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December 21, 2002

WTC Plans Redux

Friedrich --

I won't I won't I won't I won't I won't ---

OK, I will, but just for a few paragraphs. Sigh.

Our resident provocateur, Felix Salmon, had a go at me in the comments section of my posting about the design proposals for the rebuilding of the WTC site. As always, I enjoyed Felix's brains, his writing and his hotheadedness.

The easiest stuff first: At one moment Felix is sarcastic about me supposedly being a man of the people (me? living a Greenwich Village life surrounded by artists and intellectuals?); at another he's speaking in the voice of the people himself, letting me know that "New Yorkers" demand gigantic buildings. I'll let that go with a "Huh?"

Next, Felix jumps on me for writing a review of the WTC proposals without having plunged as deep into the design briefs as he has. He also seems to feel that since I wasn't at the presentation of the designs, my opinion is invalid. But it was part of my posting to argue that it's irresponsible for anyone to write architecture reviews (except from a forthrightly strictly-design point of view) without having spent some serious time in and around the building or neighborhood under consideration. As for my utter unfamiliarity with the design specs and briefs and my non-attendance at the proposals' presentation: I don't have to have met the chef, reviewed his lease, interviewed his investors or scrutinized his recipes to know whether or not I like the food his restaurant serves.

Felix may object that I'm simply excusing my own laziness, and he certainly has me there. But to my mind, it's often wise to avoid too much immersion in the artist/entertainer/architect's point of view. While it can be interesting to see what the people involved are contending with, you can also lose your grip on your reactions as a user/consumer/spectator. I don't doubt that Felix's reactions to the work presented are his own reactions -- which he does a brilliant job of spelling out on his own blog, here. Felix, like AC Douglas (who writes enthusiastically about some of the proposals at his blog, here), really does seem to have a taste for this kind of building. Hey, some people do, though I suspect that most people would admit they don't if they were pressed.

But I think Felix might give a moment's reflection to the similarity between architectural presentations and movie junkets. In the movie biz, studios sometimes fly critics and reporters to glamorous places, hand out glossy production information, allow the journalists access to stars, serve up snazzily-catered food, and present their movies in luxurious conditions. Hey, Felix! Movie junkets, architects' presentations? They're trying to buy positive press! Bigshot architects, like film directors and producers, are among the world's best salesmen. Let me spell that out: S-A-L-E-S-M-E-N. They have to be great salesmen; they're trying to inspire someone to give them tens of millions of dollars. So they're putting the best face on everything, they're avoiding weak spots, they're pulling all the strings they can grab hold of and punching all the buttons they can reach, and they're turning the charisma setting to High.

Fine and understandable. But it's wise for the rest of us to be wary and skeptical; let's not be snowed. Good movie critics know that they've sometimes got to watch movies in the conditions that civilians watch them in -- in theaters, on DVD. They need to know what that's like, and they have to re-familiarize themselves with how audiences are taking things. The same should hold for people writing about building and architecture. Perhaps there are critics capable of predicting how an architectural plan will play out in reality, though I'm skeptical: Can anyone know how a new recipe will turn out without tasting the results, let alone serving them to other people?

Reviewers, to my mind, should play a role that's helpful for the general public. Car reviewers, for example, have played a big role in guiding people to better purchases; in doing so, they've helped cars generally get better. Consumer Reports' frequency-of-repairs and safety charts alone have had a big impact on sales, and have encouraged the industry to improve their product. The snazziness of a car's appearanece, or the "wow" factor in its concept? Sure: few people want to drive ugly or dull cars. But let's have as much information out there as possible, and then let's see what preferences people display.

So: much of what I'm making is an argument against reviewing the rebuilding of the WTC site until it has actually occurred.

As for the WTC-site design proposals themselves, it seems absurd to get involved in a fistfight over them. None of them will be built -- they're showbiz, and at most will be used as starting places for the years of haggling between city authorities, builders, designers, potential tenants, etc., that will finally result in these blocks being rebuilt. (One consideration: These days, tenants and builders are reluctant to build more than 50 or 60 stories tall.) But I do feel the need -- or perhaps just can't resist the temptation -- to defend myself against some of Felix's other accusations.

* In response to my suggestion that open-able windows seem absent from the proposals, Felix triumphantly points to the Norman Foster design, which does promise open-able windows. The building won't be built, and Foster can promise anything he wants -- and, psst, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you. Open-able windows are often one of the first things to go when compromises start getting made and budgets start getting tight, particularly in the business of very tall buildings ... So, not for the first time, I'm puzzled that someone as brainy and shrewd as Felix, who is wary and beady-eyed when thinking and writing about money and business, should take someone like Norman Foster entirely at his own word; I don't understand why Sir Norman should be considered more trustworthy than some corporation's CEO.

What does it take to set Felix's bullshit-detector off? These design proposals are full of such patent-medicine promises as "a 10 block, 16 acre rootop public park that floats above the street...Below the park are cultural facilities, a transportation center, a hotel-convention center, and office space..." Gold mines, too, no doubt. As for windows, I notice that open-able windows don't figure high on the list of any of the other eight proposals -- they don't get much of a mention. Yet talk to almost anybody who works in an office about what they most want from the physical plant around them, and high on the list will be open-able windows. So why aren't open-able windows high on the list of what's important to architects?

Fun getting to work across that park

* I made a crack about how not-on-the-human-scale the proposals are. Felix writes that the proposals make a great effort to relate to the human scale. Felix and I apparently have drastically different ideas about what the human scale might encompass. From my point of view: What can I do but point out that four of the nine proposals include buildings that'll be the tallest in the world? One of them promises a skyway 800 feet in the air. Can there be more than a few people who love working on a daily basis in such buildings? For one thing, most huge buildings are terrible burdens on the neighborhoods where they're located: think exhaust grilles, loading docks, garbage, getting everyone fed, furnishing and refurnishing the space inside, and staggered work hours ... For another, well, of the eight work buddies I casually compared notes with about the WTC proposals (thereby earning myself a man-of-the-people award from Felix), none wanted any part of working in such a building. One of them volunteered that she had once had a job in an immensely tall building, and that she'd hated it. Nice views! But the elevators were a nightmare, the plaza the building was located on felt dirty and endless, and the air quality inside the buildling was hideous. People were always coming down sick.

* I cocked a wry eyebrow at the plans for showing little respect for street life -- ie., for the enjoyment, pleasure and convenience of the people living, moving through, and working nearby. Felix seems to think most of the plans handle the street-life/street-level problem succesfully. I can't see why. Eight of the nine proposals seem blatantly preoccupied with making gargantuan design statements. Several are what's known as towers-in-a-plaza -- a tall building or buildings plopped in the middle of a lot of empty space. That's a template that's widely acknowledged to be one of the reasons so many people grew to dislike American cities in the post WW2 years: all those free-standing, isolated buildings, all that wind-swept concrete. Why are architects still proposing this kind of thing? (Hint: ego, money, contempt for common concerns.) That proposal for a 16-acre park suspended up and out over traffic? That'll do a lot for street life.

Foster from above: Oddball footprint, lots of dead, er, empty space

Several of the projects include vast amounts of something that always sounds appealing: "open space." The words may make us picture benches and bushes and happy birdies -- relief from urban stress. But if there's one thing Modernist and Po-mo architecture has shown zero aptitude for, it's turning "open space" into something beautiful and useful -- parks, say, that people actually enjoy and use. ("Open space," by the way -- could there be a more Modernist, abstract term?) Modernist "open space" tends to remain open space -- ie., desolate and unused. In every case? No, but still. (By the way, encouraging and respecting street life and other kinds of public space are a couple of the other widely-recognized failings of Modernist architecture.) So I think it might be wise to be wary of the "open space" proposed in these plans; we might well be better off without it.

It seems to me that only one -- one! out of nine! -- of the proposals gives strong signs of encouraging street life, of making some effort to activate the space between buildings, and of knitting itself into and enhancing the city generally, let alone of allowing for any flexibility, or potential for market-and-consumer-driven growth to occur. Cheers for that. But I also note that this is a proposal that Felix finds "very workable but completely unimaginative," that AC calls a "bloodless piece of human-scaled crap ," and that the Times' ineffable Herbert Muschamp characterizes as "the portrait of a city with low self-esteem ... as dated as disco."

Hey, does anyone else get as big a kick as I do out of hating the writing of Herbert Muschamp? Do the Times' editors know that he isn't writing architecture reviews but instead '60s-radical propaganda? He's a brilliant narcissist, rhapsodizer, and castigator. But the only thing that truly seems to interest him are his own ecstasies.

Libeskind proposal: A neighborhood you'd want to work in?

* Felix has a go at me for not appreciating sufficiently the work of Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind seems to me a talented designer of somber abstract sculpture -- he's got a knack for taking a few shoeboxes and turning and twisting them into an impressively grave and tragic piece of sculpture, though he has yet to show that he can make a building that serves much use. But what do I know, really: I haven't interacted with his buildings. Felix cites the fact that Libeskind's Berlin Holocaust Museum was wildly popular even before it opened. I'd cite the fact that, since it opened -- ie., since it has asked to be taken as a museum rather than a piece of giant sculpure -- it's been recognized as a stinkeroo. I haven't visited, but word is (even among Modernist-architecture fans) that it's a dud of a place for the display of things. Darn! Like too much of this kind of architecture, it's more about showing itself off than it is about serving us.

* Out of the blue, Felix suggests that I've argued against building big or tall generally. I can't see where I made this argument, so I don't know how to respond. Felix cites the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Woolworth Building and the WTC towers themselves as examples of huge structures that New Yorkers have been especially proud of. I'd point out that the first three of his examples all speak the language of traditional architecture (base, center, top), and that the Empire State and the Woolworth sport lots of ornament and play along with the city's basic grid -- ie., while they may take up an entire block, they don't interfere with it. I'd also point out that the WTC towers were no one's favorite buildings until they were destroyed. If the twin towers were still around, they'd be discussed as they always were -- as ugly, and as examples in many ways of how not to build big.

As for the current WTC design proposals themselves: As I say, I think it's foolish to review them in any serious sense, or even to get too worked up about them. Why bother? They won't be built, so the exercise would be rather like reviewing a script instead of the movie, or a recipe instead of a meal. For everyone who isn't part of the production team, the experience of the finished product -- and not the production team's plans -- is the point. Happy to swap opinions, though. So:

* Tower-in-park alert! Tower-in-park alert!

* I'm staggered that so few people have raised what seems to me the first thing that leaps out about most of these designs: that so many of them have the wigglies and the wobblies. Colby Cosh (here) is one of the few who has; he's very funny on the topic. But why is most of the press so blase about something that represents such a major break from the public's expectations of skyscrapers? Lordy, look at these things! Foster's looks like origami -- like something that can't wait to crumple in on itself. Libeskind's has, from one point of view, his usual impressive gravity; from another, though, it could be said to look like a bunch of drunken perfume bottles gathered around a trench for a late-night pee.

Much has been made of how much some of these designs would add to the NYC skyline, yet no one has mentioned that 90% of the NYC skyline consists of verticals and horizontals; adding a lot of wiggly-wobbly isn't exactly playing ball with what people think of as "the New York skyline." (By the way, I do know what the designs represent in their own terms -- dematerialization, change-ability, virtuality, blah blah. I just don't think anyone should care.) Do you really want to work in, or walk beneath, giant towers that look like they'd rather be dancing the hula than housing you securely?

Origami Foster

* Modernist-empty-space alert! Modernist-empty-space alert!

* Funny-base-of-the-building-shapes-that-interfere-with-the-city's-basic-geometry alert! Funny-base-of-the-building-shapes-that-interfere-with-the-city's-basic-geometry alert!

I was pleased to see that Felix resorted to accusing me of trying to stifle creativity, or free expression, or getting in the way of what people want, or something. (Who am I to prevent New Yorkers from getting what they want, was I think Felix's phrase.) Years ago, this ploy really used to infuriate me; I've grown rather fond of it, though I confess I'm still confounded by it. But, hey, has anyone else noticed this particular way of conducting an argument? First they tell you you don't know enough (lots of book titles waved around), then they accuse you of not getting it (lots of jargon, here). Then, if still pushed, they accuse you of trying to violate someone's First Amendment rights, or of getting in the way of someone having what he wants. But what if you do know enough? And what if you do get it? And what if you still don't like what's being sold?

As for free expression, well, that's a funny one. Whose expression has been more suppressed -- the people who praise and thrill to this kind of architecture, and who have access to lots of glossy and decently-paid space, or the people who dissent, and who, until the advent of the Web, have had very few publishing options? I notice that there isn't a traditionalist proposal among the nine WTC proposals -- so who exactly has been shut out of the discussion? As for whether the public generally has much to fear from the opinions expressed at 2Blowhards -- well, if only.

Anyway, it seems to me that there's a larger and more helpful point to be pounced on here. To make it, I'm going to play the taste game you proposed some postings back, when you talked about how helpful it can sometimes be to know whether someone's a Michaelangelo person or a Raphael person. So far as tastes in architecture go, it seems to me that one way people can be usefully divided is into these two groups: one that thinks it's groovy to think about, promote and appreciate "architecture as abstract sculpture on a really big scale," and another group that thinks that's generally a bad idea, and that prefers traditional/classical/vernacular buildings and neighborhoods.

Felix and AC apparently belong largely to the first group. I belong largely to the second, though I'm decently schooled in the history of, and how to appreciate, architecture-as-abstract-sculpture. An example: I visited and enjoyed Frank Gehry's famous Santa Monica house. What a kick! It looks like a suburban house freeze-framed a millionth of a second after a bomb detonated! Whee! Yet I also couldn't help feeling a few other things, such as: "I'm glad I don't live in it," and "I'm glad I don't live next door to it;" and "I'm glad I don't live on the same block." For one thing, architecture fans are forever dropping by -- what a pain. For another, making a house like that on such a pleasant, placid, and typical Santa Monica block seems to me like a selfish and uncivil thing to do. How do the neighbors feel? Am I proposing passing laws against it? No: fewer laws rather than more laws is my general preference. I wouldn't advocate passing laws against bad manners either. But should anything stop anyone from complaining about bad manners, let alone inappropriate, if artistic, acting-out?

One thing I've found in my adventures in architecture is that conversation between these two groups is almost impossible. Members of Team One often find members of Team Two hopelessly square and literal-minded -- Team One'ers are prone to say of Team Two'ers such things as "They just don't get real architecture!" and "Where's the excitement?" Members of Team Two tend to find Team One'ers to be like members of a religious cult. All that bizarre fervor! Enter their world and everything's answered, even if everything's circular; sense is never quite made while always seeming tantalizingly close. Values such as "transcendence," "transformation" and "exhilaration" are clung to and sold, while values like "comfort," "attractiveness," and "durability" are ridiculed. AC, for instance, writes beautifully about the WTC proposals, but in a way that strikes me as typical of Team One'ers: the more far-out proposals (which I find ludicrously grandiose and inhuman) strike him as daring and heroic. I could argue that daring and heroism can come in many flavors, including getting-on-with-life-in-the-face-of-tragedy, or respecting-the-preferences-of-strangers-despite-social-pressures-to-express-yourself, or treating-people-decently-despite-what-the-media-urge-on-you. But I'm sure that AC would have a great response -- I'd be missing his truer point. We'd go back and forth a dozen times, and he'd be missing my point, and I'd be missing his.

Team One tends to look to architecture for transformative, heedless experiences that express some cutting-edge spirit of the age. They're excitement junkies. Team Two looks at the kinds of plans Team One'ers get high on and see nightmarish social-planning boondoggles. Team Two'ers tend to want something more realistic, that works and lasts, that's open to revision, based in history and local knowledge, and that delivers comfort and possibly even beauty. Team One cheers buildings that disrupt and stand out; Team Two finds beauty, pleasure and deep satisfaction in variations on and extensions of evolved themes.

Team One loves the idea of "vision" and feels depressed by the absence of it. Team Two prefers getting this kind of vision-fix from movies, novels, and poetry -- from works that you aren't obliged to interact with in the real world every day. (I'd find a number of the WTC proposals moody and striking as movie sets, for example.) A typical Team-Two kind of reflection: If your next-door neighbor is into abstract sculpture, fine -- may she fill her house and back yard with them. But if that next-door neighbor builds a deconstructivist house that will be part of your life forever because it's only 50 feet away, or if she transforms your office building into a wiggly-wobbly 140 story tower, you've got a right to bitch.

I'm obviously writing as someone much more sympathetic to Team Two, so I'm going to give in to temptation and re-state a classic Team Two point. Which is this: Why do the Team One (ie., building as abstract sculpture) people keep citing the same handful of Team One triumphs? Ie., Gehry's Bilbao museum, etc? It's because they don't have that many triumphs to point to. Buildings-as-abstract-sculpture often don't work out very well. Once in a while, one of them is a huge hit and becomes a landmark the public actually takes to its heart. But more often, they're found to be confusing and disorienting. And they often aren't built well; the upkeep is usually complicated and expensive. So they wind up sitting there, growing ever more out of fashion and decrepit. The Team One approach (in the eyes of Team Two'ers) tends to resemble that of a musclebound baseball player who's forever swinging for the stands, all the while hoping you're overlooking his lousy fielding and .080 batting average. Team Two? Well, the Team Two promise is this: Use the traditional/vernacular/Classical approach to building, let go of your obsession with home runs, and you're pretty much guaranteed solid fielding and a decent number of singles and doubles. And, who knows, probably some home runs too.

Like I say, though: very hard for Team One and Team Two to communicate. Team One is from Mars, Team Two is from Venus -- something like that.

One of my strongest Team Two feelings is this: Architecture isn't poetry. (Which isn't to say that architecture can't be poetic.) Write a poem, and you're grateful when a few people choose to read it; build something, and you impose what you've built on everyone around you. Because of this, buildings are probably better thought of as something more like cars than poems. (There's a special subspecies of building called The Folly. It's a matter of rich people funding designers to have small-scale fun on private, hidden land -- and on such projects considerations of civility pointedly don't apply. Who cares if the designer goes nuts and has lots of zany, impractical, private fun?) But most buildings have functional aspects and a public existence, as well as users, inhabitants, and neighbors. They have nearby buildings they clash with or contribute to, a neighborhood that they enhance or degrade, and people who live within, pass by, and come in to do business.

So, not for the first time I wonder aloud: why aren't architecture reviews more like car reviews? It's a Modernist/academic triumph that that we've come to expect buildings to be discussed as "proposals" and "designs." Would people stand for that kind of approach in a discussion of, say, stoves?

In any case, AC and Felix are obviously very smart about what it takes to belong to Team One. How about a reading list and some well-chosen links, guys? I'll try to pull together something similar for Team Two.

And, hey, does it strike you as crazy (it sure does strike me as crazy) that, when people measure public financial support for the arts, they don't include the money that goes into things like rebuilding the WTC site? But that's another posting.

Oops, I did go on for a little longer than "just a few paragraphs." Apologies. And many thanks to Felix for another enjoyable joust.



posted by Michael at December 21, 2002


I dunno, Michael. Was it the brevity of my post that mislead you, or that you were expecting something other than what I wrote?

I did not "write[] enthusiastically about some of the proposals." I wrote that *one* of the proposed designs met certain criteria I'd set out. And one would be more than a little careless and reckless to include me in a group "that thinks it's groovy to think about, promote and appreciate 'architecture as abstract sculpture on a really big scale'" based on what I wrote. As brief as my post was, you seem to have missed my *central* point, which was,

This occasion, this opportunity, this opportunity of all opportunities, is not one for an expression of the anti-heroic. Whatever design finally prevails for this site must be, at all scales and in every element, a veritable paradigm of the heroic; a paradigm of both monument and symbol -- overwhelmingly monumental and symbolic so that all who encounter the site from whatever conceivable vantage point can never mistake it for ordinary architectural space.... [emphasis added]

And while I'm for the Corbu of Ronchamp rather than the Venturi of Guild House, I'm no friend of monumental architecture, or architecture as abstract sculpture generally. The WTC site is a very special -- a uniquely special -- case, and therefore requires a solution that would be mostly inappropriate elsewhere.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 22, 2002 2:39 AM

And, just to muddy the waters still further, I'll admit to strong Team One sympathies--but crud is crud. To stretch the metaphor, you can build a bad ballclub out of sluggers or out of singles hitters.

I praised Maya Lin's Veterans Memorial in my original post; that was a Team One-ish idea, largely without ornament, without aesthetic precedent, without any grounding in the ordinary concerns of traditional architecture. It worked; but I don't see that any of the "designist" plans presented for Ground Zero has the same sort of visceral appeal. They don't, in fact, show any sign of being tailored to the peculiar requirements of this space. Like ACD I believe we need to think differently about this particular job. Which is precisely why sub-Gehry pap, grandiose sci-fi nonsense, and Norman Foster's latest brainfart aren't going to cut it.

Posted by: Colby Cosh on December 22, 2002 5:25 AM

Colby wrote: "Like ACD I believe we need to think differently about this particular job. Which is precisely why sub-Gehry pap, grandiose sci-fi nonsense, and Norman Foster's latest brainfart aren't going to cut it."

But then, one could make the case that, barring Gehry, everything being designed today is "sub-Gehry pap."

(Sorry! Couldn't resist.)


Posted by: acdouglas on December 22, 2002 8:14 AM

Ah, Michael, that's more like it! A most excellent post: thanks for clearing so much up. And so much to respond to...

Let's see now. First the accusation of junketing. Point taken, although honestly there are things I'd rather do than schlep down to the Winter Garden at 8:30 in the morning to look at the back of a palm tree for four hours. Daniel Liebeskind is a great salesman of his own work, and it could be that had some of the other proposals been presented with the same degree of panache, I might have liked them more.

Next, "much of what I'm making is an argument against reviewing the rebuilding of the WTC site until it has actually occurred". Hmm. What we're in the middle of here is an exercise in demotic feedback being conducted by the LMDC. The reason we have a set of imaginative proposals now, rather than the bland proposals for the WTC of five months ago, is that the public reacted very badly to LMDC's Plans I -- so badly that they went back to the drawing board and returned with this, Plans II. Now I know you don't like Plans II, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you would prefer Plans II to Plans I. For one thing, they all at least attempt to create designs for integrated human-scale public spaces, etc. And if you can make one generalisation, you can say that the windswept concrete plazas have been replaced by parks, which has got to be an improvement. You're right that none of these plans is going to be built as originally envisaged, but public pressure can result in architectural improvements before the site is rebuilt. The New York Times editorial page (not Muschamp, note) said that "What the city witnessed yesterday was a seminar in architectural thinking, a master class in making sense of space, function, civic commitment and public emotion", and added this: "The public's obligation is to visit these plans as often as possible and to take their esthetic and cultural challenges seriously. The government's obligation — specifically the corporation and the Port Authority, meaning the two states' governors, George Pataki and James McGreevey — is to protect the scale and ambition of these plans against what are almost certain to be challenges from commercial and political interests."

You've, now, done your bit with regard to the former. (I was much more disapppointed with your first attempt.) But the broader point remains: do we push for excellence, or do we let Larry Silverstein take over and do what he likes? It seems to me that in dismissing Plans II, you're basically saying that they're no better than a bog-standard commercial redevelopment with a memorial slapped, willy-nilly, in the middle somewhere. Given the amount of effort they have expended in trying to create a whole new vibrant quarter of Manhattan, do you really believe that?

You ask why Norman Foster didn't set off my bullshit detector. The reason is that (a) he genuinely believes in openable windows. That's part of the plan. I wasn't reviewing what will eventually be built, since we none of us have any idea of what will eventually be built. I was reviewing the plan. And (b) I've seen what Norman Foster can do. Anybody who used Liverpool Street Station in London before and after the Foster revamp knows how he can take an dirty and unpleasant public space and turn it into somewhere it's a joy to be. I defy you to find a single commuter who preferred it before, in its original Victorian guise.

Now the floating aerial public park -- that did set off my bullshit detector. I thought it was stupid, and said so. And the United Architects proposal also includes openable windows. The reason that most of the other ones don't is that they spent a lot less time on skyscraper design and more on urban planning. Isn't that what you wanted? Most of them merely sketched out roughly what a skyscraper might look like, but explicitly said that the tower itself would be designed and built by someone else. These are site-design plans, not building designs. Foster, possibly because he's designed a lot of very tall buildings before, went into a lot more detail about his tower. And when there was detail, openable windows featured prominently.

Next, you claim that no plan which includes the tallest building in the world can possibly be built on a human scale. That's as may be, but all of the plans come with timelines which lay out what will be built when, and in all of them the tallest towers come last. In other words, we start with the human scale, and then, if commercial considerations demand an extra 4 or 5 million square feet of office space downtown, we build the tower. There are very good reasons, laid out in the LMDC document I referred to in my last posting, why any plan for the site should at least leave open the possibility of building significant new quantities of office space.

Next, you say that "Several [of the plans] are what's known as towers-in-a-plaza -- a tall building or buildings plopped in the middle of a lot of empty space." To which all I can say is "no they're not". Parks are not empty space. The Foster design which you say has "lots of dead, er, empty space" in fact has a 20-acre (five times the size of Bryant) park. Go down to Battery Park City on a summer's weekend, and look at all the people who flock to the park space there is at the moment. Is Central Park dead space? No, parks are public space, not windswept concrete plazas. The one design you like is the same, lots of park space. City parks are the parts of urban design which people love the most. When you think of Munich, you think of the Englischer Garten. Foster comes up with a huge new public park, and you dismiss it as dead? As the IKEA ads say, you are crazy.

You then say that "Modernist 'open space' tends to remain open space -- ie., desolate and unused", and that we should be Very Afraid of any plan which proposes it. Be specific here: which plans are you talking about? It sounds like you're thinking Foster, who proposes not Open Space but a park. But even if he does have a plaza, has he not shown, at the British Museum, that he can indeed create a vibrant public open space which is far from desolate and unused?

I never said that New Yorkers loved the Twin Towers before they came down, btw. I said that they were proud of having the tallest building in the world, just as they were when that building was the Brooklyn Bridge, the Woolworth Building, or the Empire State. And if New York once again has the tallest building in the world, they'll be proud in the same way once again.

Then we get this: "Tower-in-park alert! Tower-in-park alert!" Can you expand on this? Are towers in parks a bad thing? Not being able to think of any off the top of my head, I'm not sure what your point is. Towers in windswept plazas, sure, they're bad things. The plaza in the original World Trade Center was huge and dreadful -- just what everybody wants to avoid this time around. But towers in parks? For instance?

Wobbly buildings: I'm all in favour, you're not. Can you give me an example of a wobbly building which people hate? Maybe the Experience Music Project in Seattle, but I don't think that anybody's planning to base the WTC redesign on Jimi Hendrix's smashed guitar.

"Modernist-empty-space alert! Modernist-empty-space alert!" --Where?

"Funny-base-of-the-building-shapes-that-interfere-with-the-city's-basic-geometry alert!" --Most of the plans rebuild the NYC street grid to the fullest extent possible (ie restoring Fulton and Greenwich streets). The rest of the grid can't be restored, because that would involve building roads over the Sacred Footprints. You may or may not think that keeping the footprints sacred is a good idea, but it's something we have to deal with. And what you might not have noticed is that the Meier and United Architects proposals actually have very standard footprints: the crazy business happens up in the air, while the footprints adhere to the NYC grid religiously.

As for Team One vs Team Two, I think you're on to something here. But I think you need to spell out a little bit more explicitly how a Team Two type would go ahead rebuilding a CBD site like the one we're talking about here. Rockefeller Center, perhaps? Is that Team One or Team Two?

Posted by: Felix on December 22, 2002 10:07 AM

Excellent post Michael. I'm anxious to see something built on the WTC site but I fear that they will continue to argue about it for decades and that I will end up being seriously disappointed when they finally do decide on a plan.

I agree that "Whatever design finally prevails for this site must be, at all scales and in every element, a veritable paradigm of the heroic; a paradigm of both monument and symbol -- overwhelmingly monumental and symbolic so that all who encounter the site from whatever conceivable vantage point can never mistake it for ordinary architectural space..." but apparently different individuals have vastly different ideas as to what constitutes "a veritable paradigm of the heroic".

I don't like the sci-fi look of most of the buildings. The Foster layout is nice but they need to lose the silly glass origami towers and come up with something that truly is heroic. As I said in an earlier comment, let a group of high school art students from the neighborhood come up with a design. I'm sure they could do at least as well as a bunch of architects with their heads up their behinds.

Posted by: Lynn on December 22, 2002 11:15 AM

I have very little to add here, because there are so many people who feel so much more strongly about it than I do. I have a kind of wait and see attitude about the whole thing. However, Michael, I must question one idea - open-able windows. Would we really want to open a window on the 75th floor? Isn't it awefully windy it is up there? Do they still open the windows on the top floors of the Empire State Building? And lets not forget the birds. Masses of foul smelling pidgeons breeding in the air conditioning ducts....

Posted by: Alexandra on December 22, 2002 11:27 AM

I'm just asking because I don't know the answer, but would any kind of huge buiding on that site be likely to be profitable? Is there a shortfall of office space in Manhattan at present? Will there be in the next few years? I understand the urge to put up something big there as an act of defiance, but how much of the cost is going to wind up on the taxpayers' shoulders?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 23, 2002 12:13 AM

Steve -- to answer your question, this from the LMDC:

A vibrant New York City economy must create new jobs over the next twenty years. This requires new Class A office space. New York City added an average of 38 million sf of office space per decade during the past 30 years. However, as of 1999, the supply of new Class A office space was exhausted and New York City began losing jobs to other regions: 5.9 million sf to New Jersey in 1999 and 9.0 million sf in 2000. It is estimated that Midtown can provide 19 million sf of new office space. Therefore, in the next decade, at least 19 million sf must be constructed in markets other than Midtown. In the subsequent decade, other markets must accommodate practically all of 38 million sf. Consequently there is a compelling need in Lower Manhattan to accommodate a large portion of New York City’s future job growth: at least 17 million square feet of premium Class A office space over the next 20 years. The WTC site cannot absorb all of this demand, nor should it. However, the investment in transportation infrastructure, the need to connect Wall Street with the World Financial Center, and the potential for creating suitably large floor plates make the WTC site an appropriate location for some significant new commercial development.
In general, huge towers (over 50 or 60 stories) are not very cost-efficient: too much of their insides is taken up with elevator shafts and the like, and the marginal extra revenue from building another story is lower than the marginal extra cost of building it (taking into account the lost revenue from elevator shafts in the lower floors, etc). Really tall buildings are built for reasons other than making money. But if there's anything we're all agreed on, I think it's probably that when it comes to the WTC site, reasons other than making money should certainly be part of what is built and how. Posted by: Felix on December 23, 2002 1:17 AM

My computer just froze and ate my posting. Grrr, and arrghh.

Hastily re-creating...

AC --

Taking your appreciation of the Libeskind and your dislike of the Peterson/Littenburg into account, it didn't seem like much of a leap to conclude that you enjoy architecture-as-abstract-sculpture. It seems that I leaped too far, though -- apologies. I enjoyed your posting and look forward to reading more of your thoughts on architecture.


I'd thought of using the Vietnam Memorial as an example of a Team One home run, then thought, you know, it isn't in fact architecture-as-abstract-sculpture, it's really plain old abstract sculpture. Which made me realize that part of my problem with the WTC proposals is the idea behind nearly all of them, which seems to be to treat the entire site -- 12 square blocks? 16? Felix, help me out here -- as a memorial. Maya Lin's design doesn't oblige anyone to live in it; Norman Foster's obliges tens of thousands to spend tons of time in it. Worst of both worlds, to my mind: lousy neighborhood, lousy sculpture. Why not create a livable and workable neighborhood, and include a wonderful, even monumental, memorial sculpture within that neighborhood?


We seem to have squared off less over the proposals and more over certain basic attitudes. You look at a zigzaggy skyscraper and say, Why not? I look at it and say, Why? You look at modernist park proposals and say, Looks good to me. I look at them and say, Hmmm, best (given their record) to be wary. We both have our reasons, and it's fun comparing them. Would that City Hall were listening!


I love your idea of giving the assignment to a class of kids. Care to run the experiment? I think we'd all be eager to see what the kids came up with. I wonder if their buildings would look more like traditional buildings (being kids, they might like buildings that look like buildings), or more like sci-fi extravaganzas (being kids, they might not be able to draw a straight line).


What a good question -- what is the window situation on the top floors of, say, the Empire State Building? Does anyone reading this know?

The open-able window issue has been a fascinating one. Many modernist skyscrapers were envisioned as ideal, closed systems. And, like many other such ambitious social experiments, they didn't work out too well. Air circulation was lousy, people didn't like being tied to strict grids ... They also wanted some sense that they were in at least a little charge of their own lives and spaces. Being able to open your own window and regulate your own microclimate became very important to people.

Personally, I don't know why this should have come as a surprise. It seems clear to me (if to no one else) that people are generally happier with looser, more open and adaptable structures than they are with rigid ones. Open-able windows or permanently-closed ones -- which it is became a symbol of whether your building respects your personhood (if you will), or is treating you like a lab rat.


Felix probably has better command of these facts than I do. I've only read the papers and spoken to an architecture-critic friend. What I gather is that there's no particular need for extra office space in the city right now, and that (for financial as well as psycological reasons) no one wants to build anything taller than 50 or 60 floors. I've read pieces about how the finances are organized, and the info went in one eye and out there other. Mind-boggling public-private arrangements, and turf wars aplenty -- that's about all I retain.

The magazine City Journal has run some interesting articles about the WTC, the rebuilding, etc. They even commissioned a proposal of their own. Like it or not, it's certainly an alternative to the 9 proposals we've been discussing. Go here, and the top three articles may be of interest. The top two deal with money, history and policy. The third article is the one that shows their proposal.

Many thanks to all of you for joining in.

And, hey, about that Herbert Muschamp...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 23, 2002 1:20 AM

Alexandra wrote about the windows.

My post was lost in transmission...and really, living in the South...well, I feel like an imposter on this issue. Ahh the South, where we greatly esteem our beloved colonnades. (Seems like someone poked fun at the use of columns many postings back.)

Posted by: laurel on December 23, 2002 7:09 AM

I was joking (well, half joking maybe) about getting a high school art class to design the buildings. I'm sure there are a lot of structural issues that the kids, or any non-architect, would be completely unaware of. However, it does make sense to somehow let the people who are going to have to look at these buildings every day for the rest of their lives have some input as to what they will look like. I think it would be great to build a work of art, but will it be a work of art that New Yorkers are going to want to live with?

Posted by: Lynn on December 23, 2002 9:26 AM

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