Illusions of Safety, pt 2.

[Brussels Atomium]

It’s official: I’m connected. This morning, Andrew over at Exquisite Struggle pointed me to Progressive Reactionary, who I believe is the first to link here without actually knowing me in “real life.”

Regarding my last post, what P.R. finds “most provocative… is how he links this notion of the suppressed sublime to a larger political imperative — and by doing so, shows quite clearly that the aesthetic experience (or its repressions) is always fundamentally political.”

Of course, one could argue that everything is inherently political, if you think deeply enough about the issues. In today’s hyperconnected network world, any product or building or concept can be tied back to any other with fewer connections than seems possible, thus any building can be linked to a political agenda as easily as Lindsay Lohan can be linked to Kevin Bacon.

Architecture, I think, has vast political potential. We should not assume that all architecture is political, but we should accept the ease with which a project can become political. From the smallest house, an intimate expression of the owner’s personality, to the largest public works, a projection of a societies ideals (not as stated but as built, a telling distinction), architecture is never far from politics due to the shear amount of physical energy that must go into the construction of a project. To actually complete a building is a transformative act: mass and energy is converted into edifice. The mass comes from the earth, the energy comes from the people, thus a building project engages both society and the natural world, in three dimensions and temporally.

Thus, the Twin Towers were no more or less political than the Giza pyramids, and no more or less sublime. Monumental works are inexorably tied to the society that enabled their construction. The pyramids, built not by slaves but by seasonal workers, farmers in the off-season, were the ultimate symbol of the Egyptian society’s hierarchal structure, and the Twin Towers were the culmination of a century of steel-and-concrete American ingenuity, a merging of extruded Miesian towers with Art Deco detailing and a ornamental program in a tripartite vertical organization cribbed from the Chicago tradition, harking back to the days of Sullivan and Burnham. From the day of their conception, the towers were the ultimate glorious expression of the “American Century” (say pax Americana?), and their destruction could be the preface to the American empire’s decline, and the bureaucracy strangling the reconstruction only strengthens the terrorist message.

Would it be better if the Ground Zero effort had sped forward, if we had erected false facades on the site, projecting an image of proud tenacity? I think it’s infinitely more appropriate that the effort is strained, a physical mirror of “democracy-building” in the Middle East.

In part, the reality of the reconstruction effort testifies to America’s desire to erect something substantial. In the past, an imitation of grandeur was enough to instill pride in the populace. Burnham’s White City in Chicago and Albert Speer’s neoclassical Nazi set pieces both exude stability, but were on the verge of collapse. I don’t think people today would buy it. There’s so much information widely available, it’s easy to see what is obviously false or temporary, and what is apparently real.

[Eiffel Tower]

There seems to have been a shift, sometime in the past century, a collective realization. While in the 1800s it was perfectly reasonable to have a vast yet temporary exhibition, today that is rare. The Eiffel Tower might have been a factor: was there a precedent for an ostensibly temporary structure that survived and became an icon? Perhaps the longevity of the Tower inspired future planners to build for posterity. You certainly find this in modern-day exhibitions.

The Olympic games are perhaps the modern descendents of those world fairs. A politicized event that draws immense crowds for a short length of time, Olympic grounds tend to decay quickly and spectacularly. I’ve seen it personally in Lake Placid, Atlanta, and Barcelona. I’m curious to visit the sites of other Olympics past. Other events tend to leave similar wastelands in their wake, as at the Barcelona Forum, where a hideous Herzog & de Meuron building dominates a barren stretch of pavement, a landscape designed more for golf carts than pedestrians. It’s the same at the site of the Brussels Atomium, like the Eiffel Tower a temporary exhibit that persevered, unlike the Tower, surrounded by parking lots, and deserted.

[Barcelona Forum, with Herzog & de Meuron’s, uh… thing…]

So what of the sublime? Is the archaic, architectural usage completely obsolete? Can nothing inspire equal amounts fear and awe, and amaze us by the sheer improbability of its own existence? Has a “culture of fear” rendered the sublime obsolete? No one will walk a tightrope from the Freedom Tower, that’s for sure. And when I get on a plane next Wednesday, I’ll dutifully remove my flip flops and throw away my Dasani. Is there something wrong here? Will a heavily politicized obsession with security kill not only architecture, but all public space?

More on this later…

Oh, and by the way: Lindsay Lohan was in Herbie Fully Loaded (2005) with Matt Dillon (I) who was in in Loverboy (2005) with Kevin Bacon.

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