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Art & Design

A Few Triumphs Pierce the Clouds of a Bleak Time

Iwan Baan; Gehry Partners

In Manhattan the new Cooper Union building by Morphosis, left, has a rip down the middle, allowing views of the bustle inside; and Frank Gehry’s Beekman Towers is getting its crinkled steel surface. More Photos >

Published: December 17, 2009

THE future may be bleak, but at least some architects can look back on the year with a sense of triumph.

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After more than a decade of design and construction delays, Zaha Hadid completed her Maxxi contemporary art museum in Rome, one of the most architecturally ambitious projects to rise there since the work for the 1960 Olympics, when Pier Luigi Nervi completed his Palazzetto dello Sport. The museum’s sinuous concrete forms, which seem to draw energy from the surrounding streets, play a game of hide and seek with the neighborhood. Tucked mid-block between rows of nondescript buildings, it is less about the hard sell than the slow seduction.

Jean Nouvel completed the Copenhagen Concert Hall, a glowing blue box emblazoned with fragmented images of performers that float dreamily across its surface. The ethereal quality of its skin, which is made of high-strength fabric draped over a steel frame, is a startling contrast to the solidity of the hall itself, which seems to have been carved out of an enormous block of hardwood.

And Toyo Ito, an architect whose work has been unfairly neglected outside his native Japan, received much-deserved recognition for a new stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, built for the World Games. Its snakelike form, which uncoils along a once-neglected city park to frame one side of a vibrant public plaza, creates a comforting sense of enclosure while also offering distant views of the city’s skyline.

What all of these projects share, besides being splendid architecture, is an ability to infuse a drab, lifeless neighborhood — whether it be a derelict postwar area at the far edge of Rome’s historic center or a generic new development outside Copenhagen — with a sense of joy. Like much great architecture, they create a sense of place — of collective identity — where there was none.

New York too, a city that has been notoriously cautious about embracing contemporary architecture, seemed to turn a corner this year. Despite the fears and anxieties of many (including me) that rapacious developers would transform the High Line into a glorified mall, it has already become — just five months after the completion of its first phase — one of the most beloved public spaces in New York. Its colorful gardens, which cover a stretch of abandoned elevated tracks that run from the meatpacking district to Chelsea, prove that an alliance of government officials, activists, architects and landscape designers can sometimes influence a city as much as big-money developers.

The academic building for Cooper Union on the Bowery, designed by Morphosis, is another reminder that the city hasn’t entirely given up on ambitious architecture. Its bold concave metal facade, with a rip running down the middle to allow views of the bustling inside, reverberates with life.

What’s more, it is contextual in the best sense of the word. The corner of the building lifts up toward the old Cooper Union Foundation Building in a gentle nod to the past. The tough materials — concrete and perforated metal — are a sensitive response to the Bowery’s rough history.

And a 30-minute walk to the south, the crinkled steel surface of Frank Gehry’s 76-story Beekman Tower continues to rise despite worries over the project’s financing. The 80-year-old Mr. Gehry’s first skyscraper, it will reshape the downtown skyline, offering a counterpoint to the ornate terracotta facade of the 1913 Woolworth building, one of the city’s most historic towers.

But perhaps the greatest shift of all this year has been a renewed interest in infrastructure. Encouraged by the debates that surrounded the unveiling of President Obama’s stimulus package, American architects, curators and students have thrown themselves into the task of rethinking the networks — train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts — that bind our communities together.

Thom Mayne and Steven Holl, two of the country’s most celebrated architects, are completing books on the subject. The Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department recently unveiled a plan to study how to create a more sustainable waterfront for New York. Other architects continue to reimagine the infrastructure of New Orleans, even though there is little chance that they will ever be implemented.

And graduate schools across the country have been offering studio classes on infrastructure for the first time in decades. The most serious of these studies try to come to terms with deeply entrenched social issues, from racial and class segregation to shifts in the global economy.

As architectural work dries up and graduate students begin to contemplate what could be a much darker future, the question is: Who if anyone will tap into this wealth of talent and ideas?