Large Scale vs. Larger Context: The Recurring Conflict between Massive Objects and Space

Taylor Hagan and Tyler Wolcott

Today many buildings are being constructed with the mindset that “bigger is better.” These overtly ostentatious forms are impeding the global landscape for various different purposes. From mega events to housing developments, comprehensive projects are often constructed in the name of monumentality and are sought after as remarkable in terms of design. However, these objects fail to remember the spaces that they are being placed in and deny the fact that they too are threads of a greater fabric. Unfortunately it has become a trend for facilities such as these to fall into disrepair as they struggle to fit into their city’s landscape after their original programs are no longer viable. Operating as large-scale single-use projects, these structures have caused great debate as to whether or not they can live up to their abilities to become something more than just icons. However, this isn’t the first time that massive buildings have come under scrutiny. Several structures, including the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, and finally the Empire State Building, were highly criticized either at their conception or during their efforts to find a meaningful program. But despite facing early obstacles, these projects have each found success in their own right as they adapted their functions appropriately. After redeeming themselves as integral infrastructures within a city, they give hope that modern architecture can effectively redefine their programs so that they may become fruitful enterprises instead of ghosted structures like many other sizable projects in history. Although the construction of such large-scale buildings is controversial and they more often than not undergo periods of malfunction, there are still windows of opportunity in which they can become thriving members in their larger context.


Recycling A Ruin
The Colosseum, Rome, 70AD, Architect Unknown


Examples of failed large construction projects trail throughout the historical record. One of these is a structure widely known as an international tourist destination. The Colosseum in present-day Rome serves as a testament to the reoccurring failure that we see throughout architectural history in terms of mass public use spaces and their ability to preserve relevancy and gain acceptance from the people. It was constructed between 70 and 80 AD under the rule of Emperor Vespasian as a venue for gladiator competitions and public spectacles (Wikipedia 2013) . The site was chosen based on a densely populated area around a central canal, though “Nothing is known with certainty as to the architect of the Colosseum… tradition ascribes the building to Gaudentius, a Christian martyr.” (Old and sold 1915) While the Colosseum was once seen as a major source of attraction and even today continues to be a source of interest, it’s functionality as an architectural entity fails to embody its original purpose. Much like Olympic stadiums of today, the Colosseum was constructed far exceeding a realistic scale for the environment it inhabited, meant to seat over 60,000 spectators. In section, you can see how each layer of the Colosseum begins to accommodate more people with additional seating areas. The purpose was singular in providing a place for public entertainment, yet we see in its present state that the existence of that purpose is not one that withstood the test of time.












After a damaging fire in 217 that left the upper wooden floors of the Colosseum unusable, restoration began on the structure that lasted over twenty years. At the conclusion of the construction, the structure had already outlived its original purpose. Officials sought to make use of the structure, imposing a small church in the stands, constructing a cemetery in the arena and renting out spaces to businesses and shops for commercial use. 1349 brought the arrival of another natural disaster that threatened the existence of the Colosseum yet again. The outer side of the southern section arena collapsed under stress from the earthquake, leaving major sections of the venue completely destroyed. At this time even the influence of the church and state could not renew the image of this structure in the eyes of the people, and the building was stripped of its valuable ornamentation and useful building materials. The Roman Catholic Church worked to find use for the building in the prospect of converting the space to a wool factory, yet the possibility was never initiated (Wikipedia 2013). Although the building changes hands through the years, nothing can expunge its past. The Roman Colosseum remains a failed and wounded venue, a perfect example of faulty large construction. Though tourists continue to visit the site for its breathtaking architecture and presence, its existence hinges only on its identity as a novelty. And while the aura may never die, its structure stands broken and worn, a prediction of the future of venues much like itself across the globe.


A Temporal Structure Made Permanent
The Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1889, Stephen Sauvestre, Maurice Koechlin, Emile Nouguier and Gustave Eiffel



Additionally, there is the lesser known story of the classic icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. A collaborative effort between engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nougier with architect Stephen Sauvestre, the original design of the Eiffel Tower was a submission to the contest for the centerpiece of the World’s Fair in 1889. After winning however, it received negative reactions from the public and a petition was drawn up to stop construction.


Despite their efforts, the disapproval of artists, sculptors, writers, and architects alike did not halt the building of the monument that would intrude upon the Champ de Mars, a large green-space in Paris that had been around for nearly 100 years prior. If you examine the Champ de Mars before and after construction of the tower, it becomes clear that the Eiffel Tower was ignorant of its context and acted as a disproportionate object in space. The designers choice to create a piece whose primary function would be to act as an image and marketing tool for Paris as the venue becomes understandable however when the timetable for the structure was originally meant to be only 20 years, after which it would be dismantled. As the tower still remains today, it is evident that it had found greater use beyond its service as a grandiose icon for the world exhibition. Over time the tower has been occupied in differing ways. Initially the third floor was a meteorology laboratory and later it would find use as a wireless telegraph transmitter which aided the French military in World War I. Today it still is a hub for wireless signals with more than 120 antennas for radio and television stations. But the main draw and function of the Eiffel Tower today lies in its operations as a tourist destination. With restaurants, educational tours, and gift shops, the structure is frequented by more than seven million people a year. (Palermo 2013)


“The Empty State Building”
Empire State Building, New York, NY, 1929-1931, Shreve, Lamb and Harmon



Finally, the Empire State Building is yet another precedent that fought against early criticism and stands today as a functional component of its city. Planned during the height of the race to build the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building was commissioned by John Jakob Raskob in the 1930s. More concerned about the stature of the building rather than the program, the plans were rather simple with a pyramidal service oriented core surrounded by rentable office space. In a matter of one year and 45 days the building was completed and its doors opened on May 1, 1931. Although it was remarkable that the skyscraper was finished before its deadline and came in below its estimated budget, in its initial years of operation its profits were rather modest. (Rosenberg 2013) The original plans for the building to be utilized as a mooring mast for dirigibles was never realized and the estate had to rely on tourism and office rental. (Gray 2010) Only two million dollars was made in the first year from the observation deck, the same amount of money that it accumulated in rent. It would take a couple of decades before the structure, nicknamed the “Empty State Building”, would make a reasonable profit. In addition, the site in which the building was constructed was somewhat controversial as the Waldorf Astoria Hotel had to be demolished before they could start digging the foundation. The public sent in many requests for mementos and pieces of the building that carried meaning in their lives. (Rosenberg 2013) Today, with an influx of approximately four million people a year, it is hard to imagine that this icon for New York City had once struggled to find its worth. Not only does it operate largely as a tourist attraction with observatories on the 86th and 102nd floor, but it is also home to several major companies and organizations such as the FDIC, LinkedIn, and Shutterstock. (Empire State Building Company 2013)



All in all, large scale projects can begin to make a connection with these precedents that had to break through barriers before reaching their acclaimed success and finding meaning within their urban fabric. It should be noted however that the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, as well as the Empire State Building are primarily operational today because of the innumerable amount of tourists they receive. Although it is a successful endeavor for those structures, solely acting as an attraction for the masses may not be enough for other buildings. The Bird’s Nest in China, for instance, has tried installing several tourist attractions in order to rescue itself from the track of falling to extreme disrepair. From wax museum to winter theme park, not many of their attempts to balance the costs for the upkeep of such a gigantic facility has worked as expected. Comprehensive architectural projects such as these should begin to look into other tactics besides tourism if they want to strive for a better afterlife. But even so these examples throughout architectural history should not be dismissed but rather considered as models for massive buildings or structures that are being besieged for their initial failure in proving their value. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before they find their own windows of opportunity to become better integrated into their cities.





Rosenberg, Jennifer. The Empire State Building. n.d. (accessed 10 13, 2013).

Gray, Christopher. “Not Just a Perch for King Kong.” The New York Times, , sec. Real Estate, September 23, 2010 (accessed October 28, 2013).


RMJM, “Rising From Controversy: Architectural Icons That Faced Scrutiny, Yet Preserved.” Last modified October 16, 2012. Accessed October 28, 2013. scrutiny-yet-persevered/.


Empire State Building Company, “The Official Site of the Empire State Building.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 28, 2013.


Lim, Louisa. “China’s Post-Olympic Woe: How to Fill An Empty Nest.” NPR July 10 2012. Web, empty- nest.


Encyclopedia Entries

Wikipedia. Colosseum. 2013.


Scholarly Articles

Google Cultural Institute. The Construction of the Eiffel Tower. 2013. (accessed 10 13, 2013).

Palermo, Elizabeth. Eiffel Tower: Information & Facts. 5 7, 2013. (accessed 10 13, 2013).

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