Above is a photograph, unadulterated I assume, from one of those emails with long strings of beautiful, adorable, humorous, salacious or otherwise remarkable photos, usually unattributed to any photographer. At least I can thank Leon “Big Lee” Juskalian for sending the above photograph to me. I am not normally known for posting photos of modern architecture with a “Beautiful!” label anywhere in its vicinity. But this is an exception and it demonstrates perhaps the sole merit of modern architecture: that it can indeed look enchanting – from a distance. Dubai is a city of modernist towers, and if the sun or moon is shining right, or if as in some fine shots they are poking their heads above a large bank of desert fog, they can look lovely. But mostly they look ridiculous.
And if you are standing near one of the towers there, you may be feeling a little queasy, as if something large is about to fall on you. A quirk of human vision causes straight lines to bend as they recede into the distance, upward or toward the horizon. That is why ancient architects introduced entasis – a very slight bending – to the columns of Greek and Roman architecture. Boy, were they picky! But entasis comes down to us in the design of columns to this day, and sometimes it is sufficiently pronounced that a column seems taut with struggle, groaning under the weight it must uphold. There are other ways that classical architecture seems to pick up on human character, but this is my favorite.
We were discussing this photo of the Dubai skyline, with rays from the sun breaking through clouds to highlight the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It may interest some readers to know that its architect, Adrian Smith, long with the big modernist firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, designed an earlier version of Providence Place mall that was a lot more traditional, even classical, than the final version by architect Friedrich St. Florian. Smith’s version of the mall would look decidedly out of place in Dubai, but it would have been gorgeous rising up Smith Hill toward the Rhode Island State House by the classical firm of McKim Mead & White. It was shot down by gubernatorial politics when Republican Linc Almond came out against the proposed downtown shopping mall in his race with Myrth York; but when he won he decided he’d actually come out not against the mall itself but against the state’s “tax treaty” with the mall developers, and had to kick the mall somehow, so he forced the developer to throw out a lovely design on the grounds that it was not buildable at an affordable cost. Maybe it was, maybe it was not, but the result is still a rare traditionally styled mall to which Rhode Islanders flock in the thousands to this day. As for Smith, he left SOM, formed his own firm, and went on to, as you might say, greater heights.
I leave this post without addressing the headline’s question, which is above my pay grade.