Look Up—Way Up!

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Architecture that oppresses the human spirit and curtails social freedom can look beautiful in pictures. Go figure! Hong Kong photographer Andy Yeung has created a series of images taken from the ground looking up—waaaay up! Yet, his photos document an architecture denying principles of human scale thriving since the times of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

The problem with the Modernism began about 100 years ago when the movement pivoted to usher in the “Machine Age”. The fiat of this Modernism was replacing human scale—human anything really—with a machine. Since most of us don’t understand what ‘human scale’ is all about, the values being given up wholesale seemed unimportant. The idea of making everything ‘huge’ seemed exciting at the time, even liberating. In Spanish ‘full speed’ translates as ‘a toda maquina’ [literally: all with machines].

One hundred years later we can use photographer Andy Yeung pictures to measure the results. At the top of the post is a classic shot looking up the middle of 20+ storey atrium. The feeling in the photograph soon turns from ‘up lifting’ to a sense that we are stuck in the bowels of an Orwellian society… Can we go upstairs? Do we need a card with special permissions to make the elevator work? Is Big Brother watching?

You bet. The electronic surveillance is not visible in the photo, yet present everywhere.

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This image is reminiscent of the shapes we see in conches and sea shells. Mineral formations sometimes present this way inside quartz when rocks are sliced open and polished. Of course, this is yet another internal atrium. The photograph has a kind of ‘other worldly’ quality. It is  as if the clouds had parted and a Biblical god was about to speak to his chosen people. Somehow, one suspects that the reality behind this illusion is more restrictive and privileged than awe inspiring.

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Here, the architecture quotes the Renaissance era when humanist values returned to western European capitals on their way to taking over the architecture and town planning traditions throughout the west. But nothing could be more antithetical than to use the elements of the humanistic tradition as appliqué in yet another tower atrium. While the classical architecture cut its reputation on relationships measured in simple, small whole numbers like  1 : 2 : 3, this Modernism wants nothing to do with anything small or simple. The sides of the atrium are in a ratio of 2 : 3, so far so good. However; the height of the atrium measures 10x or more. Thus, the ratios appear monstrously distorted as 10 : 2 : 3. The only thing we can say for sure about this is that the sun will never shine in any of the windows lower than the top 3 storeys. Never mind being able to open the windows to get fresh air. At these proportions, sound transmission from one unit to the other across the atrium rules out anything but hermetically sealed windows and air conditioned interiors. Energy efficiencies be damned!

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Of course, as we move down the social ladder we will see new rules coming into play. In this set of buildings the sun still cannot penetrate lower than the top three floors, but the noise generated in each of the suites can reverberate up and down the ‘atrium’ with impunity. Social conditions break down when towers are used for housing… Welcome to the ‘hood! Here you will never get to know your neighbour. The possibility for a chance encounter on a face-to-face basis is precluded by this brand of planning. Thus, even here the best option becomes to hang out an air conditioning unit to hum in the atrium, then seal the windows and doors to block out noise from the neighbours. Who needs a breeze when the fan is on continuously?

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In the workplace things get worse. Note the proximity of the two office buildings. Barely separated by the distance of 1 or 2 floor-heights. They stand spitting distance apart, their spacing most likely generated by logical considerations during the construction stage. Nobody—except for people in the top two floors—can see the sky. The better result here is to imagine that the towers are built on their side, separated by a reflecting pool. In that case, this picture shows two human-scale buildings about 3 storeys high reflecting on the surface of a shallow pool that is part of a passive cooling and water recirculating system. It is their ‘reflection’ on the surface of the water makes them appear to be twice their size. In that case, strolling along the side of the reflecting pool, or opening windows to capture breezes made cooler by coming into contact with the surface of the water, adds quality to the human experience of place. Underwater lighting would delight inhabitants by night and goldfish captivate the attention of young imaginations by day. But, of course, these calculations are never part of this architecture. Instead, a void separates two towers that take away human sense experience, giving nothing back as they block the sun and the sky. Oh, but we can see the sky if we stand in just this one position and look up, way up, and snap a picture!

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Taken to its logical conclusion, repetitive machine age Modernism can create fascinating effects like the bending of a grid of precast concrete pictured above. Is this what it looks like when gravitational fields bend a beam of light? Of course, it is important to point out that the effect is more powerful in photography than in real life. Besides, the people who inhabit this building behind the concrete grid spend all their time hidden inside the bee hive spaces and almost certainly NEVER stand on this spot and ‘Look Up’. What in reproduction seems like an inspiring place is experienced in reality as oppressive architecture.

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Finally, we come to the motif of the twin towers with the heroic bridge. The photograph shows us the texture on the skin of the buildings in dramatic fashion. But it also reveals an architecture of abstract objects—machines for living as Swiss-born Parisian architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris) famously put it.

In the final analysis, these projects maximize profits, benefiting the few over the many. As far as improving living conditions, boosting social functioning or creating memorable places—they are all, bar none, abject failures. After the first one hundred years of the ‘brave’ new experiment—there are no results to point to where towers have made a positive difference anywhere but in the private purses of the developers and the public purses that tax them. The happiness index plummets as the corruption index ominously soars. It is just too easy for politicians to lose sight of their masters when there is this much ‘loose cash’ sloshing around. The towers are a menace to society. Full stop. They create urban spaces that crush the human spirit rather than celebrate it and threaten our democracy.

Nice pictures. Horrible message.

 http://www.andyyeungphotography.com/Look-Up/i-m99Gp3j/A

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