Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.
-- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Progress sometimes is accompanied by growing pains. Witness the seven new proposals for the World Trade Center site, broadcast live on television the week before Christmas. What a moment for avant-garde architecture! It was certainly an oddity to see architecture headline the dailies. In addition to the New York Times, front-page stories led off the New York Post, News, Newsday, Sun and USA Today. Not in recent memory has the high art of building design and urban planning been given such a large role among people at large as a topic of conversation.
Opinions from the general public may for once do us all a service -- and prevent the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which are among the powers that be who have control of the 16-acre site, from blowing it.
"This was great for architecture, to headline the front pages and engage the country to discuss its meaning," said Steven Holl, the youngest member of the New York 4, the group that proposed the grid-like design of five glowing glass buildings. The team includes Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and the professorial Peter Eisenman, who is the eldest of the four. Watching Meier awkwardly fumble through his presentation on TV was painful -- he spoke inarticulately, and at length.
Once Holl and Eisenman took over, however, they were able to make clear the sublime, egalitarian sensibility behind their design. Eisenman even provided a self-aggrandizing slide showing his interlocking hands in puppet shadow on the wall. New York 4 could have spared us this corny demonstration, and articulated instead the notion of metaphorically joining, healing and re-piecing the fragmented structures of the original WTC towers façade in an open structure that speaks of inclusion, rather than imposing exclusive structures on this psychically scarred site.
To be honest this model did not translate well on the television, as did most of the others. It makes a huge difference to view the exhibition in the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, just across from the site.
Also a note to all of the architecture teams, should there be another televised event of this nature: more virtual animations and Photoshop collages, fewer street maps and architecture schematics that simply do not convey the imaginative concepts on television.
Seeing the model by the New York 4 in person reveals more of its strength and compassion as an eloquent critique opposed to the idea of building vertically on the site. What gets built at ground level is paramount to the exchange between a place for commerce and a place that honors the deceased. Physically its form also reminds one of Holl's recently acclaimed MIT dormitory building. What is most provocative about this proposal however, is the adjustment from thinking vertically to horizontally, although it is still a reasonably tall building at 1,111 feet, a height that has a numerological relationship to the date of the attack.
Lord Foster of Great Britain was a well-spoken presenter on matters concerning his design, which appears as a single tower but in fact incorporates a spiral of two buildings. His crystalline power tower is alluring, sexy, glamorous, deceptively sinuous and tall. It seduces the eye with a graceful verticality that bespeaks of the lure of New York City as a point of destination and opportunity. Its form is exclamatory in asserting its place as an icon of the skyline, a quality it shares with the design from Studio Daniel Libeskind (see below).
Foster believes a tower such as his shows the world resiliency, strength and resolve. "The skyline must be reassembled," he said, with a building based on triangular geometries in which the two halves meet at three points. Libeskind's digital renderings show the finished buildings in relationship to the Empire State building and the Brooklyn Bridge, respectively. The result is a building that looks as massive as the Twin Towers, albeit more refined, and one that is, for want of a better expression, "architectural."
On the issue of restoring the skyline, Studio Daniel Libeskind steps to the plate with a design that tops off at 1,776 feet. Libeskind wants to "reassert the preeminence of freedom and beauty in restoring the spiritual peak of the city, an icon that speaks of our vitality in the face of danger." His angular, asymmetrical towers are reminiscent of the four-story-tall shards of metal façade that remained after the towers' collapse -- perhaps too much so. Libeskind also looks downward, directing attention some 70 feet below onto the bedrock foundation to create a sepulchral space of silent contemplation.
Libeskind surrounds the original WTC site with a series of connecting buildings that accentuate the severity of the tragedy by the use of severe slicing angles that culminate in a spire that punctures the sky. Are these sharp lines there to remind us of the acute trauma experienced and therefore overkill? Is this concept, however poetic, too fraught with guilt and horror? This transposition of evil and horror into transcendence worked to great effect in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, but can it work in New York?
Like Foster, Libeskind has taken the position that an iconic tower equates and mirrors our dominant position in the world as Empire and the New York City skyline as a 21st century beacon of the new.
The United Architects design, presented by the youthful Greg Lynn, no doubt expresses the most utopian vision. Their proposal speaks of a "city in the sky," with a series of five connecting orthogonal structures rising up to a height of 1,620 feet, or nearly 112 floors, and spreading over 10.5 million square feet to be built in phases over several years. The complex of buildings encloses the entire 16-acre site, creating a cathedral-like enclosure.
Lynn's presentation used 21st-century virtual animation to great effect, like Blade-Runner morphing into the Jetsons. (One could have done without the schmaltzy live-action and animated short film shown towards the end of the presentation.) One terrific idea in the design is the use of the depression in the earth as a visual well that would allow the public to look directly towards the sky from the low point of ground zero. People could likewise peer downward from its highest point. As above so below in this modern gothic cathedral…
SOM, Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, proposed what is perhaps the firm's most avant-garde building to date. Its aim is to double the 16 acres of space through a series of dense vertical structures that in virtual form appear as a cluster of wriggling shapes. They claim "the legible icons are the striations of space rather than commercial structures." Still there's chock-a-plenty room for commercial use within the built-in density of these enormous skyscrapers. Input by video artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, the artist Rita McBride, who often features architectural references in her sculptures, assemblage installation artist Jessica Stockholder and sculptor Elyn Zimmerman seem to have helped to jazz up the design plans of SOM, who are usually derided for their dryly academic corporate monoliths.
Rafael Vinoly of THINK Design presented a helical open framed set of buildings flanked by three tall office towers. Its centerpiece is called the World Cultural Center, and consists of a pair of twin towers that look like a giant erector set. The design references the Eiffel Tower in addition to gaining inspiration from the Towers of Light memorial project spearheaded by Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda. At 2,100 feet in height these contraptions would be the tallest structures in the world and perhaps the most ungainly as well.
The design looks more visionary with the three smaller towers and an emphasis on a smart ground level public plaza. Enclosed under a gigantic free-span glass ceiling is a ten-block, 16-acre rooftop park that culminates in a three-acre cantilevered lawn, all set 10 stories above the street grid. Their open towers accentuate the idea of a tourist destination that offers with sweeping vistas of the surrounding landscape, much the way that the Eiffel Tower does. Unfortunately, the structures do not inspire the eye as much as they do the mind.
Peterson/Littenberg featured the only female architect to speak at the momentous unveiling. The firm's plan calls for a set of two buildings that appear in renderings as a pair of 50-story mini-Empire State Buildings set within a landscaped terrain. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp quietly lambasted this conservative team, which has been hired as consultants to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. "With this firm on retainer, we risk seeing all of Manhattan below Canal Street morphing into a cenotaph, a cityscape frozen like Pompeii at the hour the Twin Towers collapsed." Whew!
What is Muschamp railing about? Peterson/Littenberg are followers, devotees if you will, of the reactionary architect Leon Krier, the man who brought us the New Urbanism, which in a layman's nutshell emphasizes traditional Old World European-style buildings that incorporates landscaping. Basically they're anti-modernists who have put forth a plan that might have looked cool, say, in 1850. Kudos to Muschamp for taking a stand against such a conservative position. Having this plan move forward is tantamount to demanding we go back to rotary phones!
Collectively speaking, if even 50 percent of the proposals see the light of day it's a victory for 21st-century architecture in New York. It means we are moving forward in our judgment of the need for a new philosophy towards urban planning, one that gives us a human scale that inspires our sense of democratic participation, and service to life rather than drones reporting to work in uninspiring, cold, commerce-first driven entities.
The LMDC took heed in the first round of the design competition, listened and reacted, launching a second round that resulted in these seven proposals. At the same time, developer Larry (the Philistine) Silverstein proceeds to build another banal building where the WTC building number seven stood. Can't these titans of business understand that it is possible to have both an edifice of enlightenment and a productive place of commerce? What more do you want from these great minds who have proposed efficient renewable energy, natural light, beautifully landscaped public spaces for contemplation and invigoration, structures built with state-of-the-art surfaces, and cultural centers of activity?
How will all of this play out? The models are on view through Feb. 3, 2003. Let there be more discussion. Let us once and for all break the shackles of outmoded 20th century dogma and entertain ourselves with substance.
Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men. Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall.
-- Frank Lloyd Wright
MAX HENRY is an independent art critic and curator. He recently curated "Surface to Surface" at Mary Boone Gallery in New York.