Past Tragedy: MVRDV’s ‘cloud’ comes under fire

Past Tragedy is a new Concrete Aspirations series examining architecture that responds to and commemorates 9/11.

MVRDV's elegant 'Cloud' towers.

There are but a few moments when the wider world takes an interest in architecture, and this seems to be one of them. MVRDV’s new ‘Cloud’ tower to be constructed in Seoul, South Korea, is under fire from many for its alleged resemblance to the World Trade Center attacks. My views after the break. The attacks are brutal. (Here’sone of the harshest, from Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski.)

These luxury residential towers, set to be completed in Seoul in 2015, are supposed to be evocative of a pixelated cloud floating overhead. But to be honest, the only thing they remind me of are September 11. How did no one cry foul?

To respond to him, I looked back into my own archive, and found this passage from my post on the tenth anniversary of 9/11:

Many news outlets have basked in the sick glory of finding something to inflate into a week-long nonstop tear-jerker. And some have decided that today is the day to make cynical political points. I’m talking about Paul Krugman, usually a favorite columnist of mine, who posted an obnoxious blog post this morning arguing that we’ve failed terribly as a nation in a multitude of ways since 9/11. Some of his points are well taken, and all are well argued, but I can’t fathom why Krugman felt the need to make them today, or in such a contrary tone. There’s a difference between looking at what we’ve done since then rationally, and disparaging a decade of our history angrily and one-sided-ly.

I suspect that most who oppose MVRDV’s design feel similarly to the way I did then. They find that the design brings out strong, angry emotions unnecessarily and not constructively. But there are a number of key differences. First of all, today is not the tenth anniversary of 9/11. That day was about remembering; now, we need to move on. We need to in many ways put the experience of 9/11 firmly behind us. So back to MVRDV’s design. Yes, I do believe that it bears some resemblance to the World Trade Center attacks. There’s no way around that. But it’s also true that the design of this tower is not nearly as simple as much of the media has made it out to be. From most angles, it will bear no more than a passing resemblance to the attacks, and I do not think that on a daily basis this will evoke 9/11 memories. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Shaw put it:

Perhaps the most troubling thing here is the way in which media and the public are taking 2-D artistic renderings at face-value without any attempt to extrapolate to a more varied and complex reading of this design given three dimensions and various points of orientation, actual scale, weather and light, etc. Perhaps a larger message here is how impoverished we are when it comes to visual literacy and a more sophisticated way of relating to contemporary architecture.

Well-put. That said, I don’t deny the resemblance, and in fact I believe that MVRDV consciously designed its building with that in mind. And I consider that a brave, good thing. MVRDV is a highly sophisticated firm that has earned tremendous respect from me. Their buildings are exceptionally thoughtfully done and architecturally sophisticated. A firm of that skill level would know the territory it was getting into, particularly given the fact that the rendering above and the others floating around the Internet were all created by MVRDV itself. I believe that MVRDV understood the potential power a building that referenced 9/11, not too literally, but at least in some sense visually, could have. Here, the cloud represents and embodies connection and unification, not destruction. This design in fact helps us get past tragedy. It builds on an image that perhaps disturbs us initially but ultimately we need to address.

But it seems that MVRDV might have been convinced by its critics. It recently released this apology:

The Cloud was designed based on parameters such as sunlight, outside spaces, living quality for inhabitants and the city.  It is one of many projects in which MVRDV experiments with a raised city level to reinvent the often solitary typology of the skyscraper. It was not our intention to create an image resembling the attacks nor did we see the resemblance during the design process. We sincerely apologize to anyone whose feelings we have hurt, it was not our intention.

Saw no resemblance? Yeah, right. More likely scenario: MVRDV, facing the howling of ignorant bloggers and the outrage of the reactionary public, felt the need to disassociate itself from any sort of reference to 9/11.

And that’s a damn shame, since this good work, and it deserves to be celebrated, not lambasted.

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