Okay, that lunch I took part in last week at the Philip Johnson Glass House wasn’t actually served on the grass, but from certain angles it looked that way. The conversation — ten people sitting around a table to talk about the problems of civic planning and architecture in New York and elsewhere — will eventually be published in some form by the organizers, so I won’t try to summarize it here. But one big theme of the day was a shared frustration about the process of public input into large building projects. There was an easy consensus around the table that things like height, density, impact on traffic and the environment, are plainly matters of community interest. But that leaves open the question of how to determine just what “the community” actually wants, how long the process should go on and whether the public should have a say on aspects of the design that don’t touch on those quality of life issues, meaning all of the other things that go under the heading “the architecture”.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately because the new Terminal Five at London’s Heathrow Airport will be opening next week, one of those muscular-elegant high tech facilities from the firm of Richard Rogers. I had a chance to preview it when I was in London last fall. Before work could begin the whole thing was famously subjected to the longest period of public review — four years — in British history. That’s about the time it took for the new Terminal Three at Beijing Airport, one of those muscular-elegant facilities from the office of Norman Foster, to go from conception to ribbon cutting. Then again, in China they don’t have to deal with inconveniences like community boards, court challenges and meaningful environmental reviews.
The relative ease of getting big projects through in places not burdened by democracy explains the willingness — hell, the eagerness — of major architects to work for regimes that don’t pass the smell test. Think of Rem Koolhaas (and everybody else) in China, Foster in Russia, Zaha Hadid in Azerbaijan. And it’s no surprise that lately we’re seeing a reappraisal of Robert Moses, the 20th century “power broker” who forced through some of New York’s biggest public projects. (Old take on Moses — municipal autocrat and destroyer of neighborhoods. New take — hey, he got things done.) Even if this strikes me as no surprise, I’d rather not see autocracy become the Next Great Idea. At lunch last week we certainly didn’t come up with the perfect compromise between the Endless Review Process and the Maximum Leader. But we got what you might call the parameters of the problem (literally) on the table.