Keep Your Eye On the Ball

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Proposal for Waterfront City, OMA, 2008/ Image: OMA

Earlier this month the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the Rem Koolhaas firm, unveiled plans for Waterfront City, an instant city to be built on an artificial island off the coast of Dubai. The focal point was a 44-story spherical building. At first sight it was a bit startling, which is no doubt what it was intended to be, in Rem’s best “Yes, It’s True, I Am the Man of the Future” manner. But then you remember how long this idea has been gestating, and not just at Rem’s office.

Five years ago, UN Studio and Gregg Lynn’s outfit Form, were moving in that direction with their unbuilt proposal for a European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt.

Proposal for European Central Bank, UNStudio-Form, 2003 / Image: UNStudio

And of course there was an inkling of the same idea in James Polshek’s design for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, the planetarium at New York’s Museum of Natural History.

Rose Center for Earth and Space, New York, Polshek Partners, 2000 /Photo: JEFF GOLDBERG/ESTO

And as Polshek acknowledged when the Rose Center was announced, all concepts for a spherical building hark back to Etienne-Louis Boullee’s great 1784 conception for a 500 ft. tall cenotaph for Isaac Newton.

Proposal for Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, Etienne-Louis Boullee, 1784/ Image: WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

Boulllee of course intended the sphere as a perfect symbol for reason itself, the epitome of Enlightenment design. Bur we have mixed feelings about reason these days. (Didn’t technology bring us global warming and the bomb?) Also about cities and modernity in general. Maybe that’s why Rem’s ball, with its hint of an all seeing eye, has a slightly sinister cast.

Or maybe it’s because it looks too much like this precursor.

A nod to Sean Dodson at The Guardian for making the Darth Vader connection.