Politics & Policy

Back to You, Corb

Rachel Carson intersects with the Jetsons in the latest WTC proposals.

By Catesby Leigh

Modernist architects have a very serious problem. They don’t know how to build cities. They might know how to make their marks on the skyline — however unfortunate those marks may be — but they have never learned to generate a satisfying urban fabric that serves as a useful and esthetically appealing setting for the range of human activities that the city accommodates. Perhaps unconsciously, they have come to rely on the traditional architecture of great cities like London, Paris, and New York to serve as the indispensable background to their more-or-less fanciful divinations of the Zeitgeist.

Indeed, the list of modernist misadventures in urbanism, ranging from Brasília (one of the most anti-pedestrian cities on earth) to the public-housing towers and courts inflicted on American cities during urban renewal’s heyday, is long. And judging by the nine wheel-reinventing schemes for Ground Zero that were unveiled December 18, remarkably little has been learned from past mistakes.

The heart of the problem lies in the dehumanization of architecture that resulted from the human body’s displacement by the machine as the point of departure for design during the early decades of the 20th century. Humanist design, as the classical architect Steven W. Semes notes, is grounded in the idea of composition, of composing lesser parts into orderly, legible wholes. The operative paradigm is the human body, in which there is a legible subordination of parts — hands, arms, feet, legs, torso, head, etc. — to the whole. Not only does the feeling for order, hierarchy, and symmetry that derives from a humanist approach to design shape buildings, it is also conducive to a harmonious relationship between architectural masses and the public spaces they define.

Historically, Western architects have designed buildings that convey an esthetically satisfying sense of vertical thrust or horizontal repose, situating them on streets or in squares whose proportions and vistas satisfy the eye and make our bodies feel at home. The primeval instinct to decorate buildings, especially those of an exalted civic or religious character, is similarly grounded in our deeply ingrained habit of dressing up — of decorating ourselves — for weddings and other ceremonial events.

With modernism’s advent, this whole outlook on design was lost. The old World Trade Center was an excellent example of the resulting dysfunction. Derived from Le Corbusier’s “towers-in-a-park” paradigm, the twin towers were tall and bleak, and the plaza was vast and stark. From a design standpoint, the WTC was an utterly dehumanized entity, a function of merely quantitative concerns. Sure, there are lots of pretty photos showing the setting sun shining on the towers, but the sun is the source of beauty here, not the architecture. Seth Joseph Wiene, another classical architect, watched the towers go up decades ago, and he notes that the number of WTC postcards and mementoes, is far greater now than it was prior to 9/11. Nostalgia is understandable, but let’s not confuse these dismal slabs with architecture.

With the nine new modernist schemes for Ground Zero, all produced by acknowledged luminaries, it’s back to you, Corb. The inability to relate buildings to public space in a satisfying way is as acute as ever. If there’s been progress, it lies in the fact that the architecture is no longer dismal. It is, instead, ridiculous. We might say that the rigid rectilinear profile of the glazed office-tower-slab of modernism’s “heroic” era has “evolved” in an upward spiral to that exalted point where Rachel Carson intersects with the Jetsons.

Like a Hollywood scriptwriter in danger of eclipse, the office of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, erstwhile pioneer of the glass slabs that became so dear to the heart of corporate America half a century ago, has gone and got its edge back. It has placed a bridge-crossed reflecting pool on the site of the twin-tower footprints, and surrounded the pool with a curious profusion of glazed rectilinear tubes that bend and sway like reeds tossed by the current on the ocean floor. The buildings in this “vertical city” are topped with gardens, verdant toupées that testify to ecological concerns.

Daniel Libeskind, for his part, offers a deconstructionist’s Disney World featuring a strange sliver-like structure rising 1,776-feet high (how touching) and containing six distinct natural ecospheres — tropical forest, deciduous forest, desert, etc. It’s, like, sky gardens! And where else can you visit a sunken memorial precinct to an enormous tragedy where a tilted, tortured cube housing a museum looks like it’s about to slide right into the abyss you’re standing in! Now, that’s entertainment!!!

Lord Foster, a British denizen of the cutting edge, has made his architectural statement by replicating a network of faceted triangular surfaces into a sort of crystalline pair of trousers joined at the knee. This combination “gateway”-cum-”cathedral”-cum-”tower” is like a surreal enlargement of one of those unfortunate downtown sculptures inflicted on the public by a percent-for-art program. Within this building, arboreal “parks-in-the-sky” would purify the natural air circulating in the building — which, by the way, would be the tallest in the world. A fetching memorial — to Lord Foster.

Still more anthropomorphic, believe it or not, is the assemblage formulated by young blobitects grouped together as United Architects. Torqued erector-set skeletons covered with glass are shaped as abstractions of the human form or parts thereof (the trouser motif again). One pair of interlocking forms, were it to be built, would no doubt be associated in vulgar parlance with an erotic coupling. And do not confuse the anthropomorphism of this “City in the Sky” with a classical anthropomorphism. It is an anthropomorphism involving huge shapes utterly devoid of scale, not an anthropomorphism derived from composition in an organic sense. This assemblage would also boast the tallest tower in the world.

Starchitects Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Steven Holl, and Richard Meier offer another variant on the towers-in-the-park routine with a huge, 12-acre memorial square, that, as with all the other schemes, preserves the twin-tower footprints. The square is enclosed on two sides by tower complexes set at a right angle to one another. Each complex consists of large rectilinear towers connected by pedestrian bridges that double as gardens. The resulting grid formation is weirdly reminiscent of the charred latticework remains of Minoru Yamasaki’s WTC towers. Ugh. To the architects’ credit, their complex rises a mere 1,111-feet high — more than 200-feet lower than the Yamasaki towers. Another team, called Think, has thunk up three alternative schemes involving various degrees of esthetic sterility and bizarrerie.

A tenth scheme is not only the sole promising one, but the only one where tradition’s imprint is evident. It is by the team, Peterson Littenberg, that produced the best, and most-favorably received, WTC site plan among those unveiled last July, and is loosely based on that previous plan. Peterson Littenberg happen to be the in-house architects of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which sponsored this new round of conceptual schemes for Ground Zero after the July plans were greeted with widespread disapproval.

Peterson Littenberg has a large, sunken public garden embracing the twin-tower footprints — a subterranean amphitheater and museum are located in one of them, a pool in the other — that is skillfully configured as a sequence of outdoor rooms. Lower buildings abut this garden, with the taller ones — including two 1,400-foot towers — looming in the background. Commendably, the sunken garden and the grand pedestrian-friendly boulevard that would take the place of a tunneled West Street, are enclosed on the west, which is not the case with the modernist designs. Here again, lower buildings mediate in scale — in this case between the public spaces and the big, scale-less, and rather depressing World Financial Center complex. A traffic circle on the boulevard provides an excellent site for a memorial terminating an east-west vista along Liberty Street, which borders Ground Zero to the south. There are other promising memorial sites. This design is far from perfect, but it stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Nevertheless, a knowledgeable commentator on architecture and urbanism, Penn professor Witold Rybczynski, has seriously questioned the possibility of any of these schemes being realized in current market conditions in a New York Times commentary. Bottom line: He’s doesn’t think any of them will happen. So after a final conceptual scheme is somehow fused from these ten designs at the end of January 2003, maybe the LMDC can gently dismiss the wheel-reinventers and get down to some serious urbanism with its in-house planners.

— Catesby Leigh writes about architecture and fine art and lives in Washington, D.C.


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