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« Modern Art 101 | Main | One Size Doesn't Fit All »

December 19, 2002

WTC Candidates

Friedrich --

Have you looked at the new set of proposals for the WTC site? Viewable here. As for my opinion, I'll say "Ahem," lift an eyebrow, give modest voice to the question "Whatever happened to such values as neighborhood, human-scaled streets and workable office buildings?" And I'll leave it at that.

And, leaving it at that, I decided to bypass the critic/intellectual/elite class and go directly, man, right to the people. Ie., I skipped away from the opinion-makers and content folks here where I work and went to hang out for a while with the production people. They were leafing through the local papers and eyeballing the WTC proposals. Here's some of what they said:

  • "That's just goofy!"
  • "It's horrible! Horrible!"
  • "Can you imagine asking someone to go work in a place like that every day?"
  • "This is what happens when too much money and too much self-consciousness come together on the same project."
  • "They want us to choose between those?"
  • "Hmm, let's see. A bullshit 'pound' sign. A bullshit bunch of twisted glass. A bullshit bunch of ropes of Christmas lights ... "
  • "Oh, yeah, and I'll just bet you can really open those windows!"

The conviction that the money/ego/avant (ha-ha) garde/intellectual classes are once again on their narcissistic way to putting over yet another outrage was unanimous.

And, hey, the following question, which has popped up in my mind many times over the years, pops up again. Semi-unrelated, I know, because the WTC proposals are proposals and not actual buildings, but even so:

Isn't it plain weird that architectural reviewers and critics feel that it's OK to review a building without a) talking to people who work or live in it, b) talking with people who work or live near it, and c) spending serious time living and/or working in and near the building themselves?

I do understand writing about buildings entirely from the point of view of "the building as free-standing aesthetic statement" -- but only for limited-audience, specialist design publications. When writing for the general public, doesn't it seem not just key but absolutely essential to discuss such topics as the building's functionality, its civility (or lack thereof) to its neighbors, and whether or not the windows can be opened?

How would a newspaper's readers react if they noticed that the newspaper's car reviewer wasn't taking the car under review for lots of test drives, was concerned only with discussing the car's aesthetic qualities, and looked down on the rest of us for not "getting" his judgments? Yet we let writers about buildings and architecture get away with something exactly analogous.

Outraged, sputtering and overcaffeinated, though doing my best to regain my usual worldly Zen detachment,


posted by Michael at December 19, 2002


Oh, come on now, Michael, you know how the Critic game is played. The essential thing is not to be an expert, it is to sound like an expert. Even admitting that you know "real people" will lower one's chances of getting hired to opine in public, let alone actually admitting that you consulted with such rabble before writing your Olympian discourse. "Let them read the sports page" is, I think, the motto of the aesthetic class.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 19, 2002 12:00 PM

Aha! So that's it! I knew there must be some explanation for my total failure as someone who (occasionally, lamely, half-heartedly) writes about the arts! And that sounds like it, exactly!Many thanks for enlightening me about the nature of criticism.

Hmmm, maybe I should have been writing for the sports pages all along. I wonder if there's still time. Nope, nope -- much too late in life for that kind of drastic change.

Damn! Back to being an arts grump.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 19, 2002 12:11 PM

Hmmm, you've got me thinking ... Users, real people ... Feedback ... Usability ....

Consumer Reports!

Hey, maybe what's really needed where buildings and architecture is concerned is something like a Consumer Reports. Really put those buildings and developments through rugged tests. Solicit feedback from users about durability and what they like and don't like. And then rank 'em, and make it all public.

A great consequence might be that over time buildings and neighborhoods would get better. Why? Because anyone could check in easily to see what works and what doesn't for most people. Maybe over time, town planning boards and developers would use the results as a kind of guidebook.

I suspect it'd take a while, but maybe, like cars, there would be some real improvement in what we're being sold.

Want to be partners in this? Now all we need is time and money. Venture capitalists? Yoo-hoo, venture capitalists? There's a good idea floating around here...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 19, 2002 2:44 PM

Ooh, Michael, talk about outraged and sputtering -- I read this entry just before I had to run out and do some errands, and steam's been building up behind my ears and wanting to vent out ever since. So brace yourself...

I simply cannot believe what I'm reading here. "Whatever happened to such values as neighborhood, human-scaled streets and workable office buildings?" you ask. I would point you to the grand vision for this project, a wonderful document written by the LMDC called "A Vision for Lower Manhattan". It's available at if you haven't read it, and it looks very much to me as though you haven't. You should: it's a detailed though manageable document, and it addresses all of your concerns, and also the concerns of others.
Fact is, Michael, right now there is a whopping great hole in the ground in Lower Manhattan, and above it there's a whopping great hole in the sky. Both need to be filled. But you're right: the neighbourhood also needs human-scale streets and workable office buildings, as well as a way to connect Battery Park City to the rest of the island, a way of transcending that horrible 8-lane monstrosity known as West Street, and a way to integrate the WTC site into what will, we hope, become a vibrant downtown area full of life 24/7.
Now the seven architects chosen all followed the LMDC's vision quite closely. They're in on the broader vision of the Loop: a promenade which, starting at the WTC site, runs down a tree-lined boulevard to the Battery, loops around and up Water Street on the east side of Manhattan, and then closes back on itself through a revitalised Fulton Street, complete with new transportation hub. All of the plans have a lot of trees and streetside retail, and none have the kind of dark and dingy shopping center which we had before at the WTC.
It seems to me that you haven't really looked at any of them: the Peterson/Littenberg plan, for instance, loves narrow street grids so much that it not only replaces Greenwich and Fulton streets (they all do that) but also creates a brand new shopping boulevard called Greenwich Place.
All of the plans go to extreme lengths to make lower Manhattan generally, and the WTC site specifically, a wonderful place to live and work.
You ask whether we can open the windows in the proposed skyscrapers. Well guess what: you can! Norman Foster went to some lengths to allow people to be able to do that, while retaining enough energy-efficiency that his tower wouldn't need any air conditioning for 10 months of the year. One of the other plans was so energy efficient that it actually generated energy, instead of consuming it.
You're a man of the people, it would seem, Michael: after all, you seem much more interested in what the chaps on the street said while looking at the New York Post than you do in what the rest of us think. Fine. But do remember that those guys were looking at nothing more than a few single photographs. The World Financial Center is going to be staging an exhibition of all nine plans over the next couple of months, and I can guarantee you that it will be full of men-on-the-street who take the design and consultation process seriously and who will actually try to understand the plans they're looking at before passing judgement.
Remember, too, that Daniel Liebeskind's new Jewish Museum in Berlin attracted 250,000 visitors before it had even installed a single exhibit. His buildings don't work very well on paper, but in real life they're loved.
OK, not all of the plans are that great: on my own blog I took many of them to task, including Richard Meier. But they do address your concerns, they do take the human scale very seriously, and they do -- whether you like it or not -- also fill a genuine public desire for restitution of the skyline. New Yorkers want their skyline back, Michael. Lower Manhattan isn't Greenwich Village, it's the third-largest CBD in the USA. CBDs are where skyscrapers belong. And it looks to me that you are automatically against any plan which includes a tall building, which is just plain silly. New York has had the tallest building in the world for most of the 20th century and even before: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Woolworth Building, the Empire State, the World Trade Center. New Yorkers were always proud of that. Who are you to tell them that they can't have it?

Posted by: Felix on December 19, 2002 5:09 PM

The original WTC seems warm and human to me now that I've seen the candidates for its replacement. This is odd because the original was, I gather, widely thought to be cold and uninviting. But it was only as cold as the early '70s could come up with. It was unavoidably human. Nowadays we have real coldness pros.

Posted by: Jim on December 19, 2002 10:27 PM

Good on you!, Felix.

I just posted my brief take on this matter here.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 19, 2002 10:57 PM

Wherte are Fred Turnerr's proposals? MUST you go "through channels?"

Posted by: Steve Bodio on December 19, 2002 11:41 PM

You know what? First thing I thought when I saw this shite in the paper was: "I bet Felix will love 'em." Honest truth. Maybe I spend too much time reading blogs.

Posted by: Brian on December 21, 2002 4:29 PM

I like the layout of the Foster and Partners plan, and good idea for the memorial. Keep that layout and get rid of the buildings. Let an art class from a lower Manhattan high school design the buildings. I'll bet they could do a much better job.

Posted by: Lynn on December 21, 2002 7:18 PM

There are are good design created by the architects. However,I have an interesting design solution for the new WORLD MEMORIAL SQUARE concept, which can be found in WWW.CHAI.TV web site with many original sketches to see.

The concept of the World Memorial Square is derived from the
traditional organic growth of city street patterns with coeherent flow
of sequential urban space "interlocking and inter-connecting"
of street and square indicated in the master plan. The concept can be incorporated with the principle goals and
objectives set down by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC).


The World Memorial Square is the world's biggest living memorial
place on earth. The dynamic, contemporary urban square is defined by the mixture of
irregularly controlled stepped (set-back) low rise (3 to 5 storey) and
medium rise (6 to12 storey) buildings as a backdrop. The end of the
square is terminated with a major focal point of the twin towers which
represents a gateway entry to Lower Manhattan city.

The gateway provides a strong visual
connection to other open space which leads to the Transit Centre.
Heavy and soft landscape with water, trees and greeneries will bring
back with nature and generate a new life to the city growth.

The heart, diversity and vibrancy nature of the World Memorial Square
consists of spiritual, memorial place and cultural ceremonial place,
mixture of medium and high rise commercial towers, street level
retail precints and underground shopping centre, residential towers
and townhouses, cultural centres such as opera house and theatre halls
and recreation facilities. All these mix use development will bring
back a city living place with a sense of community lifestyle living,
a place for national gatherings, celebrations and aspirations.

Posted by: RAYMOND on January 31, 2003 9:15 PM

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