecture school in the 1990s and I had walked into Thesis Studio with a project like that, my HoD, who we called Sheru, would have looked at me with a wicked smile and would have asked if that was the only line I had done the night before!
Henri Fanthome, SPA-trained architect, lives and works in Mehrauli, Delhi and writes about design and urban spaces
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