Friday, September 12, 2008

The Once and Future WTC

The proposed design for the rebuilding of the WTC in its current form

The old WTC viewed from Queens

I was never fond of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Neither did I really hate them either, as some other people did. The Towers were simply too mute and uncommunicative to be lovable or hateful. Children, however, loved them. They were so big, and so simple. While there are certainly a lot of buildings in New York that I loved far more than those towers, there are others that I thought were far worse offenses against decency and sound urban planning (for example, the Citicorp tower).
At last, real construction has finally begun on the new World Trade Center. The foundations are largely completed for the "Freedom Tower" and the memorial. The first steel beams have been put in place, and work is beginning on the elevator shaft of the new tower. The substructure for the memorial is largely completed. Until recently, the whole project has been bogged down in controversies over design and management, cost over-runs, corruption, and scandal (especially all the scandal that came out after the fire in the ruins of the Deutsche Bank building that cost the lives of 2 firefighters).

The most interesting aspect of the project to rebuild the World Trade Center is that this is a commercial redevelopment fraught with all kinds of meaning and symbolism that usually belongs to public monuments. I can't think of anything else similar. This project is a commercial enterprise intended to make some people in the real estate industry and in the Port Authority a lot of money. This is also the public centerpiece of Lower Manhattan, with a lot of death-and-resurrection imagery in the design, intended to articulate and bear witness to the collective experiences of the city during and after September 11th, 2001. Bearing witness to history and articulating meaning for future generations is usually not the business of commercial architecture. But, it is here. Usually those 2 purposes would cancel each other out. Making a profit is usually about anything but finding meaning. Meaning frequently gets in the way of what is expedient for driving up profit margins on investments. Part of what has delayed and compromised the design for the new WTC is the inevitable conflict between those two imperatives of profit and meaning.
I've followed the fortunes of the rebuilding with great interest for a long time now. While most people complain about the slow pace of the reconstruction, others point out that the idea for building a World Trade Center in Manhattan was first proposed in 1946, and the Twin Towers weren't finished until 1973, a span of 27 years. On the other hand, the first World Trade Center didn't have to fill a big smoking hole in the middle of downtown Manhattan.
Most of the textbooks fail to point out that modern architecture began as commercial and domestic architecture. It is design created to meet those two purposes. Almost all the pioneering works of modern design from Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, Mies Van Der Rohe, and the International Style were either commercial buildings or private homes. None of those projects had the task of articulating public meaning. That was always the job of nasty boring old Classical architecture. Classical architecture began as public buildings intended to articulate meaning for the community, temples, basilicas, monuments. It was never originally intended for private homes or commercial buildings. I suspect that private homes and shops in Periclean Athens looked nothing like the monuments on the Acropolis.
Some early modern architects understood this distinction. Daniel Burnham's commercial architecture could be as up-to-date and forward looking as anything by Louis Sullivan. But, he continued to design public buildings in a very classical style. The same was true of architects like Cass Gilbert and Bernard Maybeck. You could design a commercial office tower with all the steel and sheet glass you desire, but City Hall needs columns.
Modern architecture did not begin producing major public buildings until after World War II. Hitler and Stalin killed off Classical architecture by using grotesque brutal parodies of classical monumentality to glorify all their epic criminality. Evil may well be banal, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, but it can also be astonishingly vulgar (contra Milton). From the United Nations buildings here in New York, to Le Corbusier's churches, to Brasilia, the jury is still very much out on the ability of modern design to fill the role that Classical design once performed.
The WTC now has to perform both commercial and monumental functions. I will say that almost all the proposals for rebuilding the WTC were improvements over the old one. Even the current thoroughly compromised design is a big improvement over what was there before. What disappoints me most about the current design is how conventional it looks. After all the juries and the public forums and the design competitions with some really dramatic and original proposals, in the end the design looks like any other big commercial development anywhere in the world. The Freedom Tower (I hate that name; it sounds like all the Orwellianisms to come out of the Bush administration, like a figleaf intended to conceal or distract us from something highly dubious) in some ways is an intelligent idea, a variation on the original design of the Twin Towers, but in the end looks disappointingly conventional. The worst part is that awful pedestal, a redesign dictated by the security concerns of the NYPD. They can put all the reflective material they want on its surface, it still looks as brutal as the surface structures of the Fuhrerbunker, only much bigger. The designers claim to have been inspired by Brancusi's famous sculpture Bird in Space, but I wonder just how closely they studied Brancusi's work. Indeed the relation between sculpted form and its base is a big part of Brancusi's work, but the Freedom Tower looks more to me like a static glass obelisk than the sweeping gesture of the sculpture in contrast to its very static base.
Probably the most successful part of the design is the Memorial. One of the developments in design over the last 40 years that is most striking is the success of Minimalism as a form language for memorials. Minimalism may not have been much as fine art, but as memorials it's remarkably effective. The most successful and famous example is Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I cannot imagine any Classical figure group sculpture succeeding in any way comparable to Maya Lin's design. The same is true for the very spare design of the September 11th Memorial. A major weakness of the Classical monument is what was once its major strength, the ability to turn abstract ideas into compelling narratives. Any figurative monument is going to create a narrative, and thus a meaning, for the event. And in this age of little common agreement on the meaning of anything, such a monument would inevitably impose a meaning no matter how generous the intentions. For a personal work of art that might be appropriate, but not for a public monument in this day and age. Minimalism works precisely because it is so mute. It suggests emotions without articulating any meaning. It leaves people to create their own understandings of events. The spare bleakness of the original design of the Memorial (considerably softened by the addition of landscaping in the current design; I think inappropriately) expresses the common emotion of grief and loss that we all feel about September 11th without creating any interpretation of that event.
I'm glad the construction is finally underway. The current design may be a disappointment in its conventionality, but I think it's the best we can hope for under the circumstances. It is an improvement over the late Minoru Yamasaki's design for the old WTC (in all fairness, that project ended up far larger and more unwieldy than anything he had originally intended; Yamasaki should be remembered gratefully for keeping the thing from looking grotesquely totalitarian).


kishnevi said...

I haven't been able to find out when exxactly they were built--sometime in the early sixties, I think--or who was responsible for the design, and I'm not sure if technically they can be called minimalist, but the memorials at Yad v'Shem in Jerusalem--especially the first ones to be built, the Hall of Remembrance and the Valley of the Communities--embody everything you talk about in minimalist design. The Hall of Remembrance is essentially a dark grotto with a stone floor into which a memorial flame is set, and into which have been engraved, almost randomly, the names of the most important death sites; yet it is impossible not to be moved by it.
I have been there only once, in 1973, so I've never seen some of the memorials featured in the article, like the Memorial to the Deportees.
The impact of Yad VaShem is intensified by its location relative to the rest of Jerusalem; it's actually part of the necropolis that centers on the Mount of Olives, which must be one of the biggest cemetery complexes in the world, and probably the oldest still in continous use--graves go back at least to the inter-Testament period and probably back to Old Testament times; and people still make special arrangements to have their bodies flown from the Diaspora to Israel so they can be buried there.

BTW, there is already a Freedom Tower in Miami, which got its name from its role in the migration of the Cuban exiles to the US. It was built in 1925 to house the Miami News, and currently serves as an art gallery after almost being partially demolished to make way for a condo development. Details at the wiki page

kishnevi said...

Sorry. Correct URL for the Freedom Tower

Counterlight said...

You know, you're right, and I've seen that Freedom Tower in Miami. I stayed in a hotel a block from there in my one and only trip to Miami.

The Yad Vashem is truly moving, though I've never been to Israel to see it.

Probably the most striking use of minimalist form in a memorial that I know of is the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin. It's right next to the Brandenburg Gate, less than a block from the site of the Reichschancelry, and it's huge.

Counterlight said...

Where are my manners? Here is a picture of the new Berlin Holocaust Memorial.

ueber-g said...

One modern architect who has managed to meld both the modern and the classical, call it post-modern, is the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. His designs, found throughout the world, although he has not done much in the U.S., are for everything from commercial buildings to public housing and are an amazing mixture of roman columns and modern glass. Both his Espaces d'Abraxas in the Parisian suburb of Marne la Valle (home of EuroDisney) to the Place de Catalogne in Paris are a wonder to behold. The residential buildings tend toward the monumental, but, when you are standing in front of them, they still seem, somehow, to retain their human scale.

For some visuals go to: