Shane Reiner-Roth is a writer and co-founder of Tall Work (Instrumental Plausibility). Through publications, exhibitions and speculative projects, his work examines the means by which certain objects appeal to an economy of expression by communicating higher values than their own on the cheap. He is currently a research fellow at the MIT department of architecture.

Gateway Tower Gated

Featured in Lobby Online
Summer 2015

An observation tower’s presence amplifies the sense of frequency in any given city it may inhabit. Programmed like an immense golf tee, it characterises a city’s liveliness if only for the fact that it sticks out against a sea of skyscrapers to symbolise a more urban function than dense cohabitation. Wherever visible in the city, many people, too tiny and multiple to be seen, can be imagined crawling around its structure and gazing from its uppermost handrails; from these handrails, the similar kinetic frenzy of daily interactions in the city below, and its share of tiny multiple people, can equally be imagined. Roland Barthes described the cyclical nature of this peculiar building type best when describing the Eiffel Tower. He wrote, “The Tower is an object which sees, a glance which is seen....The Tower transgresses [the] habitual divorce of seeing and being seen, it achieves a sovereign circulation between the two functions... it is a complete object which has, if one may say so, both sexes of sight.” This is the perfect whole of the common observation tower, as its openness promotes dizzying heights of fluidity in a city that might otherwise be approached as an unknowable maze.

The Gateway Tower, also known as the Samitaur Tower, is the willful exception to the dialectic that defines the type. Designed by Eric Owen Moss for Culver City, its completion and usage was intended to coincide with the adjacent light rail train. The tower and the train path have been completed for years now, yet the Tower is still not open to the public. As one can observe from the outside, it is out of the construction phase - its stairs and handrails are clearly laid out and solid, its platforms are secure - yet it seems to inexplicably deny the next step of any completed building. Along its perimeter on the ground floor is a low chain link gate hung with signs that read “Do Not Cross,” while a security guard monitors the complex in ten minute intervals. Beyond this gate seems to lie no other obstructions.

The Gateway Tower is certainly an object which is seen - by riders on the nearby train, by drivers afforded little time to assess its status - but, not legally accessible to the public, it is not currently an object which sees. It performs only one of Barthes’ sexes of sight and therefore disrupts the cycle bestowed solely to this building type. Passing by, its structure is lifeless and hollow, and we all know it's hollow even before seeing it; we would have heard the news otherwise. It therefore represents an urban function less like Eiffel’s Tower and more like Kafka’s Castle, an open structure that is perpetually closed.

It seems the only way to restore vision to the Gateway Tower is not to wait for its ribbon cutting and performance like so many others of its kind, but instead to simply become a trespasser; to ignore the signs and step over the gate between those routine intervals. "One must fight to get to the top, especially if one starts at the bottom," Kafka's protagonist claimed. Anyone that crosses this line will race the stairs only to find another, less permeable gate blocking the stairs to the upper two levels, and here the second level of transgression makes itself present in the conquest of the top. After passing this hurdle (by climbing around the neighboring bannister), the top platform is one's reward, and Los Angeles' intensity is revealed from a newly discovered vantage point.

This act is likely a welcome one to the Tower’s architect. In his lectures, Moss promotes the concept of transgression and the sense of full experience that one should hope to find in architecture. So again like the foreboding elements of Kafka's castle, the two gates of the Gateway Tower may be the most important design elements in the whole project, with the responsibility of "guarding the distant invisible interests of distant and invisible masters."

Some rumors suggest the Tower will open as soon as the train system meets the sea; others claim it is condemned for exceeding the maximum allowable height according to Culver City’s Zoning Charter. But it is more likely that the act of transgression was designed into the Tower, and, with the act and the widespread knowledge of the act, the Tower's two sexes of sight can be upheld, but this time with force.

With this act conspiring an unknown number of times each day, the Gateway Tower can become a catalyst for a unique sense of frequency, one that most observation towers cannot achieve in their compliance with the basic tenants of the type. “Our world would be unlivable without this strange attraction, without this innate power of diversion, without this radicalism which comes from elsewhere, from the object and no longer from the subject,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in Truth or Radicalism, “and I think for architects themselves, there is something seductive in imagining that the buildings they construct and the spaces they invent are the locus of secret, aleatory, unpredictable, and poetic behaviors of a sort, and not just official behaviors that are statistically recorded.”

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