William JR Curtis sees Herzog & de Meuron’s ‘Triangle Tower’ as irrelevant extravaganza leading to the destruction of collective memory and urbanity
Architecture today risks degenerating into a game of formalist tricks and virtual images played out on the computer screen. Everything is done to seduce politicians and investors with flashy marketing proposals which promote global investment, the privatisation of urban space and the ‘society of spectacle’. Where towers are concerned there is a weird atmosphere of contest (the Bilbao effect mixed up with the Dubai phenomenon) which requires that buildings compete noisily with each other and with their urban context, a visual manifestation of laissez-faire marketing economics which I have elsewhere called ‘Viagra urbanism’ (see AR June 2012). The flickering image on the web takes on a reality of its own and is sometimes sufficient to attract investment without a real building being built. Designers and their clients explore individualist forms in virtual space yet claim that they are creating ‘iconic’ buildings enhancing the skyline of the city. In reality, these operations are not in the public interest at all for they embody the transient investment portfolios of a rampant plutocracy without any sense of local loyalty. As usual, ‘architecture’ and its promotional mechanisms are used to camouflage the manoeuvres of political and financial power.
In the past few years the ‘star system’ has entered an unholy marriage with the forces of international capital. The witch doctors of land speculation and their lackeys the international star architects (several of them happy to vaunt their ‘Pritzker Prize’ brand), suggest that their ‘iconic’ towers somehow add to the identity of the city. This is a specious argument, above all for cities like London and Paris which are centuries old and which are already amply enriched by monuments in the public sphere. Major metropolitan centres are being turned into vertical banks of financial property speculation remote from the real needs of citizens in place. Everything is up for grabs and the public realm is gradually whittled away. In the globalised city, local identity is killed off in protected consumerist and tax havens for the nomadic super rich. World cities turn into caricatures of themselves as marketable brands. The skyline is transformed into a babble of techno kitsch gadgets lacking in urbanity: walkie talkies, gherkins, shards, even triangular glass towers.
The ‘Tour Triangle’ (‘Triangle Tower’) proposed by Herzog and de Meuron for a site at the Porte de Versailles on the south-west edge of Paris was conceived in 2008 shortly before the financial crisis. It fits into this general pattern of declamatory form with little meaning behind it. The client was the Unibail-Rodamco real estate and commercial property group who had already put their weight behind two gestural projects for La Défense, the Tour Phare (literally the ‘Light House Tower’) and the Tour Signale. A promotional video of Herzog and de Meuron’s colossal triangular intervention attempted to legitimise it by ‘flashing’ on well-known Parisian monuments such as Pei’s glass pyramid of the Louvre. The difference in size and function was conveniently overlooked: the project for the Tour Triangle is 180 metres high and very nearly as long at the base. The presentation and marketing images tried to minimise the volume and its visual impact by resorting to computer tricks. These made the slab seem more transparent than it really is, minimised the loss of light by cast shadows, and glamorised the tower with flattering and fictitious views. Curiously this dubious real estate operation had the full support of the so-called ‘Left Wing’ mayor of Paris, Bernard Delanoë. You recall that another ‘Left Wing’ mayor, Ken Livingstone, wanted to make London imitate Shanghai or Dubai.