Thursday, February 27, 2003
I'm sorry, I can't pull my punches: the selection for the design for what will be built in place of the old WTC is just awful.
Let's start with the minor points. The design is incomprehensible. I defy anyone to make sense of the mess of jagged sight-lines, oddly-shaped buildings and crumpled abstractions that are supposed to be a unified concept for a commercial nexus a la Rockerfeller Center. The 1776-foot-high tower is tall, which is good, but architecturally unrelated to the city, which is bad; it won't blend nicely into the skyline but will stick out from it. Plus it's basically ornamental and so of minimal symbolic value. It's better than a giant radio tower, and less obtrusive than most of the other tower designs, that's the most that I'll concede. His other buildings are clunky and ugly and without style. The slanting lines of their glass cladding will make everyone dizzy. Nothing in the design is human-scale or makes reference to the human form. The whole design is fully as inhuman and Corbusian as the old WTC and without any of the old towers' simplicity, and occasional elegance. The sunken plaza will be cut off from the street, and hence will break up traffic and make the whole area less functional. The buildings in the plaza are mammoth sculptural hunks of twisted glass and metal, not buildings - and calling them sculptural is quite generous of me, because unlike sculpture they have no elegance of form. This is a monument to vanity and incompetence: no one visiting lower Manhattan will be able to escape the presence of the architect, and no one will be able to make themselves like it.
So: it's an utter failure as architecture and urban planning. Those are, as I said, the minor points.
Now for the major point: the symbolism. It is crushingly defeatist. The open sore of Ground Zero will never be repaired. A pit will be sunk forever in the heart of downtown, the retaining walls exposed forever to remind visitors that once, a great building was destroyed here. We will not be invited to contemplate the audacity and vision of the builders of the original WTC, the heroism of rescuers during the attack, and the determination of New Yorkers to rebuild their city, better than before. We will be ask to contemplate an unbridgeable chasm, a loss that can never be made whole. The message will be heard loud and clear around the world: terrorism works. We are a hemophiliac nation; cut us and we never stop bleeding. Blow up a city and we will never rebuild on the hallowed ground of your crime.
Daniel Libeskind is primarily known for his work in the Berlin Jewish Museum. I haven't been to that museum, but from pictures I know I don't like it. It's ugly and obvious, screaming the "point" it's out to make with its jagged lines and absences. The Jews contributed enormously to the very existence of German culture. The crime of the Nazis was not only that they murdered millions of Jews (that was, of course, their worst crime) but that they murdered Germany, the only Germany that actually existed, a Germany whose whole modern history was bound up with the history of the Jews. Libeskind's design says, loud and clear: this is not so. Jewish history in Germany is defined by our victimhood, by the fact that we were murdered. Now, I think it's a reasonable proposition to say that, after the Nazis, German history was essentially reduced to a crime, to the fact that the nation embraced mass-murder as the very definition of their culture. But why should the Jews make the same assessment of their own history?
But what I would resist in Berlin I am positively appalled by in New York. This is the greatest city in the world. The last thing we want to say to the world about 9-11 is that we'll never get over it. Yet that is precisely what Libeskind would communicate. "Life victorious" is Libeskind's own synopsis of his message, but the empty pit in the heart of downtown says quite the opposite. It says: the dead are never buried; their graves lie open ever, and we, the living, cannot stop staring at the open mouth of earth that yearns to swallow us as well.
This plan must be stopped. Not because, as the tabs would have it, the LMDC has secret plans to alter the design to suit the needs of developers, but because the idea at its heart is a betrayal of the city. Ugly buildings have been built before and will be built again, until we change our architecture schools; here, they would represent a missed opportunity. A bad urban plan would be a bigger mistake, disfiguring the area and doing lasting economic damage. But this design is organized entirely around its conception of a memorial, and that conception is an insult that every New Yorker should repudiate at full voice.
I would far rather we erected a tasteful plinth inscribed with the names of the murdered and the fallen heroes of the FDNY and NYPD, and be done with it.