PRINT Summer 2008


Norman Foster’s Crystal Island

IF YOU E-MAIL Norman Foster’s London-based architecture firm to request information about his design for Crystal Island, a project recently approved for construction in Moscow, you will receive, with no accompanying note, a terse list of “facts and figures.” Perhaps this response is appropriate. Overriding fatigue with the dimensional stats that have accompanied new waves of building in China, Dubai, and Russia, mainstream media outlets and hipster blogs alike obligingly repeat the numbers with apparent amazement, as the builders strive to outdo one another’s superlative expressions of size.

Crystal Island is to be the biggest building in the world. It is a building as microenvironment—a very, very big tent enclosing an enclave of apartments, offices, stores, theaters, a hotel, a museum, a school, and even “public space.” Its square footage is roughly equal to that of four Pentagons. It is also very tall, with an observation deck that rises almost one thousand feet into the air. In section drawings, curling arrows indicate air convection currents and exchanges through the tent’s chimney and through a breathable membrane of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), a lightweight recyclable plastic film, with better light transmission than glass, that will envelop the structure.

A few stock assumptions usually make it into stories about new megaprojects such as Crystal Island. Critics come in on cue with familiar arguments. Waving a righteous sword at a nonexistent enemy, they attempt to convict the architect of creating the classic conditions of oppression: not enough public space, exacerbation of class hierarchies, etc. Embedded in the subtext are the default political motives for global development: vaguely progressive neoliberal sentiments in which the fabled market leverages a will toward participatory democracy. Some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are being written not in the language of law and diplomacy but in the language of architecture and urbanism. Yet these changes are framed—by Foster, his team at Foster + Partners, and indeed, by those crafting the reception of contemporary global architecture—as remarkably simple stories.

In the tale of Crystal Island, the narrative hook is the notion that this mixed-use behemoth may be “the world’s first arcology.” Arcology, put simply, is the merger of architecture and ecology, or, more precisely, the use of architecture to create a self-contained human habitat. Such structures may appear as scenery in dystopian science fiction such as William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, or as the instrument of redemption for self-sufficient utopian communities that wish to reform the relationship between settlement and environment. Although the word has been adopted to describe even the early futurology of H. G. Wells, architect Paolo Soleri is commonly considered arcology’s popularizing mascot. In his book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (1969), Soleri proposed gathering large populations into an intensified, microcosmic city fueled by solar energy and designed to reduce the waste and isolation of sprawl. Immediate access to natural and agricultural landscapes would be a byproduct of this conserving “urban effect.” Soleri designed high-tech projects such as Stonebow, a stealth-bomber-shaped bridge in which two hundred thousand people could live dangling over a canyon, and Asteromo, a spaceship for seventy-five thousand people. Arcosanti, the town that he founded in Arizona in 1970 and his only built project, remains a dusty, half-finished desert commune, its inhabitants selling “cause bells” to passing visitors for extra funding. Arcology needs amnesia. As with many zero-hour manifestos of the twentieth century, Soleri’s book does not dwell on the possibility of failure. There is no Plan B, no adjustment for contingencies. Utopia is utopia. Each new project retains the status of the ultimate, and, for those who do not heed the call, portends dramatic consequences for resources, population growth, or global aggression.

Indeed, plenty of enthusiasts have been drawn to the shining monumentality and purity of the withdrawal that arcology offers (whether or not they use Soleri’s term), or simply to the carnival attractions of the megabuilding and its stake in the Guinness World Records. Colorado’s Drop City and other countercultural geodesic-dome communities of the 1960s and ’70s were atomized expressions of arcological desire somewhere on a continuum between Buckminster Fuller’s vision of a dome over midtown Manhattan and the popular ’70s terrarium. In the ’90s, the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s TM organization hired the firm founded by Minoru Yamasaki (perhaps best known for the World Trade Center) to design a globe-spanning network of Peace Towers, conceived as the tallest buildings on earth. The idea was that the meditation of the one hundred thousand acolytes housed in each building would maintain harmony in that slice of the world. Meanwhile, an obscure consortium of developers has been trying for years to launch Freedom Ship, an oceangoing vessel that is to be one mile long and 750 feet wide and that proposes to continually circle the world. These are just a sampling of the real estate schemes designed to colonize towers, oceans, and atmospheres with microcosmic environments.

In the company of all these exalted projects, Crystal Island needs amnesia as well. Foster surely does not wish to associate himself with Soleri, intentional communities, or any other harebrained arcological aspirations. More important, though, the firm needs the world to set aside its contemporary understanding that the chemical atmosphere itself is the firmament or ceiling and the planet the arcology. Miniaturizations and microcosms do not offer refuge from this overwhelming condition, nor do we need an atmospheric toy to teach the lessons of self-regulating environments, when climate change is already providing dramatic instruction.

Foster + Partners’ own environmentally friendly skyscrapers and megabuildings—many of them slated for construction in the former Soviet states—would seem to have already reckoned with that planetary recalibration. The supertall Russia Tower, for which ground was broken in Moscow in 2007, deploys natural ventilation systems and day lighting (meaning various features that maximize the penetration of sunlight into the interior spaces); and two projects in the Kazakh capital Astana—the giant pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, completed in 2006, and the Khan Shatyry Entertainment Center, another ETFE tent, now under construction—are also in tune with the green ethos. But Crystal Island—with a battery of green technologies including solar panels and wind turbines—projects this ethos into a different sphere of logic.

Raising the stakes of careerist architectural ambitions to their perhaps outmoded limit, Foster seems to be gambling that his team has the technology to deliver on the old promises that come with some of the most totalizing, homeostatic, monistic, utopian dreams that the twentieth century had to offer. However much its architects might distance themselves from the old scripts of arcology, Crystal Island is, in fact, an arcology for the age of global warming. As such, it should be situated alongside other hyperbuilding projects that aspire to rehabilitate the kooky genealogy of the megastructure via the tropes of sustainability. Among these are Sky City 1000 by the Takenaka Corporation, X-Seed 4000 by the Taisei Construction Corporation, and TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid by the Shimizu Corporation (all designed for Tokyo), as well as Eugene Tsui’s Ultima Tower for San Francisco and Eloy Celaya, María Rosa Cervera, and Javier Gómez Pioz’s Bionic Tower, which has no site yet.

Arcology in the mode of Foster + Partners, however, has several salient characteristics. It will, first and foremost, be built. It will rest on the firm’s vast body of high-tech research, compiled over the past several decades. In terms of environmental efficiency, its size will really offer only a percentage increase over other large green buildings. It is not a reformed city but rather a massively capitalized single project within a city. Many of the crackpot schemes discussed above have been, for years, just on the verge of acquiring the necessary funding, but Crystal Island and its sisters have found their perfect match: petrodollars, sheltered and recuperated in monuments to environmentalism.

Renderings of most of these recent utopias feature buildings breaking through the clouds, catching a glint of sun, or seeming to emit crystalline rays of vitalist energy in a misty old futurological setting. The render- ings of Crystal Island, which is sited on a spit of land jutting into the Moscow River, indulge to the fullest in this aesthetic regime, signaling sophisticated technological muscle with the plain transparency of a gospel tract. In a parallel reading, we might ask whether we have grown accustomed to architecture that appears to pan- der condescendingly to the global operators of emerging markets. Russia is in a special position here—not a nonaligned country talking back to a (super)power, but a transformed superpower that occasionally even trades on its crass new bling. Are the renderings, then, also indications that kitschy shiny tents, tacky crystals, and leftover heroic scripts of modernism are fine to serve up to these customers? Or do these primitive images have something more complicated to say about the fictions and obfuscations necessary to power? The portrayals have “New Oldness,” or “Old Newness”—expressions that the activist collective Retort has used to characterize the mixtures of the sophisticated and the crude in contemporary politics. However complex the market, it will trade on totemic icons. The public will get the simple fairy tale, old-school style, and any more information about the way the world really works will be released on a need-to-know basis.

Keller Easterling is an associate professor at the Yale School of Architecture and the author, most recently, of Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (MIT Press, 2005).