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Thread: Ground Zero Designs: Reality vs. Renaissance

  1. #1

    Default Ground Zero Designs: Reality vs. Renaissance

    Ground Zero Designs: Reality vs. Renaissance

    Impossible!" "Impractical!" "Unreal!"

    Well, exactly. Don't they get it, these gleeful wet blankets, as the data comes in disproving the feasibility of new designs for ground zero? Don't they see that attempting the impossible is the whole and entire point?

    Of course they don't. Getting the point would mean acknowledging that their sense of reality is rooted in their fear of change. Some people benefit when others are doused with cold water. Their advantage increases when the water is thrown in the name of reality. Who can argue with reality?

    I can. So can you. We already have, in fact, and the argument has paid off. It's only because members of the public have taken the trouble to argue with reality that the official process of reimagining ground zero has taken a turn for the better. What we're learning, at this stage, is how to put the shoe on the other foot.

    Forget about checking designs against reality. The challenge now is to test reality against designs. If reality turns out to be wanting, we must go about learning how to change it. And the way to begin that process is by recognizing that when people start appealing to reality, what they are actually talking about is the status quo.

    Think how far reality has come in such a short time. In July the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation unveiled six plans for the World Trade Center site. Essentially they were six variations on the same theme: the public-private real estate development, executed in the same retro style that for years had been advertised as the people's choice. Somebody neglected to tell the public about it, however; the plans were roundly booed when presented at the now legendary town hall meeting at the Javits Convention Center.

    Last week the development corporation unveiled new designs, six of them offering as many variations on the idea of contemporary architecture. (The seventh was a reworked version of last summer's retro motif.) And public response has reached an extraordinary pitch of enthusiasm.

    The phenomenon we're now experiencing far transcends issues like which design is most popular or which is best. It has nothing to do with whether the projects are technically feasible or whether tenants can be found to fill them. In the context of this phenomenon, such questions are details. The issue is how to interpret the response as a reality in itself. For some of us, what we're witnessing is nothing less than the early hours of a cultural renaissance. But will it be New York's? That is the question that counts.

    In the past five days designers, builders, planners and public officials around the world have been downloading images of these six projects with an eye toward adapting them for construction in their own regions. In a few years knockoff versions of them will be transforming skylines in Asia and elsewhere. These will undoubtedly be inferior to the designs now on view at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in Battery Park City. But they will give the lie to those who oppose these designs on "realistic" grounds.

    Perhaps none of these designs will be built at ground zero. Perhaps public sentiment will call for a park. But the renaissance I'm talking about won't be confined to those 16 acres. If it occurs, this renaissance will be found in the image New York is beginning to form of itself as a progressive leader of global culture. It will be seen in the transformation of the government agencies we pay to manage the public realm: planning, economic development, parks, transportation, even landmarks preservation.

    Over the years relationships among these agencies have become stale, frozen, inimical to change. Is this a reality or a status quo? What has become clear in the past week is that this state of affairs is light-years away from the aspirations of the public these agencies represent.

    Six teams of architects have worked overtime and for the most part at their own expense to give these aspirations a range of potential forms in which they might be realized. Here is a set of options for reimagining the skyscraper. This is what it might be like to honor the victims of 9/11 by descending into the earth. Here are possibilities for parks and garden apartments in the sky, 24-hour vertical cities, towering infrastructures for the 21st-century informational city.

    Here, in short, is creativity, applied to recasting the city's future, in response to a tragedy that has already transformed the urban prospect. The collective energy generated by these possibilities has excited the public far more, I believe, than the anticipation aroused by any one or two of these designs. The energy is no less real than the inertia that kept New York from moving forward.
    Is it just wishful thinking on my part, or do I correctly sense that some public officials have caught the spirit? Up to now, it has been far easier to regard the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation as an obstacle to architecture than as a supporter of it. Perhaps this was inevitable. As one official commented at last week's news conference, we have been traveling without a road map. It's not surprising that the design process started off with the familiar formula of public-private development.

    Still, when was the last time we heard any public official acknowledge openly that his agency had ventured into unknown territory where no familiar formula was likely to be useful? That acknowledgment was in itself a creative response. Perhaps this official and others have begun to grasp what the public has already perceived: these six projects are not merely star performances by famous architects. They are revelations of ourselves: who we are, what we care about, where we stand in relation to our moment in history.

    We've got Olmsted parks, Art Deco towers, prewar apartment buildings of brick and stone. We don't need cheap versions of places we already know. We need to relearn that such wonders have not ceased. They are waiting to be revealed.

    Obstacles remain. These may not include technical feasibility or low demand for office space, but they are no less real. They all stem from the same problem: the rigid network of social, political, economic and professional relationships from which the status quo is structured. This network has lost control of the design process.

    Losing control, in New York, is an infinitely more frightening reality than a surplus of rentable square feet. It takes enormous resources of money and energy to sustain mediocrity, and those resources have not dried up.

    We are shortly to be treated, for example, to an evaluation of the new designs by a committee of New York New Visions, the ad hoc local group of architects and design firms formed last year to advocate the best for Lower Manhattan. Once again we will have the opportunity to put the shoe on the other foot. Groups made up of dues-paying professionals are, by their nature, not in the best position to discriminate among their members. It is unreasonable to expect such a group to conduct a completely independent evaluation.

    But I'm prepared to be surprised. Think how many surprises we've had so far this year. Hire Daniel Libeskind to design a plan for ground zero? Impossible. Motivate Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl to pool their talents in a powerful design that betrays no single signature style? Unreal. See a project by United Architects, a team of young designers working together for the first time, praised in newspapers and on television stations around the globe? That's crazy. Can't be done. It'll never happen. Until it does.

  2. #2

    Default Ground Zero Designs: Reality vs. Renaissance

    Yes, yes and yes. Absolutely. Cannot be stressed enough.

    I wonder though how he can say that the modernist and white Meier team proposal isn't "Meierian".

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