Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Muschamp the Magnificent

The latest plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan has The New York Times’ evil architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, completely unhinged.

This morning he shares with us his euphoria over the transformational power of these new designs. You know, the ones unveiled last week by the world’s most prestigious architects . . . the ones that have met with near universal inertia?

If you haven’t seen them, take a look here. There’s lots of glass, big jumbly buildings, colossal towers, and tiny little stick figures moping around in their shadows . . . those are meant to be us.

Most of the designs include towers as tall or taller than the old Trade Center. All of the architects talked about the safety of their designs with their blast absorbing facades and multiple escape routes. They all spoke of honoring the site with contemporary visions.

But these are mostly just a bunch of glass cubes stacked high just like almost every banal skyscraper built from Shanghai to Atlanta in the past 35 years. Some in fact look no better than the smoking pile of rubble that was there on September 12th. Rather than think out of the box, the best architects in the world only offer us more glass boxes some of which have “sky parks” on high floors. As if anyone would ever go to the 70th floor to sit under a tree.

Muschamp, of course, recognizes that these designs are unrealistic . . . but that’s what make them so great. “Don’t they see that attempting the impossible is the whole point,” he practically bellows from the page wild-eyed with the sheer audacity of it. You see, as an elitist, Muschamp has to constantly keep pushing himself into realms were common folk can’t follow. Ugly, unbuildable, ridiculous scribbles that have no hope of ever be constructed, “why yes, it’s brilliant. Bwaahahaha!!!”

For the past week Muschamp has been going on about “contemporary architecture” and how these designs are at last exposing the ignorati to the dazzling genius of this unappreciated cultural movement. Today he claims people are enraptured with the designs. “Public response has reached an extraordinary pitch of enthusiasm,” he says.

Funny, the Times itself reported on the public’s ambivalence just two days ago:
The man in the beret summed up all the proposals with a snort. "Looks like they're trying to make it look like Hong Kong," he said. His wife was writing "Try again!" on her comment card.

Muschamp, though, is not talking about actual people . . . he’s talking about The People. He does all their thinking for them so he should know what they want and what they need.

The People demand buildings that challenge the status quo. True enough, but Muschamp and his fellow big brains ARE the status quo.

His contempt for popular tastes in architecture is virulent. Today is the third time in a week he has slammed the husband and wife design team of Peterson Littenberg which he dismissed on Sunday as “followers of the reactionary architect Leon Krier. Prince Charles’ architectural adviser.” Today, he can’t even be bothered to mention the team’s name and refers to their contribution only as “a reworked version of last summer’s retro motif.”

These are valuable clues for the unintiated reader. Peterson Littenberg is also working with Mayor Bloomberg to create two new livable neighborhoods in lower Manhattan that will include direct links to area airports and a grand boulevard where West Street is now. The Petersen Littenberg design for Ground Zero restores the original city grid and includes human sized parks and circles that recall past successes such as Gramercy Park and Hanover Square. Peterson Littenberg are the good guys in all this and thankfully seem to have the ear of those who will make decisions about the site.

This doesn’t sit well with Muschamp. To him the future must not include any reference to the past. It must challenge people, not accommodate them. It must disturb, not harmonize.

Fortunately, Muschamp has no money of his own to build the city of his dreams. Otherwise the streets of New York would be littered with titanium coprolites like Frank Gehry’s instantly obsolete creations.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, has the money and like Nelson Rockefeller he also has the will to fill the WTC vacuum and become the default client. Hopefully, his taste will be better than Rockefeller’s who tended toward the Brehznev school of architecture.

On the other hand, I’d love for Muschamp to occupy an office on the 120th floor of Norman Foster’s absurdly inhumane “kissing towers.” Yeah Herb, just take this express elevator to the sky lobby, then wait for the local, walk down a couple of dark over-air conditioned corridors, and your desk is right up against that inward-slanting plate glass window with southern exposure.

A bit hot in there? Oh well, that’s the price you pay for culture.

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