At first, the architects tried to sound professional, talking about “significant research” and working to “site and climatic constraints”. But then Elenberg Fraser came clean about the true inspiration for the bulging curves of the building they’re planning for the Melbourne skyline, saying: “We trust you’ve seen the video for Beyoncé’s Ghost.”
In case you haven’t, the video features naked women trapped inside tubes of stretchy fabric, like human cannelloni, twisting and squirming as if trying to wriggle their way out. As they wrestle, they form strange amorphous towers of hips, ribs and nipples, bulging sacks of body parts that are now to be brought to Melbourne in layers of glass and steel, their knees and elbows translated into a staggered stack of luxury flats. As Goethe once (almost) said: “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music videos.”
As the vacuum-sealed nymphs writhe away, Beyoncé gloomily intones, “All the shit I do is boring” – a sentiment clearly shared by the architects, who seem to be desperately trying to escape the fact that they’ve just designed another generic silo of high-end apartments and hotel rooms, jazzed up in a twisted glass wrapper. But the genesis of the project might be simply explained by a look at the “Philosophy” section of Elenberg Fraser’s website, where the architects begin with a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Like designing a skyscraper while watching Beyoncé videos? You betcha.
Commissioned by the appropriately named Fragrance Group, the development arm of Singaporean tycoon Koh Wee Meng, the 68-storey Premier Tower will house 660 apartments and a 160-room hotel, perched on a big slab of retail space, for which an old pub will be demolished. Planners raised concerns that “the building is considered excessive and will detract from or diminish the leisure and recreational purpose of Batman Park” (sadly not named after the caped crusader, but one of the city’s founding fathers, John Batman). Which was a polite way of saying: “Beyoncé’s butt will block out the entire universe.” But it has nonetheless received consent.
The Fragrance Group is by no means the first developer to deploy the crass metaphor of a writhing female form to sell a pile of expensive flats. A pair of buxom towers on the outskirts of Toronto, designed by Chinese practice MAD, were nicknamed after Marilyn Monroe because they apparently “resemble her iconic hourglass figure”. The analogy is enough to make the blonde bombshell spin in her grave. The lumpen shafts look more like a couple of crumpled Pringles tubes that someone has tried to stamp on.
And long before Canadian developer Cityzen dreamed up the Monroe towers, the master of crumpletecture, Frank Gehry, was at it in Prague. In 1992 – when twisting glass facades into unusual forms was still a miraculous structural achievement – he came up with the Fred and Ginger building, modelled on a wasp-waisted Ginger Rogers frozen mid-twirl with Fred Astaire. The building’s glass facade billows out into a skirt, while a little projecting balcony protrudes to clutch at Fred’s waist. It was lauded as a new jewel in the city’s crown by then-president Václav Havel, but other observers were less kind: one saw it as a crushed can of Coke, while another critic described it as “a Californian eye-sore in one of the few central-European cities not reduced to rubble and ashes at the end of World War II.”
Still, for creatively challenged architects and their attendant marketing consultants, the world of celebrity-shaped buildings offers endless possibilities. In Manhattan, where a new trend for super-thin pencil towers is seeing the city sprout a forest of needles, can we expect to find the Keira Knightley condos, so slender that they dissolve into thin air? Or, at the other end of the physiognomic scale, driving through the big box shed-scape of northern France, might we look forward to a discount cheese and wine warehouse in the shape of Gérard Depardieu? The City of London would do well to look further afield when dreaming up plans for its future skyline, given that the current set of proposals appear to have been inspired by its own residents – they look like a herd of portly bankers.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010