The extra-large architectural complex–art museums, libraries, office complexes–built so prolifically over the past decade are commonly described as expressions of civic pride. They might just as easily be called grandiose expressions of runaway prosperity and municipal vanity. Whatever you call them, shrinking government revenue and newly parsimonious corporate donors have combined to bring the curtain down on mega-projects. Welcome to the post-big epoch.
Nothing signals the death of an era more conclusively than academic post-mortems. On Saturday the Cooper Union held an all-day conference, “Arrested Development,” to discuss the dubious fate of mega-projects. Point of debate: Are projects like the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and sustainable neighborhoods like the Beddington Zero Energy Development in England (above) beneficial or harmful to surrounding communities? Like many such mega-projects, Atlantic Yards would eliminate existing streets, overwhelm the surrounding brownstone neighborhood and add an estimated 40,000 new car trips every day.
At a symposium called “After Bigness” held Monday at the school of architecture at Columbia, Alan Berger, an MIT professor and specialist in the reuse of industrial landscapes, argued that the realities of efficiency and waste will shape large-scale architecture in the coming years. “The solutions aren’t coming from spatialists and formalists,” he said.
If big projects are dying, is it because of the intractable difficulties of working on a large scale? It took five years to build the World Trade Center towers in the early 1960s. Not a single structure has been completed in the eight years since 9/11.