The other day, in an extraordinarily generous gesture, someone I’d met less than an hour before simply gave me a book I was admiring on his (well-stocked) shelves, Justus Dahinden’s 1972 Urban Structures for the Future. For anyone with even a passing historical interest in the XL-scaled architecture of the 1960s and ’70s, this book is an absolute feast, with multipage spreads on every major megastructural project proposed to the date of its publication: various Fuller dome projects, inevitably, and competing Metabolist lattices for Tokyo Bay, but also French, German and Soviet (!) megaplans I’d never even heard of.
The gift’s timing could not have been better. These may be weak and uncorrelated signals, but there seem to be stirrings of a resurgent interest in the megastructural moment, at least locally. Between the recent show at Cooper Union of Paul Rudolph’s meticulous drawings for the never-built Lower Manhattan Expressway, and a seminar dedicated to megastructures being taught at Parsons next semester, the idea of Total Architecture at the scale of cities would appear to have more currency than it’s enjoyed in many a year.
There were good and sufficient reasons for it to have dropped out of fashion, of course. Commentators on the LOMEX plans have universally noted the complete absence of people, or eye-level perspectives, from Rudolph’s drawings. Nor has it escaped anyone’s notice that, as designed, the expressway would have bifurcated, and largely prevented the development of, the neighborhood we now think of as SoHo; similarly, the planned transit hub and tower clusters would have overwritten the Lower East Side in toto. Given the incalculable human, symbolic, cultural and economic value we now know those neighborhoods generated for the city over the last forty years — imagine, for starters, a New York in which CBGB, ABC No Rio, the Knitting Factory, Tonic, Exit Art and the New Museum had never existed, in which loft living for artists had never taken hold in the Cast-Iron Warehouse district — it would be hard to conceive of any replacement making up for their loss.
But there were things — beyond lunatic hubris, and a blithe disregard for the texture, scale and history of the human city — that megastructural thinking had to offer. Foremost among these was the recognition (and if Dahinden is to be believed, it was commonplace among the cohort whose work he depicts) that new media technologies and the emergent forms of sociality that coevolved with them required new conceptions of public and private space. It also had an inherent, refreshing tendency to look beyond High Architecture for formal inspiration — classically, of course, to geological and biological processes of structuration that were still poorly understood at the time, but to vernacular practices as well, from Çatal Höyük and the hillside pueblos of the desert Southwest to Apulian hill towns and contemporary slums. (In an outcropping of what might now be called “favela chic,” the book points explicitly to the improvisatory, adaptive, human-scaled modularity of “Brazilian slum dwellings” as an inspiration for megathink in its clip-on and plug-in modes.)
Finally, of course, as Reyner Banham recognized, truly megastructural proposals had verve: that obscure quality something possesses when it’s presented with enough style, sweep and confidence to make the patently outrageous seem not merely plausible, but inevitable. These days, we call this a “reality distortion field,” and those of us who love finely-grained urban life should probably be grateful that — but for trivial exceptions, and those all at Expo ’67 — not a single one of the projects Dahinden covers generated a sufficiently strong field to actually get built. But if there’s any one aspect these proposals all have in common, and which seems by way of contrast to be so sorely lacking in the contemporary urbanist visual imaginary, it’s that.
For all its goofily quaint exaltation of the “rational” and the technical, for all its highly problematic assertions (“Today acceptance of responsibility for the future presupposes total planning”), and even for all its barely-disguised loathing of actual urban places (“Our cities are in their death throes — do we still need cities?”), Urban Structures for the Future is at root a primer in audacity. Given the magnitude of the challenges we currently face, it strikes me that we could all do with a little more of that.
That’s what I sense behind the current blip of interest in things Mega, anyway, if blip there truly be: a latent, as-yet-inchoate desire for a more verveful set of responses to our problems. This time around, it needn’t (and can’t) mean obliterating a fabric that works in the name of some despotic vision of Total Design. It needn’t even be anything particularly large in size or extent. But if there’s one thing there’s both scope and need for in the contemporary city, it’s bolder, more imaginative, more vivid and inspiring ways of addressing the situation we find ourselves in. And that’s the thought we at Urbanscale will leave you with, as this first, painful decade of the twenty-first century passes blessedly into history: our best wishes for an audacious, verveful 2011. (AG)