Skyscrapers, up close and personal

While it may be reasonable to assume that the items featured in a museum exhibition be small enough to fit into a room (or at least into the museum itself), or that they would actually, well, exist, such is not always the case.

This summer, for example, the Museum of Modern Art has been casting a curator's eye on skyscrapers - few of which are finished structures, and none of which would fit through the front door. In the MoMA's temporary Queen's headquarters, this dilemma was solved with the use of models. On the companion website, the solution included, but was not limited to, the 2-D world of artists' conceptions - and given the necessarily virtual nature of the artifacts in both locations, and the opportunity for leisurely at-home viewing online, MoMA: Tall Buildings may be one of those few exhibits which is actually better surveyed on the web.

Online-and-in-person, Tall Buildings features twenty-five skyscrapers, designed for locations around the world within - roughly - the last ten years. This isn't a list of the twenty-five tallest structures, and as mentioned, not all the buildings here have actually been - or, in some cases, ever will be-built. Rather, these examples have been chosen (as with any self-respecting curated exhibition) for their innovation, and value in the context of, "compare and contrast."

And there is a good deal of variety to facilitate that purpose - not to mention a few examples that might generate reactions along the lines of, "They can't be serious" or, "What were they thinking?" (Also a common phenomenon at many art exhibits.)

As for the site itself, the all-Flash production commences with an altitude profile of the featured buildings - presented in a single silhouetted skyline and individually accessible via the "growth chart" that remains on the home page. (Opening into its own window, the exhibit requires a screen resolution of at least 800x600 pixels - and uses all of that space on the small screen.)

Choose a building, and the site presents a full page portrait of the subject, along with such facts as height, date-of-design (and projected date-of-completion if applicable), and links to detailed information. An Intro page reveals the building's geographic location, relative stature in its home town, and the thinking behind the architect's design. The Profile goes into deeper architectural detail with site and floor plans, the distribution of space into such categories as commercial, residential, and recreational use, and minor details like the budgeted cost. Finally, the Gallery offers whatever artist's renditions are available. (Options here vary greatly from project to project, and range from very basic sketches to near photo-realistic digital images and one or two actual photographs.)

There are three options for navigating between buildings - all convenient and unobtrusive. First, Previous and Next buttons reside in the lower left of every page, next to a "By Heights" option, which reloads the skyline silhouettes - this time more generously spaced along a scrolling scale. (Visitors can also compare by geographic distribution, each building's total area, and use of floor space.) Finally, a drop down menu at the top of every page holds the previous options as well as a set of "Design Issues" links - which explore such factors as aerodynamic considerations (e.g., using tanks of water on your roof to reduce swaying in high winds), and Structural Technologies.

Of course, for the technically unschooled, the primary impression gained from the site will be the simple impact of the designs - and they are nothing if not varied.

While the EDF building in Paris may look fairly conventional, Korea's Industrialized Housing System looks as factory-built as its name. The Swiss Reinsurance Headquarters in London is a Freudian's dream (so to speak), and the United Architects proposal for the new World Trade Center seemed to be making the statement, "We can do the Leaning Tower of Pisa - but better!" As for the Max Reinheardt Haus in Berlin? Well, you'll just have to see it.

Unfortunately for those who might be living or working around some of these buildings, as impressive as they are in isolation, their architects didn't seem particularly concerned with how their creation fit into the surrounding neighborhoods. (Prince Charles, famous for calling a proposal for Trafalgar Square, "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend," and declaring that, "It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined...by yet another giant glass stump," will probably not be a fan of the 1000 foot London Bridge Tower - a giant glass 'pyramid' standing twice as high as anything around it.) Each case is, naturally, a matter of personal taste, but sometimes, no matter how majestic, out-of-place is still out-of-place.

The amount of information available at Tall Buildings is considerable - though the efficient design, and repetitive nature of each example's data gives one the impression of a much more basic production. Pop-in text boxes and images, and scrolling navigation keep everything in one window, and even with the tight fit of an 800x600 screen, things inside never seem cramped.

One example of the site's efficient use of space are the project-specific navigation bars, which sit squarely in the center section of each structure's home page, and then slide up to the top of the page when more detailed content is loaded. Another device places dropped back silhouettes of historic tall buildings (Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, etc.) behind the "By Heights" scrollbar - seamlessly providing a recognizable context with which to compare the up-and-comers. (Though the dropped back skyline does seem to indicate that the 1,450 foot Sears Tower is taller than the 1,483 foot Petronas Towers.) The only feature I found lacking was the ability to move laterally - for example, from one building's image gallery directly to another.

Given that this is an exhibition for a museum of art (as opposed to history or technology), it's actually of relatively little importance whether or not these artifacts ever move from the drawing board to the street. It's the thinking behind the buildings that's on display here, and MoMa's website allows visitors to peruse those thoughts with commendable efficiency.

MoMa: Tall Buildings can be found at http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2004/tallbuildings/.

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