Parkinson's law and architectural hubris

Beware of 'iconic' buildings with funny names; they often presage economic collapse.

My college art history courses never went deep enough into architecture to make me fully fluent in the vocabulary of volutes and pilasters and such, although I couldn't always resist showing off what I knew. I once described my office to a visitor as being in a "Greek Revival" building. It was the right term, but probably didn't help my visitor find me.

Lately I've run across architectural vocabulary of a different sort: the goofy but often painfully apt nicknames bestowed on so-called iconic buildings.

A recent report by Mark Gilbert in Bloomberg Businessweek took note of several high-profile – quite literally high-profile – office towers under construction in London. There's the Leadenhall Building, aka the "Cheese Grater." Construction is on hold but set to resume next year. Near St. Paul's Cathedral, something known as the "Walkie-Talkie" building is under construction.

And rising above them all is Renzo Piano's "Shard of Glass," beside London Bridge. Set for completion in 2012, the Shard, at 1,017 feet, will be the tallest building in Europe.

But all too often, Mr. Gilbert writes, what goes up – and up and up – architecturally is followed by what tanks financially. The Greek term is hubris, excessive pride. A few years after Swiss Reinsurance moved into its 40-story "Gherkin," in 2004, the British economy went into recession. The completion of two previous "tallest" buildings – Canary Wharf Tower in 1990 and NatWest Tower, London's tallest building in 1980 – also coincided with recessions.

Architectural critics distinguish between buildings that call attention to themselves as objects and those that create a space, that help make a place – as the bow-front townhouses of Louisburg Square on Boston's Beacon Hill, for instance, create a sort of outdoor room. The "Gherkin" and the "Cheese Grater" are "object" buildings.

Meanwhile, David Brussat, who writes on architecture at the Providence Journal, has been following this tale of towers from another perspective: how well they work as architecture. He calls London "the world capital of buildings with derisive monikers" and writes, "The nicknames fill in for the absence of formal clarity, the purpose of which is to reveal a building's function. Banks no longer look like banks, churches no longer look like churches, city halls no longer look like city halls, etc. So people call them what they do look like, and the more ridiculous the better."

I wonder what C. Northcote Parkin­son would have thought of the Cheese Grater. He is best known for his law that "work will expand to the time available." But he also wrote about how, when organizations grow into larger buildings, they tend to lose their dynamism. He wrote long before computers. But he would have completely understood the difference between a start-up in a garage and an established company with a sprawling corporate campus.

I suspect he would have had ideas about the value to a business of being located in a building that is part of a place rather than one that towers over one.

Not all names for buildings are what Mr. Brussat calls "derisive monikers." The Potato and Onion Building in Pittsburgh, for instance, a brick warehouse now being adapted for offices and shops, came by its name honestly, by storing potatoes and onions. It's an example of an architectural vocabulary that is down to earth and innocent of hubris.

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