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Can We Do It?


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I hope I’m remembering this right, but in I think Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena there is a scene where the Emperor Constantine summons a team of architects and sculptors to build him a triumphal arch, just like the triumphal arch the Romans built at the peak of their artistic powers two and three centuries before. He wants elaborate carvings, elegant draperies, realistic renditions of his conquering soldiers and conquered enemies.

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The architects and sculptors are indignant. They tell him that no up-to-date emperor would want an arch covered with all of that old-fashioned ornament. Modern arches, they say, are clean and pure, stripped of all that classical junk. “But could you do it if you wanted to?” the emperor asks. An embarrassed silence. Finally they admit: No, no we couldn’t.

I keep thinking of that story as I look at the New York Times’ very interesting
slide show
of proposals for the rebuilding of Ground Zero. The most striking thing about all the designs on view is that none of them seem to show the slightest understanding of how people in cities use public spaces. The design that seems to have most impressed the authorities in New York, by Daniel Liebskind, amounts to basically a giant sunken below-ground public space – ie, just the kind of space that had to be torn up in front of the GM building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street because nobody wanted to go down there. Liebskind’s space would be even worse. It is bigger for one thing and more isolated – and because it is public property, the police will be unable to shoo away the homeless who will set up a hobo city against its walls.

Norman Foster’s idea is even worse – two walled off public parks, one of them open only to relatives of the deceased. It’s what Jane Jacobs called a city-killing plan.. The best of the bunch is the Petersen Littenberg plan, which creates a large public garden that might actually be used – but it is premised on the impossible economics of rebuilding two giant office towers alongside.

Where’s our Constantine – somebody who will demand that we do better by the memory of the dead and the needs of the living?



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