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Steven Malanga
Postmodern Monstrosities for Downtown
The newest proposals for Ground Zero understand nothing about New York.
30 December 2002

Since the World Trade Center bombing, New Yorkers have debated the future of lower Manhattan so passionately and extensively that the discussion at times seems hopelessly complicated. But at its simplest, any plan for the area should try to achieve two things: to help revive downtown as an essential part of New York’s economy, and to do so in a way that better integrates the site into the rest of lower Manhattan—which has been evolving in the last decade into a 24-hour-a-day, mixed-use community.

The latest designs for the site—unveiled as part of an international competition—fail miserably to achieve that second goal and, as a result, endanger the first one, too. Architecturally, the new designs are completely out of step with the New York skyline and street wall, imposing a starkly inhuman, postmodern look on lower Manhattan that is at odds with the rest of the cityscape. And as urban planning, the projects are even less successful. They treat the site as if it were a World’s Fair—making it busy with cultural exhibits, twenty-first-century visions of retailing, and the like—but in the process creating a world set completely apart from the rest of lower Manhattan. Despite the best intentions of the planners to ensure that the site retains a healthy commercial component, their otherworldly, aloof, sterile designs would make lower Manhattan a forbidding place and jeopardize its revival.

What’s most frustrating is that these designs were entirely predictable. After the public reacted lukewarmly to the six original plans put forward by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s consultants, the group enlisted the help of a coalition of architects, designers, and planners known as New York New Visions to select teams to produce new designs. But New York New Visions is a trendy organization in thrall to architectural postmodernism. Its ideas are relentlessly at odds with the great Beaux Arts and Art Deco designs that people love most about New York, and its selections were guaranteed to produce something jarring and out of place.

Although Gotham has a rich architectural history, much of what the new crop of designers has created will seem alien to real New Yorkers. Part of what makes New York’s skyline unique—and beloved—is that most of its signature buildings represent clear stages in the evolution of a distinctive Gotham vernacular architecture, recognizable around the world. By contrast, the new designs offer buildings and public spaces that are largely placeless. They could be anywhere, from Houston to Singapore.

Architect Daniel Libeskind, one of the most aggressive of the postmodernists, is typical of the group. Libeskind loves to yoke together wildly disparate images, as in his extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which he has designed as a building of dizzy angles sitting next to the ornately classical main building of the museum, and completely at odds with the surrounding neighborhood. He did the same with the World Trade Center site. The plaza he has created as the gateway to the cultural and retail center on the site resembles the entrance to some lunar colony—stark, high-tech, and barren, with no link to anything else remotely New York.

The other designers’ presentations are hardly more accommodating to the Manhattan landscape. English architect Norman Foster proposed replacing the Twin Towers with two interconnected crystalline buildings whose faces are composed of interlocking triangles. In sunlight they will look like huge, crooked, silver slivers sticking out amid the earth tones that characterize lower Manhattan’s other skyscrapers, a giant alien spaceship just landed to dominate us bewildered, small, and scurrying earthlings.

Connecting the buildings was a common theme among the architects. The group known as United Architects proposed a half-dozen giant towers that slope toward one another in order to intersect. The effect from the ground is of giant, drunken, metallic figures woozily leaning against one another for support. Another team decided to link the buildings by interconnecting three sets of floors horizontally across the towers. Seen from the harbor, the buildings will look like a giant tic-tac-toe board looming behind the World Financial Center.

If this architecture is without any relation to the Manhattan skyline, the master plans that these design teams proposed for the site are worse: they are a study in isolationism at odds with the continuing transformation of lower Manhattan. In the past decade, lower Manhattan has evolved into a 24-hour community, mostly because of the conversion of about 50 older office towers into residential buildings. But the Twin Towers impeded the continuing conversion of the area because their giant, raised, 16-acre plaza divided lower Manhattan into two distinct parts. The World Trade Center’s retail area, placed underground, did little to stimulate street traffic or attract visitors to the area after the office towers cleared out at the close of business.

As part of its planning for a new site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation asked the designers to consider ways to reconnect lower Manhattan to the rest of the city by reconstituting many of the streets that had run through the area before the government built the Twin Towers. The new designs mostly just pay lip service to this notion and then go on their merry way. Several of them make the same mistake as the original World Trade Center, hiding stores and restaurants underground or in giant, enclosed suburban-style malls. One design offers a 16-acre park several stories above street level. Another plan moves much of the activity even higher above ground, using a concept known as the vertical city to situate retail, restaurants, and other consumer services in layers within the skyscrapers. The New York we all know—the city of outdoor cafés, broad retail avenues, and bustling side streets—is nowhere in most of these plans. New Yorkers don’t take an elevator in order to browse.

New York City has largely resisted the onslaught of postmodernism precisely because the city has its own rich architectural legacy that affords most designers a context in which to work. We can see clear relationships between the stylish neo-Gothic Woolworth Building, the understated Art Deco design of the Empire State Building, the more robust Art Deco style of the Chrysler Building, and even the quiet modernity of Lever House. The occasional jarring mistakes—like the relentlessly ugly new Westin Hotel in Times Square—don’t distort the overall skyline.

But the World Trade Center site offers something completely different. Because it is so large, it could serve as the catalyst to change the New York skyline completely. If the site becomes a harbor for the worst excesses of postmodernism of a kind that have now been proposed, the city’s skyline may become little more than an eyesore and a joke. Even worse, if the self-indulgent exhibitionism of these urban plans winds up guiding that site, the revival and integration of the neighborhoods in lower Manhattan will stall, and the area will become a curious monument to a bizarre and sterile dead end in the history of taste, rather than a livable and commuter-friendly community.

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More by Steven Malanga:
Welcome to the Jungle
Trolling for Dollars
March Labor Madness
More . . .
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