Friday, May 24, 2002

What’s Next For Ground Zero?

The Twin Towers are gone and it will soon be time to decide what will fill the 14-acre cavity they left behind. Like many New Yorkers, I'm bracing myself for the worst. I fully expect whatever is built will be ugly and inappropriate.

The unapologetic confidence of so many of the city's best buildings -- such as the Empire State, the Woolworth, or the Museum of Natural History -- is expressed in a language that is totally incomprehensible to today's celebrated architects. Given the chance, elitists like Rem Koolhaas would erect a monstrous "statement" no more inspiring than the heap of rubble that has choked the site for eight months.

The New York Times reports that the local architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle has been chosen to oversee the reconstruction project with assistance from another firm, Petersen Littenberg. While Beyer Blinder is best known for its masterful restoration of Grand Central Terminal and Ellis Island, most of its original architecture is forgettable. No designs have been submitted for the Trade Center site and Beyer Blinder is merely managing the final architectural team, which is yet to be chosen.

It's hard to tell if the participation of Beyer Blinder Belle and Petersen Littenberg is good news or bad. But I'm optimistic since the Times' insufferable architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, can't stand them. This has gotta be a good sign.

Muschamp issued one of his occasional edicts from Heaven today that gave Beyer Blinder and Petersen Littenberg the official stamp of disapproval from New York's cultural elite. Muschamp does this with his trademark haughtiness. He writes in what must be a deliberately pretentious manner that he has cultivated over the years as his signature. To get the full effect of his words it helps to read them aloud while trying to touch your nose with your lower teeth. Imagine Judd Nelson as a professor of architectural theory and you begin to appreciate Herbert Muschamp.

Anyway, Muschamp works himself into a lather about architecture in "the bland contexualist mold" which he explains as "an approach that calls for new buildings that imitate the adjacent old ones." In English this means he thinks buildings that are in harmony with their settings are crap. Avenue Foch in Paris, crap. The brownstones of the Upper West Side, crap. Trafalgar Square, crap. He tags Beyer Blinder Belle as a practitioner of this black art.

But Muschamp saves his most damning vocabulary for Petersen Littenberg. They are "followers of Leon Krier, the design guru to Prince Charles and the American New Urbanist Movement." Again, this is a school of thought that believes buildings should be built with human beings in mind and that communities should be livable, even beautiful.

"(Petersen Littenberg) hail from a world of topsy-turvy values in which reactionary designs like that for Seaside, Florida are described as the (sic) new and innovative."

Seaside, of course, is the wildly popular and successful experiment in town planning that used a standard set of simple design codes to ignite an explosion of creativity and beauty. I've only seen photos of it but now that I know Muschamp hates it I would consider living there.

I think the gelatinous prose and the glaring typo his article is significant because it pretty much proves that no one edits Muschamp's stuff at the Times. They probably don't even bother to read it. It's always the same. Dense, irritating, pretentious.

If the Muschamps of the world have their way Ground Zero will sprout with an utterly disposable building that makes a defeatist statement about victimhood or some such nonsense. Either that or one of Frank Gehry's titanium coprolites (as someone more eloquent than me once described them.)

But with any luck, what we will ultimately get is an anti-Muschamp design. Ground Zero is significant as the scene of one of history's greatest crimes. It is a mass grave not just of innocent people but of outdated ideologies as well.

What is needed is a building that commemorates the site unflinchingly. A proud muscular building that rises defiantly from the ashes and embraces the future while it pays respect to its legacy. In other words . . . a New York building like they used to make.

No comments: