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Losing Ground Zero

The New York Times Takes on Ground Zero

The next (newest) wave of proposals for Ground Zero (the World Trade Center site and immediate environs) is upon us, courtesy of His Majesty Herbert Muschamp and The New York Times. This round of dreams was sponsored by The Times, at Muschamp’s bidding, to counter the deplorable and all-but universally panned proposals released in July 2002 by the LMDC (Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) in league with the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority, the “owner” of the so-called ground beneath Ground Zero, has recently been subject to a well-meaning attempt by the City to reclaim that imaginary ground by trading the stewardship of the site for the ground beneath LaGuardia and JFK airports. This plan, which seems to be going nowhere, requires the approval of both the governor of New Jersey and the governor of New York.

Fascinated (and appalled) by this circus, New Yorkers should not be blamed if they begin to develop both an enlightened cynicism and a lust for toppling the arrogant stewards of City- and State-owned land. The latest batch of visions for Ground Zero from The Times is unlikely to prevent this much needed disregard for putative authority, civil or otherwise, given the same lack of nuance and sensitivity mars The New York Times’s version of Ground Zero as it did the LMDC’s.

Herbert Muschamp, one of the worst architecture critics on the planet, has effectively rounded up his favorite architects and “commissioned” a series of studies which will be added to the pile of proposals and studies already generated by ad hoc groups of various stripes claiming to represent New Yorkers, plus those of the LMDC. As the world watches the danse macabre, it is useful to point out that the City-and-its-image is on the line as much, or more so, as is the reputation and image of America around the world as George W. Bush rips the last vestiges of the Bill of Rights and bilateralism in “foreign affairs” to shreds. Muschamp and the venerable Times should have known better than to foist another proprietary vision upon the public. Never one to indulge in faux populism, Muschamp can be credited neither with rising to the occasion nor sinking to the pits of self-indulgence. The former is well nigh impossible and the latter is his metier — and, anyway, both are beneath him.

The latest proposals, presumably paid for by The Times, appeared in The New York Times Magazine and online on September 8. No doubt they will please the architectural community insofar as they are all about architecture and have nothing to do with the City as a social and ethical complex (quagmire).

Where’s the Ground?

What is striking about the interminable wide-ranging visions proposed since last January is that there is (and remains) no ground at Ground Zero. What is meant to picture a new unfolding of architecture and urban landscape (a.k.a. landscape urbanism) lacks all the necessary cues of closely articulated space. The lead article, penned by Muschamp, introducing the latest scheme — and he claims that all of these various images are integrated — ignores the fact that the pro forma architectural package lacks all sense of rootedness and, more critically, unitary spatial dynamism. Twisted, deformed, imploded, and transparent forms dominate an otherwise prosaic and predictable assemblage of iconic buildings floating in the proverbial urban ether. Peter Eisenman’s imploded building forms strewn along West Street, Rafael Vignoly’s ribbon-esque underground transit center, and Guy Nordenson’s contorted 100-or-so-storey twin towers are all in themselves haunting forms. Such formal exercises are often compelling, in isolation, but that is not what the site (nor anyone quite thinking about New York City’s hoped for renaissance) requires. The Muschamp apologia attached to the release of the high-octane architectural diagrams and rudimentary scenographic sketches claim “there wasn’t time” to deal with parks, streets, and open spaces beyond what fall immediately within the purview (shadow) of each designer’s signature building. This issue of “signature building” is in itself highly telling, given that Muschamp claims to abhor the normative practices of present-day urban planning. His usual critical position is one-dimensional insofar as he has rarely, if ever, developed an interest in the ambient or urbanistic nature of the modern metropolis. His professed love of the crystal canyon north of Grand Central Terminal on Park Avenue is typical fare. His frequent ode to the Seagram Building (by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson looking over his shoulder) is apropos his lack of interest in the urban complex.

A roster of name architects was summoned to work collectively and in a brief, stormy set of orchestrated charrettes, toward the hoped for resplendent, definitive re-definition of Lower Manhattan. Why this was not the result is a very serious question (and problem). The mere fact that the team of architects was cobbled together by a self-professed connoisseur of avant-gardism is part of the problem. That he really isn’t quite avant-garde at all is another matter. The attendent fact that this is The New York Times, after all, would incline one to the conclusion that the operation was undermined by elitism and a very special form of liberal parochialism. This last set of compromising traits is possibly responsible for the former, versus vice versa.

Muschamp rounded up a claque of the “very best” established architects, a token artist (Maya Lin, more artist than architect), plus a few well-chosen (well-connected) architectural workmen (stable but predictable fellows) and let rip with his program. This program, which intentionally mirrored the LMDC-Port Authority program, is less than meets the eye. It may include all the commercial office and retail specifications that the LMDC’s unfortunate architects had to deal with, but it also carries an awful lot of Muschamp’s personal baggage. His anima toward authentic ground is one such problem. In all of the sensational graphic depictions of a Muschamp-inspired Lower Manhattan there is literally no ground beneath our feet. As compensation we are expected to applaud a melange of sensuous, formal gestures groping — as it were — in the direction of “our” (Muschamp’s) pent-up desire for something extraordinary and/or exhilarating. If it cannot be extraordinary, in Muschamp’s universe, it should at least be titillating.

There is really only one solution left for this on-going miasma of self-indulgence, faux-populism, and blinking-stupid opportunism. There MUST BE a bona fide design competition, open to all, and free of the bureaucratic and plutocratic hegemony of the usual suspects. This MUST is a categorical imperative of the gravest type. Without an authentic call for proposals and an open process, one that New Yorkers should be able to vote for through a special referendum, there is LITTLE hope. The LMDC should be forced to comply, the Port Authority should stand down, and Herbert Muschamp should be banned from commenting on Ground Zero until he has updated his aesthetic, rhetorical, formal, and ethical precepts. Otherwise, plans will be piled upon plans, the sorry hole in the heart and soul of New York City will deepen, and cynicism will sprout its usual black flowers of spiritless abjection and anomie.

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York and writes on the subject of landscape + architecture + other things, a cultural amalgam always-already forthcoming. He is author of On the Nature of Things (Birkhauser, 2000). He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net

POSTSCRIPT (DEFAULT SCHEME #1)

All plans, visions, proposals, schemes, ideas, concepts, intentions, surmises, hunches, impositions, and suggestions for the site will be shredded, and composted in situ (used for temporary fill). All future re-development schemes will require that all players throw half-a-million dollars each into the hole, i.e., before they are allowed to add their shredded documents. Disgraced politicians, bureaucrats, land speculators, and architects past their sell-by-dates will be dumped into the hole as well. On the one-hundredth anniversary of 9/11 (in 2101), the site will be flooded with sea-water by carving a huge channel through Battery Park City and the Real will be permitted to colonize the abyss.

OUTTAKES

THE UN-COMPETITION

The LMDC is decidedly not calling the new Request for Qualifications a “competition”, but a “study”. This relieves them of any responsibility to the designers beyond paying them the meagre 40K (200K total). There is also no formal jury. New York New Visions and the LMDC will select some “advisors” to help premiate 10 or so teams, and an LMDC committee will make the final cut. Finalist schemes will be added to the stock pot of competing ideas, including BBB’s $3 million master plan. The RFQ also does not include a memorial, but a provision for a future memorial. A second “competition” will be offered up at a later date for this integral portion of the complex. WTC Design Un-Competition Announced (The New York Times, 08/15/02)

TWISTED AESTHETICS

“If you don’t like the images, check out the concepts. You might dislike them too. But at least you’ll gain a sense of architecture as an art of connecting dots. In this study, meaning is derived less from individual projects than from the relationships between them.” New York Times Unveils WTC Proposals (The New York Times Magazine, 09/08/02)

CINEMATIC ANALOG

“There is a nouvelle vague resemblance here to Le M?pris (a.k.a. Contempt), Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film about a loving relationship gone awry. The beautiful Camille (wife), played by Brigitte Bardot, is the City of New York. The novelist cum screenwriter (husband), played by Michel Piccoli, is the LMDC. ‘Do you like my feet? … My ankles? … My thighs? … My breasts?’ ‘Yes! … Yes! … Indeed! … Yes!’ The husband, however, eager to ink an important contract pushes his wife into the arms of the oily American film producer Jeremy Prokosh, played by Jack Palance. In our version of this ‘car wreck’, the ‘oily producer’ is the Usual Suspects. (‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook.’) The producer is filming Homer’s Odyssey but wants to re-write the script to incorporate an inferred wantonness on the part of the hero, hence his dawdling instead of returning to Ithaca, and his wife Penelope, after the Trojan war. The director (Fritz Lang) resists. The writer/husband goes along because he wants the money, until — voila! — his wife leaves him in disgust. To the director everything after Homer is a loss of innocence. He quotes Holderlin, Dante … It all, of course, ends in tragedy.” Grave New Urbanism (Archive – Grotto)

THINKING THE COMPLEX (TANGENT #1)

New York City Shortlisted for 2012 Summer Olympics (The New York Times, 08/28/02)

THINKING THE COMPLEX (TANGENT #2)

Art After 9/11 (The Guardian Unlimited, 08/28/02)

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