Editor-At-Large: Look, boys, big is not always beautiful

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The Independent Online

Among the over-used phrases I loathe are "a lesson to be learnt" and "don't make the same mistake twice". And yet, in the context of the shocking events of 11 September 2001, these sayings are useful.

Among the over-used phrases I loathe are "a lesson to be learnt" and "don't make the same mistake twice". And yet, in the context of the shocking events of 11 September 2001, these sayings are useful. They sum up the cautious approach required when considering the opportunities that the devastation of the World Trade Centre presents to architects, politicians and city planners. The twin towers in lower Manhattan stood for the values that America wanted to project to the rest of the world in the late 20th century: macho vulgarities or sleek, elegant expressions of financial pre-eminence – depending on your point of view. Either way, they were landmarks that let the rest of the world know in no uncertain terms that the United States was the brand leader when it came to superpower. Their awesome potency meant that the buildings themselves became targets for those who found the American way of life hard to stomach.

The skyscraper is well over a century old; it is now a redundant concept that has outlived its potential. In the past a single building was occupied by one company, and a simple steel-and-glass structure could put down a marker signifying that organisation's prosperity and economic significance. The World Trade Centre was rented by dozens of different commercial enterprises – a souk in the sky. America is still experiencing a rough economic ride, with the number of poor people sleeping rough at its greatest for decades.

But its politicians and architects, faced with the opportunity to "learn a lesson" and "not make the same mistake twice", have opted to replace the twin towers with skyscrapers, in one form or another. And whoever is selected from the competition finalists announced last week, you can guarantee that an architectural statement will be made that once again opts for the macho, the aggressive and the morally bankrupt. We are told that the nine proposals from seven architectural practices are "thrilling". Four seek to be the highest buildings in the world. You can call them "vertical cities", two buildings "locked in an embrace", or whatever, but they leave me cold. Now the public has six weeks left in which to comment on the proposals from stars such as Daniel Libeskind, Richard Meier, Rafael Vinoly and Lord Foster. But we are being asked to choose between a bunch of out-of-date designs that hark back to a previous era of financial prosperity. Quite simply, these "solutions" are banner-waving architecture, out of touch with 21st-century aspirations such as sustainable development and environmentally friendly construction.

Soon there will be fewer reasons to go to work in an office than ever before. Work will be done by less people, at flexible times, often from home. The idea of atriums, vast reception areas and 90-floor structures seems to be at odds with a world in which companies will have to prove to their employees that they contribute something more than mere money in return for labour. Consumers, customers and workers want commerce to be socially aware, and give something back to the society from which it profits.

No other building damages the environment more – by creating a micro-climate around it – than a skyscraper. The amount of energy consumed by heating and air-conditioning these vast edifices is shocking, however engineers dress it up. More importantly, a computer, a micro-chip and a human brain are all more compact than a prestigious boardroom with a gleaming mahogany table and a set of leather, swivelling chairs facing a video-conferencing screen on a blank wall. Rebuilding Manhattan is not about purity of form, it's about politics. These architects, and their clients, have failed to grasp that a skyscraper is no longer a viable solution. It represents a vulnerable, wasteful statement of power, the architectural equivalent of a two-fingered gesture to "terrorists" – or, indeed, anyone who thinks that the American way of doing business is not necessarily the only way to proceed.

If the anti-globalisation movement means anything at all, it is that commerce has to be conducted differently in the future. A 90-storey building, like a Big Mac, sends out all the wrong messages. Surely it's time to go back to the drawing board.

The fine frontier

Finding the Star Trek exhibition in London's Hyde Park last week was easy. I left Marble Arch Underground station and followed an overweight, middle-aged man in a silver anorak clutching a rucksack covered in badges. First question: how did the organisers persuade the people in charge of royal parks that a purely commercial enterprise in a giant silver tent would contribute something worthwhile to London's cultural life? At £15.50 a ticket, they are clearly making a healthy profit. So, what rent are they paying for a prime slot by Speaker's Corner? I'm not sure that I want to see our green spaces desecrated with chain-link fences and posses of security men, all in the name of the Star Ship Enterprise. Don't we have plenty of exhibition space at Olympia and Earls Court for this kind of thing? Once you've gained admittance, the whole event is geared to extracting as much cash from you as possible: £3 for an audio guide, £9.95 for a programme, a vast souvenir shop selling terry towelling bath robes at £59.99, and Star Trek fleeces at £69.99.

Having said that, the costumes on display are spectacular, putting the dreadful Versace show at the Victoria and Albert Museum to shame. I know you either get Star Trek or you don't. But I've always imagined the crew's uniforms were made from cheap nylon and slithery Spandex. Forget it! I was enthralled at the textures, the complexity, the lavishness of the fabrics, and the beauty of the craftsmanship. There were sashes of plaited gold leather; subtle, pleated chiffon tunics; elaborate tunics over knitted body-suits, and exquisite footwear.

It's a knockout, and I salute Robert Blackman, who took over from the original designer, William Ware Theiss, in 1990. Sadly, the labelling of the costumes in the exhibition is poor and Theiss and Blackman hardly get a mention in the official programme. I'm sure Mr Blackman could run me up something appropriate for my birthday in Yorkshire this week.

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Seeing Edwina Currie in the flesh at the What the Papers Say Awards last week (televised on BBC2 yesterday) was an unnerving experience. First, her hair and make-up seemed trapped in a 1950s time warp, and her dress sense – a garish, sequinned blue jacket – more appropriate for a dinner engagement at the Wigan Rotary Club than lunch at the Café Royal. You can call me bitchy, but Edwina herself is no slouch on that front. The trouble is I think she believes her own publicity and, having graced a Sunday colour magazine in black leather draped over a motorcycle, considers herself a femme fatale. One thing she can't do is speak in public. For a former government minister her delivery seemed surprisingly leaden and faintly patronising. I assume the time spent with John Major involved very little chat and a lot of arched eyebrows.

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