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The Post-Big Era: Will Small-Scale Ingenuity Replace Large-Scale Architecture?

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.

Dallas Centre for the Performing ArtsThe chatter this week about the end of big-projects comes three weeks after the opening of a performing arts complex in Dallas (left), which is among the last of its kind. "No doubt many saw the recent opening of Dallas's imposing new performing arts center as a welcome sign of civic confidence during hard times," Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in The New York Times. "But it also signaled a closing."

miami art museumThere is at least one cultural complex still in the pipeline before the breed dies out. A cultural district in Miami on a 30-acre landfill beside Biscayne Bay is already funded, so it appears likely to be built. It will include a science museum by Grimshaw Architects and an art museum (right) by Herzog & de Meuron.

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.

jane jacobsThe Post-Big Era arrives, fittingly enough, along with renewed interest in Jane Jacobs (left), the activist and writer who in the 1950s and 1960s fought off the huge public-works projects that Robert Moses tried to impose on New York. Among other things, Moses would have built a 10-lane elevated highway through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. Her campaign to preserve the messy vitality and small-scale ingenuity of the streets is chronicled in Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, a new book by Anthony Flint.