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A new slant on tall stories

Vision transcends caution in a collection of buildings that push the limits of framing and creating space.

August 01, 2004|Michael Z. Wise | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Although the wisdom of building colossal skyscrapers came under intense scrutiny after the swift destruction of the World Trade Center almost three years ago, architects and engineers are busy devising ever bolder and more dizzying high-rise towers for locations around the globe.

Enhanced safety features, structural soundness and environmental sustainability are key elements of the latest generation of tall buildings showcased in a survey of exhilarating new design on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens. The exhibition spotlights 25 projects, many with astounding sculptural forms that are far more ambitious and complex than the traditional repeating pattern of floors arrayed to form a monumental stack.

Look across the galleries at MoMA and the large-scale models of the new skyscrapers -- some as tall as 14 feet -- appear to form a dazzling cityscape of their own. What's not immediately apparent in this show is how architects have responded to new anxieties in the post-9/11 world.

Now that iconic landmarks may prove tempting bull's-eye targets for terrorism, it's not enough for them to stand tall as embodiments of civic will. Architects are also making certain to provide improved means of entry and exit, enhanced escape routes, filters for biological and chemical weapons, as well as areas of refuge with extra blast or fire resistance in the event of disaster.

In New York, the relatives of firefighters and others who died in the tower attacks have formed a Skyscraper Safety Campaign to improve security and zoning code compliance in any future high-rises. David Childs, lead architect of the 1,776-foot high Freedom Tower, has been at pains to defend the state-of-the-art safety features of that mammoth project to be built at ground zero in Lower Manhattan.

But Childs' design, carried out in collaboration with architect Daniel Libeskind, is conspicuously absent from the exhibition, the curators opting instead to include three unsuccessful competition entries for the World Trade Center site that they consider to be more aesthetically groundbreaking -- those of British architect Norman Foster, a team including United Architects and Greg Lynn, and a collaborative effort involving Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl.

In contrast to the now-vanished twin towers, which were essentially two columns of uniform floor plates extending upward, the designs on view at MoMA include several vertiginous sculptural forms previously unseen on any urban skyline. Curated by Terence Riley, who heads the museum's department of architecture, together with structural engineer and Princeton University professor Guy Nordenson, the exhibition "Tall Buildings" includes works designed from 1988 through the present.

"After 9/11 people couldn't look at a tall building without cringing," Riley says by telephone. But he believes that moment has passed: "This was confirmed when I saw the first 'Spider-Man' movie, with the kind of glorious role that skyscrapers were given in that show. Somehow something had happened. Not only I, but the public in general was willing to think of them in a positive way. It was a sign that New Yorkers were much more willing to say, 'Skyscrapers are our legacy, and while we might have to be careful about what we do next, this is part and parcel of our patrimony.' "

Judging from the dozen plans created after Sept. 11, 2001 -- several of which are under construction or soon to be realized -- there appears to be little sign of caution or reluctance to pursue the heavenwards striving that dates as far back as Babel. And nowadays, Riley says, skyscraper designers are no longer content to just barrel upward.

"Let's face it, the race to be the tallest building on Earth has gotten a bit banal," he says. "Instead, many of the newer skyscrapers frame and create space in ways that tall buildings never did."

Take, for example, Rem Koolhaas' Central Chinese Television Tower in Beijing, a soaring loop of interconnected L-shapes that the architect sees as underlining the "chain of interdependence" linking staffers at the state broadcast company. Koolhaas, whose Office for Metropolitan Architecture is based in the Netherlands, is the latest in a series of Western designers commissioned to draw up potent architectural landmarks in China.

After the collapse in May of Paul Andreu's sleek new terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Chinese authorities have voiced ongoing confidence in the structural viability of Andreu's new domed Beijing Opera House, which has been likened to a phosphorescent jellyfish.

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