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Downtown Dealing

In recent years public architecture has a bad record in New York, especially after the uglification of modernism. Why then are people not paying more attention to Ground Zero?

Big changes are afoot at Ground Zero, though it’s likely few people outside the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) have any idea what’s going on. Last week Westfield, the Australian mall corporation that held the retail rights to the World Trade Center, took a cash settlement and pulled out, throwing a screwball at the rebuilding negotiations. And Daniel Libeskind, the project’s sort-of architect of record, unveiled a new set of plans for the site last Wednesday, belying the fact that developer Larry Silverstein is still pushing to get his own architect, David Childs, into the driver’s seat. It’s a critical moment in the process, one that will determine whether profit or the public good defines the results.

Who knew? A short two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, why has the rebuilding taken such a low profile, just as the real planning and decision-making gets underway? According to some, like The New York Times’s James Traub, it’s because Americans are too materialistic and narrow-minded to keep things like architecture and urban planning at the top of their to-do lists for very long. Traub’s recent indictment of the public’s aesthetic attention span is worth quoting at length:

Most of us just don’t care very much: buildings and places do not resonate with meaning for us. The Florentines thought of the physical city as a monument to their own glory, whereas we think of it as a giant machine for the performance of work and the satisfaction of wishes. Think of the contrast with our social or interpersonal environment, which we care about so much—about smoking in public places or the quality of our gym. In our own endless quest for personal self-perfection, monuments to collective experience, and to a life that existed before us and extends beyond us, exert only the most feeble pull.

Traub’s argument is as insulting as it is myopic—as David Mayernik notes in his new book Timeless Cities, the city’s place in the collective consciousness has been shrinking since the dawn of the industrial revolution, when it became ‘something not only less than but also other than the good and noble place of our dreams and aspirations.’ Nevertheless, Traub does note, to his credit, that because of the fast-waning public interest in the rebuilding, the entire process is at risk of disaster. But he gets the equation exactly backwards: The reason we have lost interest is not because Americans are solipsistic or superficial, but because the political process has instilled in us a deep, abiding apathy toward public architecture.

As a growing number of architects and urban planners say, the country missed, in the wake of Sept. 11, a singular opportunity to reconsider our cities. But it’s hard to think of when that moment occurred—barely weeks after the disaster, Silverstein was already vociferously laying out his claim to the Trade Center site’s future. And perhaps at the risk of appearing overly despotic at a time when, on a national scale, freedom and liberty were thought to be ascendant, the Port Authority, the city, and the federal government refused to stop him, either by forcing him into a cash settlement or demanding that he agree to trade for a lease on similar properties elsewhere.

We’ve turned apathetic not because we see ourselves uninvolved, but because we know we’ve been tricked

Instead, as a way of covering over what was essentially an enormous back-room real estate deal, the LMD.C. initiated a design competition that had only a sheen of public involvement—a series of town halls, where people could register their comments (predominantly complaints) about a series of general outlines for the site’s layout. When the public bristled at the LMDC’s choice, it invited a coterie of top-drawer architects to submit their own designs. But that competition was simply a rerun of the previous, albeit with bigger names and flashier designs. With only a pittance to cover their expenses, the participating firms produced marketing-friendly eye candy, lacking any serious consideration of their designs’ buildability. Herbert Muschamp may have praised them as shining examples of the architectural imagination unleashed, but lacking the coherence of a thorough master plan, in actuality they served a much more cynical purpose: to win the stamp of public approval for an utterly malleable design, one that Silverstein and his buddies could manipulate to maximize profits. Indeed, in a dark irony worthy of Orwell, the Times reports that the latest versions of the Libeskind plan look alarmingly like the original design chosen by the LMDC. So is it any wonder that as a result the public has turned its head? Shown that its voice doesn’t matter, why should it care more about architecture and the city than Sex and the City?

Interestingly, though, the alternative scenario is not more direct public participation but less. We’ve turned apathetic not because we see ourselves uninvolved, but because we know we’ve been tricked, offered the sheen of democratic participation only to be shown that, in reality, our voice doesn’t matter. Historically—and, indeed, even today—the public cares about its city’s architecture when it feels that its elected leaders are in charge of the development-process (and not developers) and that the architects involved have a vision that stands a good chance of being realized. We can see this most clearly in Seattle, where Rem Koolhaas’s magnificent main branch for the city’s public library has been a topic of heated debate for years. Though disdainful to the design at first, the public has gradually warmed to the idea largely because the city’s leadership has been accessible and engaged in the debate, but at the same time unflinching in its advocacy of Koolhaas’s design.

In fact, it’s Koolhaas who saw, even in the mid-1970s, that great architecture in New York had gone steeply downhill. At least where private development is concerned, today it is the client, not the architect, who largely determines how a building will look, and that decision is almost always driven by profit—expressed in maximizing square footage—and not aesthetics, let alone any appreciation for larger notions like the health of urban spaces or the public weal. And whereas in the past the architect was given free rein once the decision to build had been made, today he is largely relegated to the sidelines, just one part in the corporate construction machine. It’s no surprise that the architect most ascendant in New York today, David Childs, is also, as a recent Times profile noted, well known for compromising (or, euphemistically, ‘collaborating’) with corporate clients. Nor is it any surprise that some of the country’s best architecture in the last few decades has been for public buildings, museums, and other structures at least partly immune from the profit motive.

Thus the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is of singular importance in the history of America’s urban environment. It is the moment when the world of private development, in the form of Larry Silverstein and his dreams of profit-maximizing skyscrapers, invaded the public realm. It is up to the city’s political leaders, then, to do something before Silverstein’s actions set a precedent. Whether they have the will to do it is an open question. But don’t blame the public for turning its back if they don’t.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen