by Jerry ElengicalJul 17, 2021
Blame the Eiffel Tower. Constructed for Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle, denounced as barbarous by Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant and Paul Verlaine, it pulled in two million visitors upon opening. Today, around seven million tickets are purchased every year. That’s some achievement for architecture that offers a good view and little more.
Ever since, cities have employed structures of dubious utility to attract tourists and corporations. At great expense, flashy edifices are inserted into skylines in the name of regeneration, promising visitors an extraordinary experience, with a mediocre restaurant or museum thrown in to justify the price. Brussels' Atomium, Seattle's Space Needle and the Montreal Biosphere, for Expos 58, 62 and 67 respectively, are among the best known and most enduring examples of such "experience architecture". Another, the London Eye wheel constructed for the millennium, now attracts more paying visitors than any other UK attraction.
Why do these particular structures work as destinations? Central locations, on this evidence, play a major part in success. In terms of beauty, however, they are a mixed bag. But all take care to be eye-catching – a task to which, it seems, engineers are often well-suited. The absence of a big-name architect could even be seen as a plus. The one exception, the Biosphere’s designer Buckminster Fuller, never received professional training, and his diverse achievements transcend architecture.
In addition, they all benefitted from the energy, adrenaline, visitors and funds associated with a major international celebration. Bolstered by an Olympics or World’s Fair, potential follies can emerge as prestigious centrepieces, overcoming public scepticism, high property values, stretched finances and uncertain returns. Not that there’s a guarantee. The Observation Towers in Flushing Meadows built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Osaka's Tower of the Sun for Expo 70, and London's Millennium Dome have, over the years, met with patchy success, not helped by their less-than-central locations – it seems an experience has to be pretty awesome to lure tourists away from where they really want to be.
With the conspicuous success of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, most efforts to leverage architecture for urban renewal have shifted towards arts and cultural institutions. In London, at least, recent attempts to persist with more whimsical experiences have, by and large, descended into farce. The later insertion of a tubular slide by Carsten Höller into Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s swirling Orbit, built for the 2012 Olympics, has failed to stem its heavy losses. Two other projects – Thomas Heatherwick’s costly, impractical and dubiously financed Garden Bridge, and Norman Foster’s equally expensive (and unappealingly tumescent) Tulip tower – have fallen by the wayside after intense and protracted disputes.
These days, such grand projects tend to be met with a collective roll of the eyeballs – they feel outdated, unnecessary, gauche, uncertain, unaffordable. For better or worse, priorities and necessities have changed. Elsewhere, the extraordinary may still be possible. Ain Dubai, the world’s tallest observation wheel, opened in October to coincide with the launch of Expo 2020 in the Emirates to impressive effect. Construction started on OPEN Architecture’s sculptural Sun Tower in Yantai, alongside the Yellow Sea, just this year. Today, all that London can deliver is the Marble Arch Mound, a scraggy effort to lure shoppers to Oxford Street post-lockdown, now disassembled and disowned by its architects, MVRDV.
Most private developers have long favoured the cheaper option of public sculpture, splashing works by Eduardo Chillida or Jeff Koons around upmarket districts to imbue them with requisite prestige. Recent troubled experiments with experience architecture, chasing monumentality, interactivity, publicity and footfall – Heatherwick’s controversial (and now roped-off) Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards is one example – suggest that this dominant conservatism is wise. In short, a Richard Serra and an ice rink remain the way to go.
In truth, many architects aren’t cut out for this sort of work. Temporary pavilions can be fruitful, allowing emerging stars to build careers and older ones to manifest artistic ambitions. But, charged with designing permanent arcadia, with few checks from inexperienced clients, ill-defined briefs and elastic budgets, big-name architects and their patrons risk producing monuments to self-belief rather than public desire. There would seem to be more important and appropriate areas – residential, cultural, financial – on which architectural training, talents and tunnel vision can be applied. And there’s another body of people adept at taking us places we didn’t know we wanted to go – they are called artists.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)