Best of the decade: Architecture

SYMPHONIC CONVERGENCE: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall gave the Los Angeles Philharmonic a vibrant home to match the orchestra's energy.
SYMPHONIC CONVERGENCE: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall gave the Los Angeles Philharmonic a vibrant home to match the orchestra's energy. (Kevork Djansezian/associated Press)
By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Architecture is symbiotically linked to the flow of money, and so it was a topsy-turvy decade, beginning in exuberance, and ending with talk that perhaps the days of the great mega-project are over. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, inspired speculation about the future of the skyscraper, but the jitters passed quickly and the race to be the world's tallest building continued -- in such places as Taiwan and Shanghai, and now Dubai. Even so, security fears had a severe and depressing effect on architecture, taking their greatest toll on public and government structures, such as embassies, which became even more fortresslike and forbidding than ever.

Perhaps the greatest and most encouraging architectural trend was the widespread acceptance of new and green building technologies, and the pervasive use of a common environmental standard to judge sustainability. Near the end of the Aughts, hardly a week passed without the announcement of a new LEED silver or gold or platinum building, proof that sustainable design wasn't just a fashion, but a bottom-line value recognized by architects and investors alike.

But if you wanted to describe what the buildings of the past decade looked like, you'd be hard-pressed to settle on any particular description. A cool, sleek, almost chilly modernism prevailed among some designers, while others pursued exuberant and dazzling forms. Museums went through a great age of expansion, though as the decade ends, it's not clear if they may also be in for a new age of overextension hangover. The "starchitect," a neologism that seemed to define the decade, also became something of a dirty word, as momentum grew for a new kind of modesty and problem-solving, rather than flamboyance and busted budgets.

The best

Tate Modern. Two of the best buildings of the decade came from the Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron. In 2000, they opened the Tate Modern, a vast outpost of the venerable London museum, which repurposed a once-grim and dour power plant on the banks of the Thames. The place bustles with all the right kinds of energy.

Beijing National Stadium. Or just call it the Bird's Nest. Herzog and de Meuron's steel fantasy defined the over-hyped, media-saturated, authoritarian 2008 Summer Olympics, and redefined the possibilities of the mass sports venue.

Disney Hall. Frank Gehry built a lot of problematic buildings over the past decade, but with this new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he got just about everything right. Its exuberance and metallic sheen recalls his chef-d'oeuvre, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, but Disney Hall also captures the energy and spirit of an orchestra looking for new directions in the 21st century.

Seattle Central Library. Locals aren't entirely sold on this 2004 glass behemoth designed by Rem Koolhaas, and you can't deny that it is a startling, even terrifying building. But need to do some research? This is a lovely place to read, to wander the stacks, to look out upon a city where the weather is half the drama. It works.

Alice Tully Hall. The redesign of this 1969 structure by the New York-based firm Diller Scofidio and Renfro should be studied carefully by anyone interested in making Washington's Kennedy Center a more urban, more dynamic, more fun place. To bring the street in, and the art out, the architects literally cut the Lincoln Center open. Nothing they did harmed the spirit of Pietro Belluschi's original, and everything touched got better.

The worst

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Sure, there were a lot of Wal-Marts thrown up in the Aughts, but Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto surpasses the ugliness of bland functional buildings by being both ugly and useless. His aluminum-and-glass-clad crystalline forms grow out of the building's original 1914 structure, and from the street it's dramatic. But go inside and you need a map to move around its irrational and baffling dead spaces.

And where do you put art in a room of canted walls? Curators seem as baffled and frustrated by it as casual visitors. And it cost only $250 million.

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