Heidi’s chilly new neighbor

Tower by Thomas Mayne for Vals, Switz. (uncredited montage in Gizmodo)

Tower by Thomas Mayne proposed for Vals, Switz. (Uncredited montage in Gizmodo)

Kudos to Gizmodo.com not just for the inspired montage above but to its correspondent Alissa Walker, who reports that starchitect Thom Mayne has announced an evaporating glass slab for poor Vals, Switz. At 80 stories and 1,250 feet in the Swiss Alps, it will be, if built, Europe’s tallest tower.

Mayne built a new building for Cooper Union that forced the college to end its history of free tuition. In exchange, the school got a piece of junk that looks as if an airplane flew into its glass curtain wall. But hey, New York can take that. But what about Mother Nature in all her glory? As Walker writes in “The Tallest Tower in Europe Will Be in … a Quaint Swiss Village?“:

The renderings show a plane of glass shimmering high into the alpine sky, where it appears to evaporate into the atmosphere.

In fact, that seems to be the theme: A vaporous facade which has no exterior form, merely reflecting its idyllic surroundings. But we know that will not be the case, of course, as no building is invisible enough to simply dissipate into nothingness.

(Nothingness, by the way, is all that’s left of author Ray Bradbury’s home, which was demolished by Mayne earlier this year to make way for his new house. Which will likely also stick out like a sore phallus.)

The disappearing glass building, along with “erasing the boundary between inside and outside,” is one of modern architecture’s most predictable clichés, dragged out whenever a developer suspects that the public might not like his building’s design. Hey, it will just reflect its surroundings, or the clouds in the sky, practically invisible … whatever! That’s what they said about the GTECH building before it went up in Providence. What a crock!

Thom Mayne has already won a Pritzker prize, of course. Back in 2005 he was a finalist in the competition for a new (and the first) purpose-built state capitol in Alaska. All of the four finalists were starkly modernist, and the public had risen in anger at them all. The entry by Mayne looked like a hockey stick on the ground with a gargantuan egg behind it. My theory at the time was that the jury thought giving Mayne a Pritzker might ice the project for him. Instead, the entire project collapsed. Alaskan taxpayers continue to run their state out of a bland office building completed in 1931 in Juneau, 28 years before statehood.

I wrote a column unpacking my conspiracy theory at the time. It featured a brilliant classical counter-proposal by Alaska native Marianne Cusato, which picked up on the state’s Russian heritage in the cupola domes of her design. She has since achieved a sort of fame for her Katrina Cottages, tiny houses for those left homeless by flood or hurricane. They are for emergencies but are designed to be appealing to refugees, unlike the boring boxes offered by FEMA. The cottages can be expanded, or lived in as is by those who, like occupants of microlofts in the latest urban trend, love the cozy lifestyle.

We last heard from Alissa Walker last year when Frank Gehry gave the finger to a roomful of journalists in Spain. Later he apologized. Walker wrote a story for Gizmodo about Gehry’s claim that 99 percent of architecture is shit, and illustrated it with proof (that is, photos of his buildings). She added: “Hey, no need to apologize, Frank! You’re 85! And you know what? You can keep on building whatever shit you want.”

Walker has an excellent essay for Gizmodo, “The Secret Lives of the Tiny People in Architectural Renderings.” It reminded me of the people drawn into the proposed scenes of the Downtown Providence 1970 Plan, a mostly (and thankfully) unbuilt effort, announced in 1960, to drag the capital of Rhode Island into the 20th century. What I liked about the plan was that all the men in its illustrations of what Providence could be like had male pattern baldness. No doubt caused by too much modern architecture!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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One Response to Heidi’s chilly new neighbor

  1. Pingback: Thom Mayne in Alaska, 2005 | Architecture Here and There

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