View Full Version : Nine Lofty Ideals

January 5th, 2003, 01:49 AM
By Justin Davidson
Staff Writer

Around the perimeter of the World Financial Center's Winter Garden is the architect's equivalent of the Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue. The storefronts are filled with model cities clad in white and glamorously lit, urban fantasies for the site where the World Trade Center once rose.

The city of the future has been outfitted with hanging gardens a quarter of a mile high, a vast glass cathedral, a crowd of skyscrapers that bumps hips at the 60th floor, a museum draped between two lofty latticework towers like a sock caught in the branches of a tree -- and more. In one design team's exhibit, three different visions rise up in stately succession through a miniature lower Manhattan, each one descending through a trapdoor in an eerie simulation of what might happen if the new towers met the fate of the ones they are designed to replace.

This is fine theater, an exciting showcase of ideas and a marvelous way to get New Yorkers to talk and think about contemporary architecture. It should not, however, be mistaken for a menu of concrete plans. The proposals look highly detailed, thanks to the sophisticated imaginations of the architects and the miracle of computer rendering, but in fact they are quite speculative.

The reason for this is that New York has yet to decide what it wants. A city that until now has had little use for the world's pre-eminent architectural thinkers is now treating them like a conclave of seers. Architecture is generally a result of the collaboration between architect and client. Here, we have architects inventing institutions, proposing projects for which there are no clients, visions for which there are no funds, and solutions for which there are no problems. We are asking architects to articulate our needs and desires.

They have done so, flamboyantly at times. Daniel Libeskind has produced an elegant, even moving arrangement of low-rise wedges, diagonals and rakish planes. Libeskind's is by far the most soaringly successful of the nine plans, crowned by a skyward-pointing finger enclosing something he calls "Vertical World Gardens,” a series of stacked ecosystems reachable by elevator. It's an intriguing idea, but should the tallest man-made structure on the globe be a tower of botany? Maybe it should, but the idea is far too new to sink in by the Jan. 31 deadline for the LMDC to choose one of these proposals.

All the designs tackle the unique problem of this site: The fact that whatever gets built at Ground Zero will have to incorporate the recollection of what was there before. The most striking acknowledgment of this is the THINK team's concept of a "World Cultural Center.” It's a pair of white latticework ghosts, vaporous traces of the Twin Towers made out of struts and empty space, with a school and a performing arts center suspended in midair. Near the top, a bubble-like museum of some kind would bridge the two towers, mapping the points where the two planes struck. Despite the LMDC's injunction to leave monument-building aside, this project is a concrete representation of memory, a memorial in all but name.

THINK's new twin towers would be not office buildings but the effigy of office buildings -- sculpture posing as architecture. In a sense, the idea represents a cultural capitulation. Terrorists razed two structures they read as symbols of arrogant empire; we experienced the attack as the murder of thousands of ordinary, non-arrogant, not-imperial people. Why would we voluntarily choose to read it their way instead of ours, memorializing the throng we lost by erecting an empty emblem, a vast, vacant container for our fears?

The answer, of course, lies in the central unresolved contradiction of the project: lots of people want to see a tall building or two where the World Trade Center stood, but nobody wants to work there. The logical resolution of that conflict would be a pair of gargantuan lighthouses.

This is not some rural cliff we're talking about, but a bustling downtown neighborhood. Most of the architects attempt to suggest what life at street level might be like at the foot of their structures. But the scale of these projects is deceptive. The renderings of Norman Foster's enormous twinned towers show a pleasant glass-and-steel backdrop to a late May idyll in the park, but in real life it will probably feel like a gleaming colossus, standing astride the island's southern tip.

The World Trade Center loomed, of course, in a way that sculpted the skyline and diminished the people who scurried in its shadows. There's an inherent contradiction in trying to make a building both tall and neighborly, and many of the proposals wind up belittling the citizens they are meant to serve. From the ground-floor perspective, the United Team's Vertical City, a five-legged beast of a building with the body at the 60th floor looks, quite literally, monstrous. The team led by Skidmore Owings & Merrill offered to build a dense forest of high-rises that would leave the earth beneath it permanently bleak. Another THINK proposal envisions enclosing the equivalent of a small town beneath a great glass canopy, but how would those inside not feel like so many ants in a bell jar?

As a counterweight to size, most of the teams include public spaces and ground-level greenery, but the designs suggest that architects don't spend enough time playing catch or piloting strollers. It's remarkable how many of them surround their parks with walls and traffic, or else hoist them in the air, as if there might be something corrupting about making them too easy to get into.

The husband-and-wife team of Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg opt for formal gardens in a large, hidden cloister joined to the street by discreet gateways. This is a recipe for a rule-bound, reverential park that might belong in Paris more than in New York, a circle of enclosed, disciplined nature that would require wrought-iron fences and guards with whistles to maintain decorum.Richard Meier's team had another suggestion that discourages boisterous activity: A pair of oblong groves of trees replicating the felled towers' shadows sticks out into the Hudson, wrapping itself awkwardly around the bulk of existing buildings.

Those who like a park to be a place to play as well as contemplate might go for THINK's proposal for a Sky Park, a broad swath of elevated greensward stretching from above Ground Zero to a platform overlooking the Hudson River. But imagine if in order to get onto Central Park's Sheep Meadow, all those indolent couples, tireless toddlers, after-school klatches and tai-chi practitioners had to hunt for an escalator up to grass level. Where would you remove your roller blades? Or get a hot dog? How would you retrieve an errant Frisbee once it sailed over the low fence and into the traffic on West Street?

Norman Foster doesn't envision walling his park off, but chooses instead to mar its interior with walls. Here, remembrance coexists with recreation. Foster's solution is to leave the footprints of the Twin Towers vacant and mark their perimeter with high steel walls -- long, grim, blank facades that would rise massively out of the greenery, tempting graffitists and handball players, but oppressing everyone else.

With one exception, what emerges from this gathering of great minds is a disappointing collection of megaliths. Richard Meier's clunky, L-shaped complex of towers joined by aerial bridges even looks like a multilevel Stonehenge. Only Libeskind has thoroughly imagined the way actual people might flow through the space he shapes, how the sensuous and symbolic could mix in their reactions, how differently the space might affect the deliberate pilgrim and the commuter on the run. The architect began his career as a musician, and the attention to rhythm and tempo shows.

While the other plans start with the skyline, Libeskind's concept begins below ground, with the sturdy and eloquent foundations of the World Trade Center. That immense hole in the ground, almost certainly the site of a future memorial, is vast and deep enough to contain a great lake of emotions. The actual memorial designed will be selected by competition, but Libeskind has given the site a poetic context.

The office towers ring the plaza, making it possible to build them over time, as the market demands, and to diversify their looks. At the center is a pair of public spaces, one an outdoor piazza, the other a plaza enclosed within a great glass box, pointed, gleaming and irregular like an imperfect crystal. This space acts as a portal that leads upstairs to a museum or downward to the "bathtub” and the transit station -- giving visitors a choice to go back in time or away by train. Above ground, the jagged shapes accumulate unpredictably, so that the building appears from the ground to be in constant motion -- rising, twisting, diving.

But each Sept. 11 between 8:46 and 10:28 a.m., the morning sun would pierce the downtown weave of buildings and catch the crystal full in its beam, casting no shadows on the site. Those who know will see; those who don't won't notice. This "Wedge of Light,” as Libeskind calls it, is an unostentatious symbol, one that stitches the memory of calamity together with the forgetful activities this new place should welcome: drinking coffee, rushing for a train, dropping a quarter in a street mime's case, blithely ignoring a street-corner preacher's warnings that the end is near.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

January 5th, 2003, 03:30 AM
The World Trade Center loomed, of course, in a way that sculpted the skyline and diminished the people who scurried in its shadows.

Honestly, I wonder who really felt diminished while walking in the shadow of the WTC.
Not me.

January 5th, 2003, 07:34 AM
Maybe Long Islanders and other suburbanites. And the feeble-minded.

Libeskind! Libeskind! L-I-B-E-S-K-I-N-D! Woo!

January 5th, 2003, 12:08 PM
A nice boost for Libeskind. He was also profiled on CBS
Sunday Morning.

January 5th, 2003, 01:10 PM
Those who don't want to take the risk to build many offices high above the existing skyline will favor that plan.

(Edited by Fabb at 1:11 pm on Jan. 5, 2003)

January 5th, 2003, 01:14 PM
That's only one opinion of many. *Here's another....(NY Post)
.................................................. ............


January 5, 2003 -- SINCE the World Trade Center attacks, New Yorkers have debated the future of Lower Manhattan so passionately and extensively that the discussion at times seems hopelessly complicated.

But at its simplest, any plan for the area should try to achieve two things: to help revive downtown as an essential part of New York's economy, and to do so in a way that better integrates the site into the rest of Lower Manhattan - which has been evolving in the last decade into a 24-hour-a-day, mixed-use community.

The latest designs for the site - unveiled as part of an international competition - fail miserably to achieve that second goal and, as a result, endanger the first one, too.

Architecturally, the new designs are completely out of step with the New York skyline and street wall, imposing a starkly inhuman, postmodern look on Lower Manhattan that is at odds with the rest of the cityscape.

And as urban planning, the projects are even less successful. They treat the site as if it were a world's fair - making it busy with cultural exhibits, 21st century visions of retailing and the like - but in the process creating a world set completely apart from the rest of Lower Manhattan.

DESPITE the best intentions of the planners to ensure that the site retains a healthy commercial component, their otherworldly, aloof, sterile designs would make Lower Manhattan a forbidding place and jeopardize its revival.

What's most frustrating is that these designs were entirely predictable. After the public reacted lukewarmly to the six original plans put forward by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's consultants, the group enlisted the help of a coalition of architects, designers and planners known as New York New Visions to select teams to produce new designs.

But New York New Visions is a trendy organization in thrall to architectural postmodernism. Its ideas are relentlessly at odds with the great Beaux Arts and Art Deco designs that people love most about New York, and its selections were guaranteed to produce something jarring and out of place.

Although Gotham has a rich architectural history, much of what the new crop of designers has created will seem alien to real New Yorkers. Part of what makes New York's skyline unique - and beloved - is that most of its signature buildings represent clear stages in the evolution of a distinctive Gotham vernacular architecture, recognizable around the world.

BY contrast, the new designs offer buildings and public spaces that are largely placeless. They could be anywhere, from Houston to Singapore.

Architect Daniel Libeskind, one of the most aggressive of the postmodernists, is typical of the group. Libeskind loves to yoke together wildly disparate images, as in his extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which he has designed as a building of dizzy angles sitting next to the ornately classical main building of the museum, and completely at odds with the surrounding neighborhood.

HE did the same with the World Trade Center site. The plaza he has created as the gateway to the cultural and retail center on the site resembles the entrance to some lunar colony - stark, high-tech and barren, with no link to anything else remotely New York.

The other designers' presentations are hardly more accommodating to the Manhattan landscape. English architect Norman Foster proposed replacing the Twin Towers with two interconnected crystalline buildings whose faces are composed of interlocking triangles.

In sunlight, they will look like huge, crooked, silver slivers sticking out amid the earth tones that characterize Lower Manhattan's other skyscrapers, a giant alien spaceship just landed to dominate us bewildered, small and scurrying earthlings.

Connecting the buildings was a common theme among the architects. The group known as United Architects proposed a half-dozen giant towers that slope toward one another in order to intersect. The effect from the ground is of giant, drunken, metallic figures woozily leaning against one another for support.

Another team decided to link the buildings by interconnecting three sets of floors horizontally across the towers. Seen from the harbor, the buildings will look like a giant tic-tac-toe board looming behind the World Financial Center.

IF this architecture is without any relation to the Manhattan skyline, the master plans that these design teams proposed for the site are worse: They are a study in isolationism at odds with the continuing transformation of Lower Manhattan. In the past decade, Lower Manhattan has evolved into a 24-hour community, mostly because of the conversion of about 50 older office towers into residential buildings.

But the Twin Towers impeded the continuing conversion of the area because their giant, raised, 16-acre plaza divided Lower Manhattan into two distinct parts. The World Trade Center's retail area, placed underground, did little to stimulate street traffic or attract visitors to the area after the office towers cleared out at the close of business.

As part of its planning for a new site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation asked the designers to consider ways to reconnect Lower Manhattan to the rest of the city by reconstituting many of the streets that had run through the area before the government built the Twin Towers. The new designs mostly just pay lip service to this notion and then go on their merry way.

SEVERAL of them make the same mistake as the original World Trade Center, hiding stores and restaurants underground or in giant, enclosed suburban-style malls. One design offers a 16-acre park several stories above street level. Another plan moves much of the activity even higher above ground, using a concept known as the vertical city to situate retail, restaurants and other consumer services in layers within the skyscrapers.

The New York we all know - the city of outdoor cafés, broad retail avenues and bustling side streets - is nowhere in most of these plans. New Yorkers don't take an elevator in order to browse.

New York City has largely resisted the onslaught of postmodernism precisely because the city has its own rich architectural legacy that affords most designers a context in which to work.

We can see clear relationships between the stylish neo-Gothic Woolworth Building, the understated Art Deco design of the Empire State Building, the more robust Art Deco style of the Chrysler Building and even the quiet modernity of Lever House.

The occasional jarring mistakes - like the relentlessly ugly new Westin Hotel in Times Square - don't distort the overall skyline.

But the World Trade Center site offers something completely different. Because it is so large, it could serve as the catalyst to change the New York skyline completely. If the site becomes a harbor for the worst excesses of postmodernism of a kind that have now been proposed, the city's skyline may become little more than an eyesore and a joke.

EVEN worse, if the self-indulgent exhibitionism of these urban plans winds up guiding that site, the revival and integration of the neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan will stall, and the area will become a curious monument to a bizarre and sterile dead end in the history of taste, rather than a livable and commuter-friendly community.

From the winter issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal (city-journal.org). Steve Malanga is a CJ contributing editor.

January 5th, 2003, 01:15 PM
Quote: from Fabb on 3:30 am on Jan. 5, 2003
The World Trade Center loomed, of course, in a way that sculpted the skyline and diminished the people who scurried in its shadows.

Honestly, I wonder who really felt diminished while walking in the shadow of the WTC.
Not me.

That's true. *The closer you were to the towers, the smaller they felt...

January 5th, 2003, 01:21 PM
Blah blah blah. The Post journalist has no clue, what a surprise. Libeskind, postmodern? I've heard everything.

Reactionaries have been marginalized and that's already a great victory.

January 5th, 2003, 01:30 PM
The author is actually from the Manhattan Institute, an ultraconservative organization. His arguments are tired as hell and I doubt they have much influence anymore. What is hilarious is that he actually wants a contextualist postmodern design.

January 5th, 2003, 01:39 PM
Frank Gehry on the WTC
.................................................. .......

(NY Times)

Towering Vision

So, how have you managed to stay out of the debate over the twin-towers site? You're the only architect who's a household name in America, so naturally people wondered why your name was missing when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation presented seven new proposals for the site last month.

I was invited to be on one of the teams, but I found it demeaning that the agency paid only $40,000 for all that work. I can understand why the kids did it, but why would people my age do it? Norman Foster or Richard Meier or any of those people? When you're only paid $40,000, you're treated as if that is your worth.

But what about your sense of civic responsibility? Don't tell me you built the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, simply to earn a buck.

I refuse to work unless I get paid, so I don't get a lot of work sometimes.

But don't you owe it to the public to try to help New York, not to mention the rest of the country?

I was in New York when the towers fell. I was in the Four Seasons Hotel, and I couldn't believe it. In the next few weeks, I couldn't imagine what could be put there. I couldn't even think about it. But then I was watching the news a few months later, and I heard Giuliani say that what should be there is a soaring, beautiful space that people from all over the world would want to come see. And that inspired me.

You mean you drew up a plan?

No, but the following January I was teaching a class at Yale, and I decided to give that project for my class: how do you build an extraordinary public space? I took 15 students to see the Haga Sofia in Constantinople, and said to them: this is what we need in New York. I think you should think on this scale or bigger, about a building that could be spiritual but not religious. The pope would come, and the Islamic guys, and it would be a symbol of openness and tolerance.

Have you shared your ideas with any public officials?

At one point I was going to have Giuliani come to Yale to meet my students, but I didn't call him. I thought any moves in that direction would have been opportunistic.

Aren't all of you architects supposed to be megalomaniacs?

I can be. But not in this case. This is a puzzling one.

But if you could do anything with that space, with any amount of money, what would you put on the site?

I don't want to come off as the white-haired wonder from California telling New Yorkers what to do. But I have a fantasy of a space that is so magnificent it would engage the world. At least five or six acres could consist of a covered space, a covered piece of grass. It could be an indoor park with a lake in it and a place where you could picnic. Imagine Central Park with a roof over it.

Why not just have an outdoor park, with sunshine and birds and all that? Some have even suggested putting a farm there.

Because I think it's essential that it be a soaring space. If you just put a piece of grass there, it trivializes the issue of the memorial. But if you covered it, added lighting and sound. . . . I just think that if I had lost a family member at the World Trade Center, I would want someone to build an extraordinary public space, a piece of architecture.

You mean half park, half Gothic cathedral?

Yes, but I am also thinking of the mosque in the center of Damascus. The reason mosques come to mind is that they are not a hierarchical space like a Christian church. They're accessible from many directions, and they have a democratic character to them. They don't have a central focus, an altar. They have the imam, and the stairway, but they move it around, so it's a little like a theater in the round. It could be multiuse, with concerts and all that.

What about office space?

No! This is a public space. One big room. And then other buildings could be built around it, according to the needs of the community.

So, if not the World Trade Center, what are you working on now?

I am just finishing this thing in Israel, a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and it seemed safer than L.A. We're also doing a terminal for boats at the airport in Venice. We are doing a project in Toronto for the Art Gallery of Ontario, a complete new wing. It's in the park where I grew up and played as a kid, and across the road from the shul where I was bar-mitzvahed. I don't believe in religion anymore. I go to a Catholic church with my wife.

I can't let you go without asking you what you think of your colleagues' proposals for downtown. Giuliani has said he doesn't like any of them.

My only beef with them is that they did it for $40,000. But maybe there's a positive side. Now that the proposals are there, they open the public's eyes to the possibilities of architecture.

Frank Gehry

January 5th, 2003, 01:42 PM
Quote: from Kris on 1:30 pm on Jan. 5, 2003
The author is actually from the Manhattan Institute, an ultraconservative organization. His arguments are tired as hell and I doubt they have much influence anymore. What is hilarious is that he actually wants a contextualist postmodern design.
Maybe so, but I think his opinions are just as valid as Justin Davidson's. *(first article)

Not that I agree with either of them...

(Edited by NYguy at 1:42 pm on Jan. 5, 2003)

January 5th, 2003, 02:12 PM
I can't believe Frank Gehry is so obsessed with money. I think he's using that fake argument because he was not satisfied with his own ideas.

How about that one :

I don't want to come off as the white-haired wonder from California telling New Yorkers what to do.

False modesty. Clearly, he's afraid of something.

(Edited by Fabb at 2:13 pm on Jan. 5, 2003)

January 5th, 2003, 02:27 PM
I was disappointed in him too.

NYguy, I don't agree with the first article either and my cheerleading was sarcastic. It's biased but at least it isn't complete nonsense.

January 5th, 2003, 02:49 PM
When it comes to architecture, the bulk of opinion really boils down to personal taste and this is how most people are making their decisions. It all depends on what is important to you in a design.

The only things that can really be compared between these plans are the imperical things - how much office space, how much parkland, location of retail space, crossing of West St., location of the memorial, location of the transit center etc.

January 5th, 2003, 05:12 PM
Maybe someone should start a campaign, "Frank Gehry for the new WTC!"...:)

JMGarcia, the location of the memorial (footprint area) and transit center (between Church and Greenwich) are 2 of the elements we can count on being the same in the final plan.

About a week before the next forum Downtown. *It will be interesting how it will turn out, and what the spin on it in the media will be.

January 5th, 2003, 05:44 PM
JMGarcia, the location of the memorial (footprint area) and transit center (between Church and Greenwich) are 2 of the elements we can count on being the same in the final plan.

Yes, but will the footprints be the small L shaped area or Peterson/Littenberg, the large park area of Foster, the sunken area of Libeskind, or the large plaza of Meier and UA?

Will the transport center be wholly underground or will it be a feaure building at street level and above?

These are the kind of things that should be debated beyond just the quality of the architecture.

January 5th, 2003, 07:37 PM
I can tell you this much from preliminary PA plans, the "memorial area" will include the entire area west of Greenwich and south of Fulton. *So anything proposed for that site will take a back seat to whatever comes out of the memorial design process....

January 6th, 2003, 12:54 AM
Whatever the final compromise between memorial and architecture emerges as, I sincerely hope that they do not screw it up, by creating something unpalatable to all but an "enlightened" few.

January 6th, 2003, 12:52 PM
The first article is just a guy using his editorial space to chearlead for his favorite design... ok, whatever... It was far from my favorite but not the worst.

The second
Post Modern!!!
This guy is just a moron! You almost feel embarrassed for him and the exposure of his ignorance. He casually uses the term "postmodern" as a catch all for everything he doesn't like... not even realising it is the architectural term for the type of building he seems to be proposing himself. What an idiot!

As for Gehry, I'd prefer to see him on a judging panel than submitting a design of his own. I love his work, most of it, but his work is so stylized and recognizable that it often seems as though his works are advertisements for his other works... Does that make sense? It would seem like a branded building. I'd love to see a great cultural center or a new NYU building designed by Gehry somewhere in the City. If the memorial is a "brand" of anything, it should be a brand of New York, and a Frank Gehry defined skyline would be a Frank Gehry branded skyline.

January 6th, 2003, 01:23 PM
Fabb wrote:

I can't believe Frank Gehry is so obsessed with money. I think he's using that fake argument because he was not satisfied with his own ideas.

Context: Gehry has only ever worked on one (unbuilt) skyscraper design for which he and his partner, David Childs of SOM, had a legendary falling out and withdrew from the competition at the eleventh hour, just before the judging (see image below). Gehry has no prior experience with tall skyscrapers nor with huge corporate mega-firms like SOM. He doesn't work that way. In order to do a skyscraper design he would have likely had to colaborate with another experienced skyscraper firm. After the famous debacle over the NYT's building he may have even had difficulty securing a partner and regardless would have likely been quite uneasy about such a prospect from his own unhappy experience. If there is an unspoken motive for his decline to participate, I would suggest it is this, not lack of ideas.

As for being money obsessed, Gehry is not a young man. While he achieved recognition, he had a long go of it before achieving financial success. I'm sure his attitude is that he doesn't have to work unless he's getting paid, so why at this point in his life should he? His office is full of commissions right now, why would he take on a huge expensive competition taking resources away from his paying clients. In the current economic climate, many of these other firms aren't so lucky to have his problem.


January 6th, 2003, 01:29 PM
Also, I'll add that I don't think the competition should have paid more, quite the contrary, I think it should not have paid a dime. It should have be a non-paying open competition with hundred, no thousands of entries... that would have been dificult to manage, but it would have been the right way... and Gehry could (should) have been invited as a judge.

January 6th, 2003, 05:39 PM
Carefull, Chris. *It wasn't a competition. * Dog-and-pony show is what I'd call it.

January 6th, 2003, 08:33 PM
Yes, you're right. It wasn't a competition.

Correction accepted...

My point is that it should have been a competition. An open competition.

When unfortunately it was only a show and tell... I love the phrase Dog-and-Pony show... I like to use that figure of speech in reference to client presentations/pitches and when I say it at least one person has to ask me to explain what that means. "What's a dog-and-pony show?" and I think, how many morons are in the room?

Once again: Yes, you're correct.