Rubik's cube in steel
''Rubik's cube cures sanity,'' proclaims the latest T-shirt. Architects apparently agree.
A bundle of new high-rises reflects that architects have adopted the fascinations of that frustrating multi-faceted puzzle. If their designs don't yet show 43 quintillion solutions, it is not for lack of trying.
Once, what we now call the ''high-rise'' bore the name ''skyscraper,'' a label stirring the soul and arousing the imagination in its straining for heavenly elements. The skyscraper's tiaras dazzled the sky even as its classical cupolas, pyramids, tempietti, Aztec ruins, and Roman domes adorned the crest.
In the 1920s and '30s they were urban America's jewels.
Some called what was happening in 1927 ''The City of Dreadful Height,'' as Paul Goldberger's new compendium on The Skyscraper (Knopf) points out. For most observers, whether the tower had the technical purity of the Chicago mode or the theatrics of Manhattan, it was an awesome form.
In our generation, the word ''high-rise,'' a more measured notion, arose. The glassy inventions of the 1950s International-Style box began to look, literally, like the developer's bottom drawer. Even King Kong, who nestled into the Gothic spire of the Empire State Building's ''cathedral of commerce,'' looks silly against the slabs of the World Trade Center.
Now, however, it is tall times again for tall buildings.
Symbolically enough, the New York Central Building, punctuating the end of Park Avenue, got its peak floodlit after a refurbishing by the Helmsley people. And the crown of the Chrysler Building, illuminated just this fall, has become a new constellation on the New York skyline.
Entering the '80s, almost 20 high-rises were headed off the drawingboards in New York City alone.
Any city, be it sunbelt or frostbelt budget, seems to have at least one of the new extravaganzas by a name architect. Like designer chocolates, buildings by Edward Larrabee Barnes; Eli Attia; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and Swanke, Hayden & Connell's Trump Tower begun under Der Scutt, design director, were shown as ''Buildings in Progress, Part II, Midtown Office Towers'' at the Municipal Art Society this fall.
These exhibit pieces began, in a sense, in the '60s and '70s when reflective-glass structures defied gravity afresh by zigging and zagging, curving and ricocheting at such places as the IDS Center in Minneapolis; the UN Plaza Hotel in New York, or the Pennzoil Building's triangular geometries in Texas.
Who didn't welcome the breakup of the box?
Now these gyrating city bounders have lost -- have, in fact, eschewed -- the last vestige of urban composure for a trip through fantasyland that makes the Gothic towers of Gotham City look tame.
''Universal solutions failed,'' Helmut Jahn of Murphy/Jahn says as he explains his putting aside up to now of the now boring box.
''Signature buildings,'' Philip Johnson calls his new structures. These hard-edge ''John Hancocks'' flourish their rounded turrets in glass, display stalagtites sparkling like ice, and boast interior shapes lifted from a geometric sampler kit where even a parallelogram is dull.
Jahn, at 38 the youngest of these Jolly Green Giantmakers, recently showed his scalloped Board of Trade; offered a slide of the forthcoming One South Wacker Building with recessed black and silver sides that looked like Darth Vader helmets piled high (''a return to 1920s elegance,'' he said), and suggested that his Northwest Terminal was streamlined and curved to resemble the 1930s Pullman of the railroads' heyday.
Philip Johnson, at 75 the senior citizen of the mega-structuralists, has gone way beyond the gargantuan Chippendale simplicity and looming arches of New York's AT&T Building for his Republic Bank Center in Houston. This masonry sarcophagus has four sets of five-stepped gables on 15 acres.
''We're making history,'' Johnson told a Dallas architecture critic. ''Only in the new cities can you make statements.''
Similarly, Araldo Cossutta will give Big-D, another Texas town, a concoction that looks like a massive ''H.'' The $350 million Dallas Center, which connects at floors 16 to 24, was designed, says the architect, to be compatible.
Despite Johnson's statement, the clean-slate southwestern city is not the only place to receive idiosyncratic structures.
The billion-dollar Battery Park City by Cesar Pelli, a four-tower, two-block project designed ''to mix old and new'' in New York, begins with granite bases and slowly replaces the stone with glass as it rises. The controversial tower designed by Edward Durrell Stone Associates to go next to St. Bartholomew's Church looks like a whimsical icicle box dropped from on high.
All these effulgences are certainly striking; in fact, rather breathtaking. In the glassy renderings or in photos of their models, they are formally delightful at times. On the city streets, however, their wacky sculpture and, especially, their size is less likely to lend zest.
Even Goldberger, whose new book dotes on the histrionics of his bygone skyscraper facades, questions today's forced high-rise historicism (''is this the deliberate shock of the new or is it the routine awkwardness of poor composition?'' he asks) and he wonders about the jarring quality of the glassy computer-era crystal palaces.
For all the urge to shuck off the slab, then, the road to Alphaville, as one critic put it, is paved with good intentions -- or at any rate, rational aesthetic statements. Today's structures have no more addressed the social, planning, and economic issues of ever-denser cities or the urban anomie from inner-bound, upward-soaring structures than their predecessors, however.
Goldberger's book reminds us that the expression ''23 skiddoo'' came from New York's Flatiron Building, the early skyscraper which raised skirts and collected oglers on 23d Street. That wind-generating problem -- plus its countless descendants, especially energy over-consumption -- continue unabated.
The human adjustment to their superscale has yet to be resolved.
Thus, Lewis Mumford's comment which begins The Skyscraper has not paled:
''If (midtown Manhattan) ceases to be a milieu in which people can exist in reasonable contentment instead of as prisoners perpetually plotting to escape a concentration camp, it will be unprofitable to discuss architectural achievements -- buildings that occasionally cause people to hold their breath for a stabbing moment or that restore them to equilibrium by offering them a prospect of space and form joyfully mastered.''
That, of course, not only describes today's New York but applies across the continent.
Although the folks who market the Rubik puzzle sold 4.5 million last year, the streets are not simply sales tools. While the zany cube's architectural offspring provide playtime for their creators, our cities also need serious and thoughtful urban design to survive.