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Compression, Holl went on to explain, is “an elusive quality.” What comes to Holl’s mind is the aurora borealis, or northern lights, which also appear, nearly simultaneously (as aurora australis), at the other end of the globe. The auroras, he said, occur when the magnetic poles of the Earth attract ionized particles — the fourth state of matter. “It takes three-quarters of a second for energy to reach from the North Pole to the South Pole.” Both ends get lit up. That is compression.
The object isn’t necessarily to find three-dimensional expression for the abstract concept, but to draw inspiration from the idea. For MIT’s Simmons Hall, for example, Holl was given the task of creating blocklong, 10-story-high residential housing that would still feel “open.” How to reduce openness to an essence? Holl took a seemingly conventional box and perforated it along the outside as well as from the roof. The result is an interior almost like Swiss cheese, drilled from the top down and crisscrossed with atriums, and an exterior grid composed of concrete and deep-set, outward-opening windows. What you see — concrete and glass — in a way is all that there is. And then, as a 20-by-50-foot image of the project was projected onto a wall, the gentle swipe at Gehry: “I’m suspicious when structure isn’t part of the architecture; it is covered up somehow. It’s not an old modernist-movement idea. It might be about economy.”
Another slide and another quiet remark. Turbulence House, on a remote mesa in New Mexico, is a $100,000 house Holl made of 32 prefabricated pieces — using Frank Gehry’s steel fabricators. Here again, “structure and skin are united.” He repeats: “Skin is structure; structure is skin.”
Nearing the end of his talk, Holl brought up a slide showing one of several projects he started drawing after the World Trade Center collapsed. A series of towers, roughly following skyscraper morphology, are linked together by huge aerial arms that climb and fall at oblique angles, creating immense portals. Projected onto the ground is the shadow of the twin towers when they fell. A continuous, open plaza, he explained, “reunites all sides of the neighborhood.” The whole building is given over to public space. In some ways, the plan looks like crisp, refurbished corners of buildings yanked back into vertical position by a powerful, unseen magnet. The megastructure portal — an image that becomes the leitmotif of the Meier-Eisenman-Gwathmey-Holl proposal — expresses a feeling of mourning, of presence and loss.
“By the way,” Holl interrupted his own description, “I worked on three projects for one year for the World Trade Center. I never received one cent, which I think is the greatest part of architecture.” And so, without uttering an unkind remark or naming a single name, Holl managed to argue nimbly for the importance of his own work and call into question the slavish reverence for Frank Gehry’s. It may be a sign of criticism to come.
It’s London, Dude
Reeling from a summer heat wave in which temperatures rose to an uncivil 100 degrees, Londoners were entertained to hear the results of an American report claiming they have taken a Californian lifestyle to their collective bosom. The report was sponsored by the Wine Institute of California, which tells you all you need to know about its depth and impartiality: The supporting evidence was the usual banal inventory of more surf, sun, smoothies and Cherie Blair’s invitation to New Age guru Carole Caplin.
There’s no doubt that England grows more American with every passing year — what corner of the world doesn’t? A decade ago, when I was home for a visit and asked for water in a Brighton restaurant, the waiter asked sympathetically, “Why? Yer gotta take a pill?” and then brought me warm tap water in a teacup. These days ice water with lemon wedges appears on every café table; waiters hover as obsequiously as they do here; Starbucks, Gaps and gyms abound; “blokes” have succumbed to “guys”; pub lunches boast pizza and fajitas; and, most shocking of all, the English are getting into herbal teas.
But in fact it was the mayor of Paris, not London, who, instead of attending to the heat-stricken elderly who expired by the thousands under his nose this summer, imported tons of sand to create a faux beach in the capital, along which Parisians solemnly draped themselves in swimsuits, as if out for a day at Malibu beach. No such flummery for the English — they were too busy watching reality television. (My personal favorite: How Clean Is Your House? in which two dominatrix types harangue cowed housewives — one admitted under pressure that she hadn’t cleaned in 14 years.) In London, notwithstanding a desperate mass run on fans (air conditioning is not favored in this humid city, though I did come across an air-conditioning company called Stiff Nipples in the yellow pages), citizens soldiered on as usual, sweltering stoically in jacket and tie on the Underground, where I noticed that few English women, unlike their Californian counterparts, wear lipstick. The London Eye, a slow Ferris wheel by the Thames affording fabulous views of the city, was packed with locals (tourism is still slow) despite the fact that each room-size capsule on the wheel is made of heat-seeking glass or fiberglass. When I arrived with my 5-year-old daughter, the Eye had broken down, and the stranded passengers hung suspended in their pods, waiting without complaint to be liberated. The river cruises served hot tea, and at the Princess Diana Adventure Playground on the ground of Kensington Palace, a handmade sign primly warned children to keep their underpants on in the fountain despite the soaring temperatures. Six years after Diana’s death, flowers are still being wedged into the palace railings, and a fresh inquiry into the crash that killed her and boyfriend Dodie Fayed was announced by Fayed’s father, Harrods mogul Mohammed Al-Fayed, who still believes the pair was killed by royal-family members who couldn’t stomach the thought of her marrying an Arab.
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