My initial reaction to the two WTC finalists was simple: crap. But one must not leap to conclusions; you have to consider the designs in context, let the mind wander around the spaces and imagine them as they would live and breathe in the city. Having done so, I am comfortable pronouncing them great bolshoi heaps ofcrap, and timorous, confused,incoherent crap. In other words: krrrrrep!
Take the THINK design. It rebuilds the Twin Towers as two skeletal structures. Towards the top, there appears to be a gigantic plastic bag from the Duane Reade Store of the Gods caught in the wires; each tower also contains the spaceship from the movie Fantastic Planet." They look like a burned-out version of the original towers, skeletal remains with a fresh coat of paint. They give me the deepest creeps, because everytime you look at them you think of the solid objects they represent, and how our response to that act of murderous vandalism was to erect two chicken-wire scarecrows.
NEXT. The second design is more practical, but dull, derivative, and wrong. Theyre practical because they seem to include actual solid floors on which human beings can work and walk, as opposed to the THINK project which suggests people will spend their workday swinging around like monkeys. Theyre derivative - the top of the tower in the middle reminds of some other building, and unfortunately I loaned out the book that has the reference. I want to say the Pennzoil Towers in Houston, but Im not sure. The white box in the bottom appears to be some sort of viewing area over the original WTC site, and I cant help but think of the Pearl Harbor memorial over the vanquished ships.
One design element strikes me as wrong, and almost an insult. Look at the tower on the right. It appears as if a giant column of ice thats been hacked with an axe, sliced and cleaved. The idea is repeated on the building on the far right. In other words, it looks as if it was conceived as a damaged object, and perhaps that was their way of honoring the site.
But you dont honor the site by building something that bleeds. The memorial is the wound, yes, but its the wound healed, or as much as it ever can. The memorial is what you get when the bandages come off - otherwise all the great equestrian monuments would show a horse with no rider, towing a funeral bier.
Look closely at the picture, at the main tower. Theres a latticework tower that stretches above the main tower - quite unlovely in this rendering, although it might work. Who knows. But look at the white object that ties the latticework tower to the diamond-roofed tower. It appears to be a ghostly image of the WTC itself - specifically, the irregular patterns you got at night from the interior office lighting. I like that. I like it a lot. But next to it you find a gigantic shard, scarred by pointless diagonal lines, hanging off the tower. Its a mess. Its six buildings and it doesnt want to be any of them, so its none of them all at once.
Compare that to Pellis' cool, composed, and utterly confident Battery Park project on the extreme left. Its like the difference between a damaged angry adolescent and a grown-up with a career. This is the problem I have with omuch of modern architecture: it seems a sin to let a building be a single thing. It has to fragment, shatter, recombine, and stick fingers in the eyes of the beholders. Its as if the architects think theyve failed if we walk away from a building satisfied, or find harmony in the idea. These are not harmonious buildings. This is atonality. If the original WTC consisted of two hands banging out an obvious C chord, this is the visual equivalent of dropping a cat on the keyboards.
Im not a foe of modernism, and yes, I know how pretentious that sounds - fear not, modernism! I come in peace! I love buildings from every era and style. One Seagram building can transform a medium-sized citys downtown. Five can depress it. Ten can ruin it. The early postmodern stuff hasnt aged well, and it looks clownish now; the mature works of Pelli et al in the late 80s and 90s are some of the finest examples of the skyscraper art, because they work in a tradition, and I believe that tradition needs to be consulted when youre putting 80-story buildings in the sky. But if you give tradition the veto vote, progress is impossible. What to do?
When the skyscraper art was new, no one knew what the hell to do with it. They just piled one floor on top of the other, slathered the facades with ersatz classical details, and put out the FOR RENT sign. Eventually the theorists came along - Sullivan, Wright, Corbu, Mies - and each helped shape how their era thought about the tall building as an object of art as well as commerce. But one of the earliest criticisms of the nascent art form was its inability to reconcile the thing itself - a vertical object of steel and glass - with the facade that covered it. The goal was a building that didnt just wear its skin, but inhabited it. The buildings we revere the most are the ones that seem complete and true to themselves - the Flatiron, for example. Its the Popeye of early skyscrapers. It is what it is.
This proposal may delight judges eyes because its an example of a trend that trashes the old ideas. Buildings are no longer objects designed to impart a single idea, they are simply frameworks on which you can hang ideas like so many Christmas ornaments or Post-It Notes. In this respect architecture is beginning to resemble painting in the post Abstract-Expressionist era - what it looks like is less important than the theory it manifests. The discordancy of this design suggests that the theory involved is very important, and has many serious adherents in Germany who wear turtlenecks and smoke a lot.
You dont look at this building and think New York. For this site, at this time, that is unacceptable. If Id been on the judging committee I wouldnt have let this one past the first cut.
The skyscraper is an iconic object; say the word and people get a specific picture - and its not some blunt Brobdignagian upended crackerbox. They think Empire State; they think Chrysler. Why?
Neither of those buildings could be described as traditional - the Empire State Building awes you with its mass, not its subtle detail. The Chryslers swarming ornamentation is modern, but it relates to peoples lives - those are hubcaps and radiator caps up there, for heavens sake. And it was made of brick - realize it or not, whenever you see a big brick building you register the fact that this thing was made by hand. In the end, though, its the top of both buildings that snags in your mind - Empire is crowned with a gigantic Moderne penis (well, it is) and the Chrysler geysers out that fantasia of chrome and light, of circles and triangles, culminating in a slender mast that tapers to the point of a phonograph needle and hands off the job to the sky itself. At sunset the light ignites the top of the building like few others. Theres a reason people love it: it loves them back. You get joy out of looking at the Chrysler building. Damn, its big - and it must have seemed so much bigger when it was built, too. But its made by humans for humans, and the individual is still the unit on which it was based. To stand at night on 42nd street, looking up at the sculptures atop Grand Central Station, and see the Chrysler down the street - well, you know where you are. Turn around and stare up at the Philip Morris tower, and you could be anywhere.
So it takes drama, the right materials, a sense of the street, a love of the sky and the ability to get from down here to up there with confidence and skill. And it takes something else, an indefinable quality that makes a space work. Think of Rockefeller Center - aside from a few details on the ground floor, those buildings just go up like a mountain range. On a Saturday afternoon you cant get through the plaza without a taser gun. What draws people here? Its not just the big Banana Republic store. Its the RCA building that electrifies the project, and its one of the most ingenious designs ever conceived. For starters, its one of the few buildings in New York that actually mimics the layout of its city - the east-wide side is broad and long, the north-south view narrow. Its like the God of the Grid. The cascading setbacks sculpt the form in that rational romantic style that seems to characterize the era. It almost looks like something left behind by a race of Giants. The buildings energy works both ways - it reaches up with calm confidence, but it also pours down with great force into that small ice rink, igniting the statue of Prometheus, splashing off the buildings that ring the plaza. Its gargantuan, its intimate; its dense, its open.
One of the greatest architects of the era was Raymond Hood, who also worked on two modern icons - the Daily News building, which was a glass of cold water in the face, and the gorgeous McGraw Hill building, which isnt much known outside of New York. (Its up there with the Chrysler, in my book.) But he was adept at classical styles; his American Radiator building still overlooks Bryant Park, and its another one of my favorites. Black stone, gold crown. He was not an innovator, but he captured the essence of a style and distilled it into the best possible expression.
If only we could bring him back to life and give him this job. I think I know what hed do - it would be restrained, severe, symmetrical, and it would strike the sky like two great swords.