Our cover shows an imaginary reconstruction of the World Trade Center site—one that, as Steven Malanga shows in “The Downtown Redevelopment Flop,” isn’t likely to become a reality any time soon, given the How Not to Do It spirit, straight out of Dickens’s fictional government agency called the Circumlocution Office, that has marked the rebuilding effort so far. The yearlong dithering of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) will make future scholars shake their heads with dismay at yet one more instance of the official incompetence and lost opportunities that take up so much space in the history books.
That splendid vision on our cover is the creation of Franck Lohsen McCrery, the architects whose plans for downtown we published just after 9/11. In our view, for all the reasons Malanga enumerates, that scheme remains the best proposal so far, since the 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commercial and residential neighborhood it envisions would reinvigorate all of downtown. But we like the scheme for other reasons too, chief among which is its fidelity to the New York style of architecture.
And a distinctive style it is: the romantic, aspiring skyscrapers our cover evokes are the true New York architectural vernacular. On everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs, what says “New York” more clearly than a skyline punctuated by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings? As a theater reviewer noted earlier this year, three hit plays running on Broadway had as their scenery precisely that skyline, pulsating with the energy, striving, possibility, self-assurance, and daring that define Gotham, along with the instantly recognizable sleek urbanity that assures you you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The classical skyscraper that gives the city its unmistakable look—the old Bankers Trust Building, for instance, or the Woolworth Building—is the architecture that New York invented, taking a hint from Chicago architects to new heights, literally and artistically. With the can-you-top-this ambition that their altitude expresses, their inventive division into base, slender shaft, and upward-pointing crown, their classical detailing that transforms time-honored tradition into something strikingly up-to-date, these buildings are New York’s architectural gift to the world.
It was a gift that the rarefied European elite sliver of the world came to dislike intensely. “Let us beware of the American architect,” wrote the modernist revolutionary architect Le Corbusier, who persuaded the world henceforth to abandon the New York skyscraper and build tall buildings that looked like interchangeable grids, stripped of human signification. And following this recipe, the world’s cities came increasingly to resemble Houston rather than New York—not an advance.
The six original plans that the LMDC drew up for the WTC site looked like something that Le Corbusier, as interpreted by the Nelson Rockefeller who built the Albany Mall, might have produced: inhuman, ahistorical, gigantic grids that only a commissar could have the audacity to imagine in all their totalitarian ungainliness—if imagine is the right word. And now that universal execration has shot down those six plans, the LMDC has come up with something equally outlandish: an architectural and planning advisory board composed of all the trendy postmodernists who have led architecture into its present dead end, from Peter Eisenman to Norman Foster to Daniel Libeskind—men for whom architecture is an exercise in egotistical self-expression, the more “transgressive” the better, rather than the building of cities in which free individuals can feel at home, rooted in something solid, meaningful, and continuing.
Nothing could be further from the Gotham that New Yorkers love and tourists visit. But it is what the elites fancy, as couldn’t be clearer than from the squeal of triumph with which the New York Times’s finical architecture critic announced the LMDC’s choice. And what is most troubling—and returns us to Malanga’s powerful story—is that the elite orthodoxy about architecture is part of a larger elite orthodoxy that bodes so ill for downtown redevelopment: the anti-bourgeois, anti-business, “transgressive,” self-expressive worldview that has no idea how completely the artistic and cultural institutions it values depend on the commercial vigor of the bourgeois city that maintains them. It is a worldview that threatens, by turning lower Manhattan into something other than the commercial engine it has always been, to kill the goose that lays Gotham’s golden eggs.