Thursday, January 30, 2003

Ground Zero and the Defeat of Multiculturalism

Herbert Muschamp, the international authority on Herbert Muschamp, returns from his visionary walkabout and reveals in today’s New York Times which of the seven designs for the site of the late World Trade Center is the right one.

The winner is ridiculous skeletal “World Cultural Center” from the computer aided design and performance art group, THINK. This plan is notable for its not having any commercial space at all. It is guaranteed to be a financial sinkhole and has no realistic chance of ever being built.


But that’s OK for Herbert the Magnificent. The design will “help New York out of the provincialism that has afflicted its cultural life in recent decades.” Presumably this means Fun City’s post-1970s prosperity.

Want conclusive proof that THINK’s design is superior? Herb lays it straight . . . “the project has been the overwhelming preference of foreign newspapers and magazines. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something.”

Yes, well most recently they’ve been trying to tell us how much they hate us.

In Muschamp’s world the ultimate arbiters of taste and urbanity are all auslanders. Sure there are a few Americans who matter but they matter only because they have shed their provincial, blinkered, narrow-minded American cultural goggles. A serious person can only respond to “America” with a weary smile, a chuckle, and a dismissive roll of eyes. To these global fat brains Disney World is as remote, significant and perplexing as an Easter Island moai – something to be studied in splendid detachment and “understood” for vaguely academic purposes. The people who actually enjoy Disney World are like moai worshipers – poor ignorant bastards.

Anyway, the importance here is that Muschamp is revealing a nasty little truth about the baffling new architecture that so enchants him. The reason a Frank Gehry building is more significant than a crumbled sheet of tin foil and a Peter Eisenman “house” is more than a jagged multilevel prison cell is that they are culturally neutral. They are purged of any and all cultural DNA that might tie them to one tradition rather than another. The beauty of these design is that they are cannot be understood by anyone.

This is important if you believe in a non-judgment ideal of multiculturalism. All cultures are valid so we mustn’t impose our provincial beliefs on others. The irony of this ideal is that it is quintessentially Western. Only a person informed by the traditions of Judeo-Christian liberalism could believe such a radical idea.

Indeed, September 11th illustrated that rather dramatically. The architects of Ground Zero were not multiculturalists . . . they were monoculturalists. They believed their culture was so superior to ours that they were doing us a favor by killing us in the name of Allah.

Our response is therefore vitally important. Do we as a society born of Western liberalism tolerate such intolerance? Can we confidently make our claim to cultural superiority without excluding those of other cultures?

The Muschamp Seven – with the notable exception of the Peterson Littenberg team – is of the radically pluralist school of architecture. To them everything but the past, especially the Western past, is valid. They believe in the Hetropolis, a vast interconnected multicultural urban landscape were the oppressive strictures of gender, morality, capitalism, culture and language melt away to reveal people in their common essence.

Muschamp is disappointed that New York has taken so long to accept its role as the global Hetropolis. Instead, it has shortsightedly looked to its own vernacular tradition for cues about what to build next. Never mind that that vernacular includes some of the most beautiful buildings in the world – the Empire State, the Chrysler, Rockefeller Center – these are buildings that could only be in New York. Notice how Muschamp’s favorites would look more at home in Singapore or Shanghai.

Here’s the money quote from Muschamp:

Like Wall Street, or the Pentagon, ground zero is a metonym. Initially its meanings were almost strictly emotional: shock, anger, fear and pain. Soon the connotations began to expand. The term now signifies a complex pattern of actions undertaken by individuals and groups around the world who seek to comprehend the deeper historical meanings of 9/11. This pattern has become a phenomenon in itself. It recalls an idea that in the 20th century was called the open university or the museum without walls: a network of learning, a free-floating space open 24/7 and accessible to all. The price of admission is curiosity, periodically boosted by the desire to survive.

The topic is "Globalization and Its Discontents," to borrow the title of a book last year by the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz. It is as complex and diffuse as the communication that sustains it. Educating ourselves about globalization is a poetic undertaking. We are seeking to make coherent pictures from pieces of history, science, economics, art and politics circulating through the atmosphere since the end of the cold war.


So Ground Zero is supposed to be an open university reminding Americans of the sinister role they in the global spread of corporate greed and a platform for every backward medievalist who would rather beat his disobedient wife without interference from the Great Satan? (Not exactly Muschamp’s words).

Yes, the building that is eventually erected on the site of the late great Twin Towers should help explain the deeper historical meanings of 9/11 but only a fool would think that that means the barbaric attacks were some sort of retribution for our unfair accomplishments and our justifiable confidence.

Instead, the new structure should reiterate in the clearest terms that the attackers were wrong, that their beliefs were immoral and that the dishonest values that motivated them should be combated by free people every time they surface.

What sort of structure would say that? A classically New York building. A soaring tower, yes. But built of stone and masonry not something transitory like plate glass. It should express the confidence, even the arrogance, of a grand skyscraper of 1920s vintage. It should be unabashedly commercial. And it should have representational statues that celebrate human forms, human aspirations, and human judgments.

Yes, New York is the crossroads of global culture but it gives the right of way to its own tradition – capitalism and competition, tolerant but never a sucker, courageous and opinionated, gracious or pugnacious depending on the situation. Sophisticated, worldly, clever, witty but never intellectual.

Unfortunately for Muschamp, these are the characteristics that will eventually find their expression in Lower Manhattan perhaps long after all the Libeskinds, Fosters, and Meiers drift away into well-earned obscurity.

Multiculturalism hit a brick wall on 9/11. The new World Trade Center is destined to be its self-assured and relentlessly optimistic tombstone

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