Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 19 September 2013

For the Want of Spin

Yesterday, I learned of a pair of apartment blocks that are due to go up in Seoul, South Korea in 2015.

We don’t generally hear very much about architecture unless it’s local, or unless it hits the headlines for being World-beating in some way. We tend to hear about the latest tallest building, or the most groundbreaking in terms of design or materials, or something built by or for the richest or most powerful man or woman.

This building doesn’t fit into any of those categories. This is simply a pair of apartment blocks called ‘The Cloud’.

It was designed by the Dutch company MVRDV, and it is causing a huge stir, because it looks startlingly familiar, and, as a consequence, it is hugely controversial.

detail of 'The Cloud'
designed by architects MVRDV, Rotterdam
The two towers, standing side by side, are joined together, at the twenty-seventh floor, by a ten storey ‘pixelated cloud’, which forms a public space with restaurants and a conference centre. The towers, which are square in profile, become irregular for those ten storeys, spreading away from the basic tower in a series of irregular steps, meeting and bridging where the two towers face each other and spreading away from the towers on their other three sides. When they have reached their widest point, after about five storeys, the shapes begin to step back in again, in an irregular fashion, until they meet the regular square profile of the original towers and continue upwards to the roofs. 

The building is controversial, because the square profiles of the towers blossom and spread, linking them in a way that seems, quite deliberately, to mimic the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as they were exploding on the 11th of September 2001.

The architects of MVRDV, who designed this pair of buildings, all understood the reference. They all lived through that day, all remember it, probably as vividly as we all do, and, no doubt, have all studied the buildings that were brought down by terrorists in a tragedy that killed three thousand people, and still counting. They’re architects, after all, this is their field of study. Everything that comes afterwards must, by its very nature, reference that which has come before. It’s as true in art as it is in science, and it must be true of any discipline that involves an understanding of both design and engineering, as architecture must. 

Anyone who looks at the designs, simulations and models for these buildings cannot fail to see the reference, and, some will no doubt be shocked by them as a result. The article I saw had a long string of horrified responses condemning the designers and calling for the drawings to be shelved and the buildings never to be built. Many saw it as an insult to those who perished on that day, and, perhaps more particularly, as an insult to the United States in general.

Whatever I personally think of the designs, MVRDV clearly have talented architects at work, doing the job they’re there to do. Artists in all disciplines should push the boundaries of what is expected and acceptable. It was ever thus.

What MVRDV clearly don’t have is a good PR department, a proper spin doctor.

I'd been thinking about this for all of two minutes when I wondered, "Where is the spirit of ‘Lest We Forget’?" 

"Where is the man or woman who will stand up and say that this is not mockery or parody, that this is homage?"

"Who in his right mind would take terrorism lightly? Who in his right mind would mock the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Centre?"

The Cloud
due for construction in Seoul, 2015
The answer to that question was and is: NO DECENT HUMAN BEING!

I’m not going to make a judgement call on this particular building or on its designers. I do think that there is pathos in it, though. I do think that it is as likely to make people remember, and stop and think, and perhaps keep alive in our memories a day that I know I won’t ever properly forget, but which I already need to be reminded of.

When I first saw the pictures of these buildings, I gasped, and I was reminded, and I felt something that I haven’t felt for a little while. I’m not altogether sure that’s such a terrible thing.

There will always be those who don’t want to remember, and there will always be those who are appalled, and their feelings are as valid as the next person’s. I worry about people who claim not to care, who appear to feel nothing, but a little contact with the rest of us, and a public debate over a building like this one might cause some small stir in them, too.

Think about it, this building hasn’t been built, who knows, maybe it never will be, but, already, we’re talking about an event that is twelve years old, that new voters in our next general elections have only a superficial understanding about and only the vaguest memories of. Events pass so quickly into history, and are so soon forgotten that anything that galvanises us into a response has some value, surely?

There are lots of good PR people out there, MVRDV. Hire one of them, rename the building, on the plans, and see if it makes a difference. While you’re at it, enter the debate, and try not to intellectualise too much, because you brought it, so, one way or another, you’re going to have to answer for people’s feelings on the matter, and, boy are people ready to emote. Right now the jury's out, but I suspect the window of opportunity for justifying this design is small and closing.


  1. I'm a US citizen, and was a contractor for the Army when 9/11 happened. But, the picutre didn't remind me of that at all, and honestly, I thought the controversy was going to be over Minecraft or air-space rights (having been stationed in Korea, I could completely see a problem with a building being built out over surrounding buildings) until I got further into the article.

    I think it looks like what they wanted it to, buildings tall enough to reach through the clouds, I don't see the resemblance to the twin towers at all. Maybe that's just me being usually a positive person.

    Personally, I think it's a great design, and I hope they go through with it.

  2. I am reminded of an article I read recently about "reclaiming the swastika". as in, reclaiming the original symbology associated with it before the Nazi Party got their hands on it and left everyone (else) with the image and the response they get when they see it.

    in fact this causes me all sorts of problems when people react as they're expected to but without the ability to truly discriminate between stimuli. (i.e. they hate "swastika Nazis" but consider anything that looks like a swastika as a swastika, even if it isn't. needless to say pointing out to these clowns that going after me because I'm "white" and have short hair makes them the racists doesn't go down so well.

    I can't help but feel this is what has happened here too. the attacks on the world trade towers, while tragic, have transcended the original event to such an effect that they have become a swastika. which in itself also raises an interesting subject.

    are we being culturally programmed to react in certain ways? especially given the way the event has been force fed into the western cultural psyche. sure, parade dead women and children before the cameras when you want us to get riled up over who gassed who. but yet the day before the same area was being shelled to hell, but who gave a fuck then?

    I can't help but think that a lot of this shit is shoved under our noses with our reactions in mind. this whole information age has a purpose, and it's to use this information to effect. if you want to sell a product, use advertising. if you want to sell a war or an agenda, use the news. is it any wonder Blair was lunching with Murdoch?

    who's got a sale on where? massacre where by who? I dunno about you, but I get a little sick of people trying to use me against me. talk about narrative ...