The Xanadu Effect

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Julia Barton has been thinking about what happens when we build big. Maybe because she grew up in Dallas in the Go-Go 80s.

Julia: Big football arenas, big freeways, big houses. Texans love big! Dallas built a new city hall in 1978.

Roman: Designed by I.M. Pei.

Julia: It’s this huge trapezoid, jutting over a wide plaza.

Roman: It is kind of wedge-shaped, but upside down so the widest and largest floor is on the top.

Julia: When I was a kid, sometimes I go up to the top floor city hall with my friends. That’s where the vending machines were. They stocked my favorite candy bar, Caramello. Then we’d sit by the windows eating chocolate and looking down over the plaza and I think, “Wow, this is so cool.”

Roman: But later in high school, Julia went to a protest down below in the plaza.

Julia: And the same city hall windows were now hulking over us, we could see our tiny reflections in the glass. It made me feel like a nobody, and that this whole event was a waste of time, and all of the big things in my environment seemed to be saying the same thing: “I’m important, you’re nobody.”

Roman: So Julia developed a mistrust of the big building, the big project, and places where people seem to love the glory of the grandiose.

Julia: But I’m also fascinated by those kinds of places. I cannot stay away from them. Case in point, Russia.

Roman: Biggest country in the world, makes Texans look like amateurs.

Julia: Totally. The Russians are real pros in the department of tall, towering and humongous.

Roman: And not just from the Soviet past. Europe’s tallest skyscraper, 93 stories is going up right now in Moscow, though they had to stop for a while in the 67th floor after it caught fire.

Julia: Russia’s southern-most city, Sochi is the biggest construction site in Europe. That’s because Sochi is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014.

Russian Male: [foreign words]

Julia: So headed down there to check it out, I went on a 2-hour bus ride from Sochi’s center on the Black Sea up to the foothills of Caucasus, where they are building a ski resorts, and maybe on that whole ride, there were a couple of five-minute stretches where I was not looking at a crane or a new hotel, or a bridge going up.

Russian Male: [foreign words]

Julia: I also met this man named Alexei Kravets. He has lived all his life in a cinder block house by the Black Sea. The city wants to tear down for a new rail yard. They’ve already demolished the rest of his neighborhood, but Kravets has appealed his eviction in court. He says construction workers come up every day to scrape his walls with backhoes to scare him.

Alexei: [foreign words]

Julia: “We never asked the government for anything,” is what Kravets is saying, “…and now the government wants to take everything away from us.” He has painted slogans in red paint on his windows. Things like, “people live here” and “SOS”. Sometimes construction workers throw rocks through the windows. They fall in shards of cyrillic all over the floor.

Roman: Big, crushing and small. That story always seems to play itself out wherever there is a massive development. But there is a theory that big buildings don’t just hurt little people, they may, in fact, hurt the builders of those buildings too.

Edward: There is the well-known fact in real estate that the great buildings tend to go up at the end of the cycle when everything is about to turn.

Julia: That’s the critic and philosopher Edward Tenner. While I was in Russia this last time, I found an essay online that he wrote in 2001, The Xanadu Effect.

Edward: The Xanadu Effect is what I called the appearance of the big building, the big structure at the time when things are starting to go south.

Julia: Tenner cites his idea known as “the Skyscraper Curse.” That tall buildings correlate with bad times. So for instance, the Empire State Building was conceived in the 1920s, but not finished until the Great Depression.

Roman: When it was known as “The Empty State Building.”

Julia: The Sears Tower and the World Trade Center both opened in 1973, on the verge of another economic crisis. The people who run the NASDAQ Exchange built the world’s largest video display on Times Square in 1999 just a few months before the dot-com bubble burst and the NASDAQ crashed.

Edward: The Xanadu Effect is a symptom of people overreaching, over-planning, thinking that everything is going to go on forever when it’s about to turn the other way.

Julia: I found Tenner’s theory a little comforting. Plus I think Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu is one of the biggest songs ever written.

Roman: I see what you are trying to do there Julia and it is not going to work. No Olivia Newton-John, but Coleridge, I will allow. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan. A stately pleasure-dome decree.

Julia: Actually Tenner was thinking of the movie Citizen Kane and Kane’s Palace, Xanadu.

Roman: Okay then, Rosebud. It was his sled.

Julia: So just as Citizen Kane built his palace while his empire crumbled, the big project can be a big, bad distraction.

Roman: Tenner goes to several examples of the Xanadu Effect in his original essay, but there are plenty of instances of big projects that don’t presage any kind of crash. Tenner cites the example of Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building which went up in a boom time of 1913 and certainly did not hurt the Woolworth company. And it is hard to say where these gigantic state-driven projects like the Olympics fit into Xanadu. Plus there are plenty of critics who argue that building height much less bigness, in general, cannot accurately predict a downturn at all.

Edward: Bigness is a strategy that just about always fails unless it succeeds. Or you can say it’s one it always succeeds except when it fails. And there is really no one way that you can regard it. You have to see it as a very powerful, easy to misuse, but also tempting way to go about things in life.

Roman: So the Xanadu Effect might not provide the comeuppance that Julia desires, besides, in any sort of downturn, the little person is still the one most likely to suffer.

Julia: I guess the success or failure of bigness really does depend on where you stand in relation to it. Are you on top of city hall or down below? Big places just amplify our reactions. I went to a protest in Moscow where we marched down one of the cities wide Soviet era boulevards. Ordinarily, I hate these boulevards because you can’t actually cross them. You have to find a pedestrian tunnel and like, sneak underneath. But for a few hours, Moscow’s oppressive bigness became ours. The wide road, those Stalin era skyscrapers, and block-long institutes, it all made us feel bigger too, though it was freezing.

Vasily: I love it, despite the cold, people are smiling, everybody is.

Julia: That is my friend Vasily Songkin. He grew up in Moscow, but he had never experienced his grandiose city like this, as a grandiose stage for political expression.

Roman: The way the crowd’s transformed the National Mall in Washington, DC or the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Julia: And even Edward Tenner says, “That’s what can be wonderful about bigness. It can elevate people, give them a sense of pride and purpose.”

Edward: I think a lot of the positive side of our cities are the big buildings when they’re done well. New York without the Empire State Building, New York without the Chrysler Building, New York without Rockefeller Center would really be a poorer place.

Julia: But I keep thinking about Alexei Kravets in his standoff with developers in Sochi. Sometimes he goes out and films his confrontations with construction workers.

Russian Male: [foreign words]

Roman: I posted one of the films up on 99percentinvisible.org. Everyone is speaking in Russian, but it is not hard to understand what is going on.

Julia: Kravets had put some of his things in a metal storage unit behind his house. The workers showed up with a huge crane to haull it away.

Roman: Kravets asks who they work for and the supervisor, this big, burly guy says, “We are building the Olympic facilities.”

Julia: Then they hook up the crane while Kravets shouts at them.

Roman: You can see a big building under construction behind them.

Julia: That’s a new train station which will take in millions of visitors during the Olympic games. You can see the bones of what is going to be a soaring roof.

Roman: A stately pleasure-dome.

Julia: A stately pleasure-dome.

Roman: Julia Barton traveled most recently to Russia for PRI’s The World. You can find more of her stories at juliabarton.com. 99% Invisible was produced by Julia Barton with a little help from me, Roman Mars. It is a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and The American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible was provided in part by Tiny Letter email for people with something to say. My boy Carver always says something to say. What do you have to say Carver?

Carver: Daddy, [inaudible] they have 8 legs [inaudible] that they are not spider.

Roman: They are arachnids, but they are not spiders. That is a load off my mind. It free easy minimal powerful, the simplest way to write an email and newsletter. Online at tinyletter.com. This program is distributed by PRX, The Public Radio Exchange making public radio more public, more at PRX.org. You can find the show and like the show on Facebook and tweet @RomanMars. You can always just catch up with us online at 99percentinvisible.org. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

Comments (6)

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  1. daria

    I’m sorry for asking, but is there a chance I can find out the music playing on the background?
    Many thanks in advance!

    1. owen_pony

      I’m with you, daria. I too really want to know what the music is. Most of the rest of it does sound like Balam Acab, but I really want to know what the thing is they’re playing starting at about 6:22 in, that starts to fade out at about 7:30. I’ve listened to all of the BA I can get my hands on, but none of it sounds like that one. Same thing with the piece at the end, can’t figure out the exact song for that either. Does anyone have any more information?

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