Daniel Libeskind, Haeundae Udong, Busan, South Korea 
With six towers-three residential, one hotel, one office, and one retail-rising up to 72 floors and totaling 4.5 million square feet, Haeundae Udong Hyundai I'Park in the port city of Busan, South Korea, is the biggest project currently on the boards at Studio Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind intends the curvilinear shapes of the towers, which are scheduled to open in 2011, as allusions to flower petals, waves, and the sails of ships. The project by the Hyundai Development Co. will include parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces.

Daniel Libeskind, Haeundae Udong, Busan, South Korea With six towers-three residential, one hotel, one office, and one retail-rising up to 72 floors and totaling 4.5 million square feet, Haeundae Udong Hyundai I'Park in the port city of Busan, South Korea, is the biggest project currently on the boards at Studio Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind intends the curvilinear shapes of the towers, which are scheduled to open in 2011, as allusions to flower petals, waves, and the sails of ships. The project by the Hyundai Development Co. will include parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces.

Credit: STUDIO DANIEL LIBESKIND

BACK IN THE DOLDRUMS of the 1970s and ‘80s, at a dark moment for architectural ambition, Aldo Rossi would write with melancholy in A Scientific Autobiography, “To what, then, could I have aspired in my craft, having seen that the possibility of great things was precluded?” Those were years of postmodernist contextualism, of infill and façade work, and of philosophical questioning of grandiose narratives. Adherents of political correctness strove to take the master out of the master plan and, in the wake of Jane Jacobs' rousing defeat of Robert Moses, to snatch cities back from creative destruction at the hands of would-be megastructurists. That the arrogant Le Corbusier had once, in a megalomaniac gesture, imagined a new Paris for 3 million inhabitants by sweeping away the old one, or that Kenzo Tange, as recently as 1960, had had the chutzpah to propose rolling Tokyo out into its bay to accommodate a population of 10 million, was cause for derision and vilification.

Out of the backlash against modernist overreaching emerged both the new field of urban design, focused on devising models for more flexible, democratic, and process-oriented urbanism, and the “retrotopia” of the New Urbanism, founded on the principles of Camillo Sitte–esque old urbanism and, ironically, more prescriptive than its predecessors when it came to codes and covenants. Meanwhile, a new architectural avant-garde—including those who showed in the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988—remained preoccupied with isolated object-buildings, even as the fragmentation and fluidity of their imagery already gestured, at least metaphorically, to more urban or landscape-oriented spatialities.

The first glimmer of real consciousness among architects concerning the inevitability of a new scale of architectural operations came in the early 1990s, when Rem Koolhaas, caused to rethink his worldview by his commission to design a new city center for Lille, France—an assignment that entailed a massive and apparently traumatic (for him) expansion of his previously modest-sized practice—came to reflect on “the problem of bigness.” Koolhaas shrewdly grasped that the global reorganization, expansion, and consolidation of late 20th century capital implied the emergence of a commensurate form of architecture. He envisaged an architecture of bigness more akin to the complexity and unscriptedness of the city, however, than to Architecture with a capital “A.” Bigness, as Koolhaas theorized in his book S,M,L,XL, required a giving up of “architecture's compulsive need to decide and determine” and a “surrender to technologies; to engineers, contractors, manufacturers; to politics; to others.” However much of a historical symptom, or pragmatic rationalization, this theory was in itself (especially in the case of a personality as controlling as Koolhaas), there is no doubt that it created an irreconcilable contradiction for architects: between design and nondesign; form and formlessness; heroic monumentality and sheer, dumb size.

THE MID-TO LATE ‘90S saw the realization of several colossal redevelopment projects in which superstar architects were called upon to supply window dressing for the transformation of dysfunctional urban districts into tourist and consumer meccas, from Times Square in Manhattan to Potsdam Square in Berlin. But it was the triumphal opening of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in late 1997 that appeared, to architects, nothing short of a miracle. Gehry not only delivered a more optimistic, less intellectualized, and visually ravishing vision of architecture's potential and one, moreover, that innovatively integrated but was not entirely determined by new technologies; against all odds, he showed that it was possible to regenerate an entire city with nothing more nor less than a single, singular building. Koolhaas, it seemed, had underestimated the power of architectural form—or the architectural image—to stir both the local and global imagination.

That the Bilbao effect became a wildly successful urban development strategy for resuscitating declining cities throughout the world, and then a de rigueur formula, is a familiar story, if one that is not completely played out. The “build it and they will come” approach still remains unsubstantiated by the evidence. On a single day last December, The New York Times carried two unrelated articles in different sections of the paper. One reported on the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, a sprawling and costly—$461 million—complex by Cesar Pelli that opened in late 2006 to high urban hopes but which is currently struggling to find an audience. (Its propensity to devour the municipal budget has earned it the nickname “Carnivorous Center.”) The other concerned a $66 million zinc, glass, and steel art museum scheduled to open in November in smaller Roanoke, Va., designed by the Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, a Gehry protégé, which is viewed by boosters and detractors alike as one of the biggest gambles in the city's history.

Even on the triumphal museum in Bilbao, now exactly a decade old, the verdict is not yet completely in. Another feature story in the Times, published in the travel section last September, “Bilbao Ten Years Later” acknowledged that despite the fact that the museum continues to draw an impressive 1 million visitors a year, and despite the influx of a trendy art crowd, plentiful tourist services, and ongoing patronage of star architects by the city, Bilbao is still “very much a one-attraction town.” Buildings by Ricardo Legorreta (a hotel), Pelli (a 40-story office tower), Santiago Calatrava (the airport terminal), Philippe Starck (a wine warehouse conversion), Robert A.M. Stern (a shopping mall), and Rafael Moneo (a library), among others, have been completed. Zaha Hadid has designed a 150-acre master plan for the Zorrozaurre peninsula across from the city center that features a warped field of solid blocks striated by corridors of urban fabric and parkland.

Yet many locals have never set foot inside Gehry's museum, the Times writer observed, and “the disconnect between Bilbao the brand and Bilbao the city” remains palpable. Moreover, a surfeit of “icon buildings,” however creative and well-designed, especially in cities that have little else visually to recommend them, runs the risk of engendering architectural cacophony and ennui. In the case of Rotterdam, a Dutch city that has become a veritable architectural theme park with prominent contributions by Foster, Helmut Jahn, Renzo Piano, Wiel Arets, Ben van Berkel, and others, the skyline from certain viewpoints takes on the quality of a surrealist montage. If the icon derives both its logic and its energy from its uniqueness and difference from its surroundings, then its proliferation can only cancel the effect.