The End of the World As We Know It

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There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week in which Rem Koolhaas was asked if he thought the recession-related slowdown in new building construction was something more — something like “the ending of an architectural era.”

Here’s what Koolhaas replied:

“I don’t even know about the word ‘downturn’. It’s seems simply the end to a period.”

That stayed with me because I’d been having the same thought over the last few weeks as I was looking over a new book. Architecture Now 6 is part of the series that the German publisher Taschen produces periodically to round up interesting buildings from the preceding year or two. This volume was being wrapped up last year, sometime just before or after Lehman Brothers imploded in September and took the Dow with it. Looking over the 70-plus projects that were included — plus a few artworks with architectural implications — it was hard not to wonder whether Philip Jodidio, the architecture historian who presides over the series, hadn’t inadvertently produced a book that should have been called Twilight of the Gods: The Last Moments of the Great 21st Century Architecture Boom.

It was an era that actually began around 1997, when Frank Gehry completed the Guggenheim, Bilbao and it may play out for another year or two as projects still under construction come on line. (Or fail to — a few of the examples in Jodidio’s book, like Norman Foster’s Russia Tower and Crystal Island, both planned for Moscow, have already been put on hold.) If you follow architecture at all you know that during that period there was no prevailing style, just a prevailing sense of freedom, a thousand flowers bloomed. Zaha Hadid’s Nordpark Cable Railway in Innsbruck, Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic Stadium in Beijing, Steven Holl’s Bloch Building addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum — the roll call of projects in Jodidio’s book is a reminder of how much spectacular work was produced just in the last couple of years.

It wasn’t just the freely available money that opened up the practice of architecture over the last decade. New design and manufacturing software was part of it. And the novelty of the new work generated more media coverage, which in turn educated a new generation of clients with an expanded notion of what a building might look like.

But more than any other art form, architecture is linked to prosperity. Even poor artists can scrape together the money to buy supplies, but architects need clients. Now the money has dried up and so have the projects, and it may take a while before things bounce back. So you can’t help but look at this gorgeous compilation as a snapshot of an era that has come to a close, or at least to an extended pause. You turn the pages and think, well, it was beautiful while it lasted.

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