PRINT March 2006

UN Studio

The building is primarily envisaged as an urban icon, a reference point for the reconstruction of a new identity for the city.

UN STUDIO PURPOSES a twenty-first-century library for a Newer Orleans. “Our vision is to understand the building as a tool for reestablishing a balanced ecology between culture and commerce, neighborhoods and larger units,” the designers say, putting forward a complex structure that attempts to reconcile the many dichotomies of the pre-Katrina city.

For inspiration they look to the archetypal ziggurat, a stepped pyramid form that recurs in cultures across the globe (thus belonging to none exclusively)—transforming it into an irregular zigzag of linear volumes wrapped in a crystalline glass skin. As the form twists upward, it creates both interior spaces and exterior greenswards, alternately becoming of, in, and outside the natural landscape in a way that rebuts any contention that the rebuilders of a city must choose sides in a struggle between humans and their environment.

The general organization of the mediatheque is a stepped series of distinct environments: sun-seeking versus shadow-rich, open versus enclosed, serrated in profile versus smooth in elevation. The darker areas function as storage while the public areas are floodlit and contiguous to the terraces.

Functionally, the building aspires to facilitate the capture and exchange of all types of data, incorporating media stacks, city offices, assembly spaces, classrooms, exhibition halls, even cafés and gardens. Areas with different needs are segregated according to their access to daylight, storage being housed on the undersides of the canted volumes and occupied zones falling at upper edges where sun is abundant. UN Studio imagines it as an urban “attractor” in a new local network of such attractors that create and manage a reenergized flow of people and information through the urban fabric. This idea that architecture forms nodes in a kind of psychographic network, and that these nodes can, if properly designed, function as amplifiers of a cultural signal implies (for good or ill) that good planning is never enough to spur successful redevelopment. The Newer Orleans may be shaped by urban planners and civil engineers but ultimately depends on architects to bring it to life.

Like much recent Dutch architecture, UN Studio’s building does not shoehorn a diverse program into a rigidly defined platonic container. Taking a cue instead from developmental biology, the proposed design allows the program elements to develop into three-dimensional space organically, supported by an exterior structural membrane, expressing the complexity of its contents without reservation. This is a communal space for a modern city, a mediatheque, or, in UN Studio’s words, “a type of ‘playground,’ not a territory one holds or possesses but rather a setting that people transiently share.” At the most basic level, UN Studio’s approach denies the slide toward privatization and compartmentalization that marks the recent history of many American cities, and suggests that when a city’s most prominent public space—the Superdome—has been transformed into a symbol of neglect and despair, people need more than a metaphorical roof over their heads.

*All project descriptions were written by Kevin Pratt, an architect based in Philadelphia and a regular contributor to Artforum.

The archetypal form of the ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat (and related structures from antiquity) is the basis of UN Studio’s design, which transforms that sacred, symbolic structure into a contemporary model combining public and private programs.

Exploratory studies of various contemporary forms enabling the mixture of enclosed and outdoor spaces characteristic of the ziggurat.

Exploratory studies of various contemporary forms enabling the mixture of enclosed and outdoor spaces characteristic of the ziggurat.