View Full Version : The 'Look at Me' Strut of a Swagger Building

January 6th, 2002, 12:28 PM
From New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com)

January 6, 2002

The 'Look at Me' Strut of a Swagger Building

NEW YORK is the only city in the world where the decision to build a cluster of 50- or 60-story buildings could seem an act of modesty. But such is the plan to rebuild the World Trade Center at close to half its 110-story height, as laid out by John C. Whitehead, head of the downtown redevelopment project. This is understandable. Who would duplicate a monument that had already been attacked twice, and expect tenants to move into the world's largest bull's eye? Thus the World Trade Center may well be reborn, in name and in rental capacity, but without the swagger.

It is not only at Wall Street that monumental gestures have fallen from favor. On the East River, Frank Gehry proposed a new Guggenheim Museum that would have forever altered the city's skyline, a writhing tempest of metal, billowing like a full-rigged ship in a gale. It would have rivaled the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, though it now seems unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Donald Trump's project for the city's tallest building has been shelved. There, too, swagger is on hold.

Each of these might be termed swagger buildings arrogant, proud and strutting objects that are the physical manifestations of America's competitive culture. Swagger buildings are distinguished either by exceptional size (the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building), novel or arresting shape (Frank Lloyd Wright's original Guggenheim Museum), or by some dazzling but purely symbolic gesture (as with Wright's dream of a mile-high skyscraper). They are what happens when the financial power of a corporation is brought to bear on a small speck of urban real estate, and given permission to roar. They are high-spirited, narcissistic and supremely confident; they free inert metal and masonry to dance and caper in the air; they show what should be impossible to show: an earthbound building in the act of having fun.

THE swagger building has but one objective to rivet public attention. It is the loud and fascinating stranger who enters the room and instantly changes the tone and direction of conversation. And it is central to the experience of the American city. For all its spirited high jinks, it is engaged in the deadly serious business of making fortunes and casting its rivals into the shadow literally, if possible. Swagger buildings herald the entrance of a brash upstart, or anyone who can contrive a splash of color and a bit of architectural turbulence, hoist it against the sky, and trumpet, "I have arrived." They come in successive waves, and their ebb and flow is the visible pulse of the city.

For swagger buildings can certainly fail. Fashions in architecture can be as fickle as those in clothing and these failures are far more difficult to hide in the back of the closet. Not much is needed an untimely economic lurch, a shift in the cultural winds, an unfortunate but indelible psychological association for a gesture of authority to look like bombastic flailing. When this happens, a swagger building can turn into something like the universally mocked Edsel something not merely dated, but whose form is deafeningly and magnificently wrong.

At times swagger itself becomes wrong. Too much agitation on the skyline does not communicate authority but a St. Vitus's dance of gesticulation. And when everyone is shouting, it is the whisperer who gets the attention. Such was the case with the Victorian era. The flamboyant Second Empire style failed so wretchedly after the Civil War that it still looks ridiculous a century and a half later. This style was created in France under Emperor Louis Napoleon, and its jaunty pavilioned towers and bulbous mansard roofs proclaimed affluence and sophistication with a fashionable French accent.

America embraced the style in a collective frenzy after the Civil War. The Old Executive Office Building in Washington is the most conspicuous relic of the style. Typically, though, New York built the most lavish example in its post office, a plump, florid leviathan that transposed the Louvre onto lower Broadway.

After the Civil War, this festive, haughty style struck a welcome note: cathartic exuberance after the carnage. But in 1870, the vain French emperor blundered into a foolish quarrel with Prussia and was deposed, along with the style that had become his trademark. The prosperous mansard, which once looked voluptuous and vigorous, now looked puffed up and arrogant. New York, ever alert to the vagaries of fashion, jettisoned the style. The enormous Second Empire state capitol in Albany was already half built, but its offending mansard was lopped off. Throughout the country the mansard slunk into disfavor, further tainted by the Panic of 1873.

America is notoriously unforgiving to failed swagger buildings. The nation has never liked being associated with failure, whatever the cause. For Americans, the Second Empire lingers in the collective imagination as something either comical the gloomy turreted mansion in Charles Addams's cartoons or vaguely sinister the looming house of Norman Bates in "Psycho." It is the embodiment of failed ambition and decay. The odium of Louis Napoleon's fall even came to rest, quite unfairly, on the lackluster presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, as the style was incongruously dubbed the General Grant style.

But swagger cannot be checked for long especially for buildings conceived during a period of economic prosperity like the Roaring 20's. This era produced the nation's finest swagger buildings, those Art Deco whimsies with their crisply chiseled walls and tapered shafts that rose to make great swaggering sculptural gestures at their crowns: the helmeted spire of the Chrysler Building or the fantastic Zeppelin mooring mast atop the Empire State Building. Their forms communicated vibrant economic health, the architectural equivalent of flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes.

Modernist architects may have mocked these forms, but their popularity was unassailable. Not until the Depression began were these cheeky and bold gestures regarded as grotesque and inappropriate. It was not the mooring mast that discredited the Empire State building; it was the investors leaping from windows and the apple sellers huddled around its base.

Much the same happened to the swagger buildings of the 1980's. At the start of that restless decade the Trump Tower and the AT&T Building with their jolly postmodern rooflines, colored bands of polished granite and sleek glass walls of Darth Vader-like opacity were first associated with unbridled economic expansion, later with junk bonds and looming recession. Once again, the psychological connections turned a gesture of confidence into a vulgar and boastful contortion. It will be some time before colored granite stripes are fully rehabilitated.

Now the events of Sept. 11 have again changed the nation's perception of the swagger building, which had recently returned to glory. Every indication suggests that there will now be a distinct moratorium on swagger buildings. But it is certain that they will return. They are, after all, basic to the American vernacular, like the advertising jingle and the billboard. Americans may often resent them and envy them and, sometimes, take malicious glee when their financing fails, but the nation will, nonetheless, find itself wishing for their return those cocky and amiable ruffians on the skyline.

Michael J. Lewis, chairman of the art department at Williams College, is the author of "Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind."

January 13th, 2002, 03:10 AM
I hope the people of NY understand that all eyes are on them. *I hope the citizens of the city will make their voices heard and not let some government entity dictate the construction of some banal office campus and "green space". *Something big needs to go there, and it better be unique and innovative -- flamboyant if you will. *With what I see being proposed now in these preliminary discussions, there better be some major class-A bitching going on in the city. *I hope New York's heyday isn't about to end, this is the test.

January 14th, 2002, 11:10 AM
It seems New Yorkers do want to have their voices heard, as this New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com) article shows.

January 13, 2002

Coalition Offers Guidelines on a Web Site: Redesigning Downtown

Even as the future of Lower Manhattan is debated, it is already beginning to take shape. Politics, corporate strategies, logistics, private initiatives and litigation are starting to define what downtown will become.

In the hope of influencing that process, a design- and planning-oriented coalition known as New York New Visions has posted a 52-page document on the Web available at nynv.aiga.org (http://nynv.aiga.org/) describing the principles it believes ought to be embraced.

The coalition calls for architecture that is "compelling, meaningful over the long term and culturally ambitious," adding, "It would compound the tragedy if the occasion to build better were written off."

Other suggestions range from the unexceptionable ("Improving accessibility by mass transit" ) to the more pointed, like continuing the Greenwich Street pedestrian corridor through the site of 7 World Trade Center, for which a replacement structure is now being designed. The previous building created a formidable visual barrier between TriBeCa and downtown.

Coalition members include the New York chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Architectural League of New York, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, the Design Trust for Public Space, the Municipal Art Society, the Regional Plan Association and the Van Alen Institute.

January 14th, 2002, 11:46 AM
Another article from New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com) on the same subject.

January 12, 2002
Everyone Weighs in With Rebuilding Ideas

Almost immediately after Sept. 11, a rising chorus of voices began to offer suggestions about how to rebuild Lower Manhattan and what should be done to address the issues of transportation, office space, businesses, residents and a memorial to the victims of the attacks.

Four months later, several groups have published their visions or concrete proposals for redesigning and rebuilding sections of Lower Manhattan, from Ground Zero outward to the East and Hudson Rivers.

What is emerging, however, is less chorus than cacophony or, from another perspective, voices rising in rich intellectual ferment. And the sound is likely to become even richer and more varied as ad hoc groups with different interests issue position papers and studies about their views for the World Trade Center site and the lower part of Manhattan as a whole.

The multitude of voices is almost certain to increase in the coming weeks, as the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, the commission officially charged with the rebuilding, appoints its own advisory committees to evaluate and report on the views of various constituencies.

Groups representing the families of victims have expectations about a memorial, for example, while residents of Lower Manhattan want changes made in traffic patterns. Business owners want the utility companies to finish their work quickly, once again placing the power lines and other utilities that are now clogging downtown sidewalks below ground, while urban planners want to delay the burial of those power lines until issues of pedestrian circulation are discussed. Beyond that, there is the question of who will pay.

"It would be great to be able to say that hundreds of groups have been involved in these efforts and all have a very similar result," said Madelyn Wils, the chairwoman of Community Board 1 and a member of the board of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation.

But given the groups' diversity (among those involved so far are the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, the Bond Market Association and several groups representing the families of victims), opposing views are more likely to surface.

Therefore, Ms. Wils said, the resolutions coming out of the ad hoc groups will probably serve as a jumping-off point for the redevelopment corporation, which is expected to begin formulating plans when a "listening period" ends in March.

Ideas, of course, rarely wait for committees, and plenty of proposals, from the conceptual to the concrete, are already or will soon be available for public viewing. Some participants in the process have already begun to warn that what emerges in those early discussions could have a tremendous effect on what will happen.

"As we learned with community gardens, sometimes what is meant to be interim use becomes permanent use," said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, at a forum Thursday night sponsored by the Institute for Urban Design.

Larry A. Silverstein, who held the lease on the two towers, has said he would like to rebuild commercial office space, and some of the representatives of the victims as well as former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani have said they want the entire site to be a memorial. But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and John C. Whitehead, head of the redevelopment commission, said they supported mixed use for the 16-acre site: office space, a memorial to the victims and perhaps retail space.

Some of the earliest visions of what should occur in Lower Manhattan appear in a 52-page report put together by a coalition of architecture, planning and design groups called New York, New Visions.

The report, a working draft of which is available at the group's Web site nynv.aiga.org features everything from generalizations about the process of conceiving a memorial to specific plans for new traffic routes throughout Lower Manhattan. It will be revised after coalition members assess it.

A more conceptual vision of what might become of the World Trade Center site will open to the public on Thursday at the Max Protetch Gallery, at 511 West 22nd Street in Manhattan. Two nights ago, Mr. Protetch, who solicited the 50 ideas and renderings from architects and artists, offered a preview of some of the designs at a forum sponsored by the Institute for Urban Design.

In the coming weeks, at least three conferences and roundtables will address what should become of the World Trade Center site. On Feb. 7, the Civic Alliance, a coalition of civic groups, environmental advocates, designers, academic centers and policy experts, will conduct a "conversation with the city" at Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. The meeting will include an Electronic Town Hall format to survey citizens' ideas and recommendations.

Two private conferences will tackle some of the same issues.

On Jan. 18, the Bond Market Association, a trade group of Wall Street firms, will sponsor a forum on rebuilding priorities and options for financing them.

On Feb. 8, the City University of New York and Rutgers University will be co-sponsors of a conference in which professors, real estate executives, politicians and others discuss six aspects of rebuilding: the economy, security, the region, infrastructure, building and governance.

Other assessments of the rebuilding effort are being undertaken by an alliance of downtown residents, small businesses and designers called Rebuild Downtown, Our Town. And the Municipal Art Society is sponsoring what it calls a visioning project, which is intended to stimulate further discussion about visions for rebuilding downtown Manhattan.

And of course, there is the memorial, the project that is first on virtually everyone's list for consideration. Most parties agree that the design of a memorial will drive all other decisions about what to do with the trade center site. And for all of the interest of design gurus and real estate executives, the groups wielding the most influential voices so far in the discussions about the rebuilding process appear to be the families of victims of the disaster.

January 15th, 2002, 05:19 PM
New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com) editorial:

January 13, 2002

Rebuilding New York

Laboring in overdrive since soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, construction and subway workers at Manhattan's ground zero are now well ahead of schedule. The World Trade Center site should be cleared by summer; a key subway stop in the area should be working again by fall. The heroic speed of the recovery will soon leave an empty lot and a deep hole where the towers and, later, their tragic shells once stood. At this point, the city needs to be assured that plans for redeveloping the site are moving forward with the same sense of urgency. A large crater and haphazard planning about what to put there would send the worst possible signal to the people and businesses who are trying to decide whether their future lies in Lower Manhattan.

Right now, there is some danger that such an unfortunate message might be sent. The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation has a respected chairman, the former Goldman Sachs executive John Whitehead, and $2 billion in federal aid at its command. But its mission and the extent of its powers remain vague. While Lower Manhattan's multiple needs far outstrip $2 billion, it is disturbing that nobody seems to know exactly what this particular pot of money is supposed to do. Too many of the elected officials involved in the process are preoccupied with getting their share of control over appointments and funds to focus on exactly what needs to happen next.

The choice of Louis Tomson as Mr. Whitehead's new executive director gives Gov. George Pataki more control over the corporation because Mr. Tomson has served as the governor's loyal troubleshooter in the past. Mr. Tomson is known as someone who can negotiate the kind of convoluted deal that this one will surely become. One concern is whether he will make certain that the public's voice is heard as the corporation plans a visionary replacement for the towers and the surroundings.

The most pressing public need is to begin planning for a memorial for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of their families want the entire 16- acre site dedicated to the memorial, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke from his heart when he championed that view recently. But if his remarks encouraged the families to believe that such a goal could be accomplished, they were not helpful.

The restoration of Lower Manhattan needs to focus on two goals: honoring those killed on Sept. 11 and bringing life back to the city's downtown, which was devastated on that same morning. There is plenty of room to accomplish both, and to neglect either would be a tragedy.

Simply turning this large urban site into a park or monument would leave a broad swath of the neighborhood empty at night. The city needs to attract residents, businesses, culture and entertainment to the area, creating a vital new community in the very place that terrorists tried to destroy.

Mr. Whitehead and his commission must reach out to the families quickly to involve them in the planning process from the start. To do that, the commission must first have a clear process in mind a series of steps to be taken, ending in the selection of a suitable design. Right now the road between good intentions and actual work looks foggy, raising fears that the memorial is going to be tacked on to a building rather than the focal point for the site.

Larry Silverstein, the developer who leased the World Trade Center towers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey shortly before they were destroyed, has hired some of the city's best architects and urban planners to sketch a proposal for new towers. With somewhere between $3.5 billion and $7 billion coming to him in insurance payments, Mr. Silverstein will be a powerful force in the negotiations about what to build on the site. But as a practical matter, anything he decides to do must be approved by the Port Authority, which is controlled by the governors of New York and New Jersey. That means a number of powerful people will eventually have a say in what happens on that land, including the governors, the mayor of New York City and Mr. Silverstein. The families, the Lower Manhattan community, including the residents of nearby buildings, and the corporations crucial for the city's well-being will all expect to be consulted as well. One of the main reasons Mr. Whitehead's commission was formed was to help adjudicate the needs of so many parties.

The commission needs to establish a selection process that does not turn the site into a design-by- committee. Already an astonishing number of architects, planners and visionaries in the city have started offering their expertise. Mr. Whitehead's challenge will be to encourage such assistance and simultaneously create a way to winnow all this advice down to a final design that is both practical and inspiring.

An even more urgent need is for the short-term solutions to problems that will exist until the development is finished, years down the line. New Jersey commuters need additional ferry service to make up for the destruction of the PATH terminal in the World Trade Center. Residents and businesses in the area need continued relief. And a temporary memorial must be erected to provide solace for the families and inspiration to the visitors who will be coming to the site in the next few years.

Right now thousands of tourists are marching up unfinished wood viewing stands at ground zero to experience something of what happened to America on Sept. 11. They deserve to see more than a construction site, more than a monument to the glacial pace of government.

Liz L
March 6th, 2003, 06:23 PM
What is Mr. Lewis talking about when he refers to "swagger" buildings being "discredited"? *Does he mean discredited in the eyes of the public, or in the eyes of architecture critics? *Is this permanent, or temporary?

I'm curious about this becuase I understand that during the Depression the Empire State Building, though a lot of its space wasn't rented, *still got enough income from visitors to the observatory to stay solvent - this hardly sounds like being "discredited." *

March 7th, 2003, 04:31 AM
Liz, I want to point out that you are replying to a set of articles that Edward posted to the forum over a year ago. My what a difference a year makes. That said, you're welcome to reply to old posts if you like. Sometimes it is nice to revive an old thread, but these articles are already very dated.

Liz L
March 7th, 2003, 03:40 PM
My lateness can really be amazing...I didn't think about the date, because I have to admit that the point I was responding too really startled me at first glance...