Respect for the living

September 8th, 2002 § Comments off

The New York Times, led by its architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, unveiled its proposal for the World Trade Center site today. The proposal displays a breathtaking disregard for the city of New York. It combines some of the best ideas for the site—restoring part of the street grid; creating a memorial; mixing residential and commercial uses—and turns them into a monstrosity. The proposal is a hodgepodge of unrelated buildings, each one designed to glorify an architect’s vision rather than to serve the city. Its one merit is that it is so awful that many will dismiss it and look elsewhere for inspiration.

The Times plan is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with modern architecture. Many of today’s architects have become preoccupied with theory above all else; they appear to have given up on creating buildings appropriate to their uses and locations. Most of the Times architects have even abandoned all but the most rarified ideas about beauty and form, as Muschamp himself admits:

Some of the West Street projects will appear bizarre or perhaps self-indulgent to those unfamiliar with contemporary architecture. But this is not a lineup of architectural beauty contestants. All are conceptually rooted, in step with the level of architectural ambition in Vienna, Tokyo, Rotterdam and many other cities overseas. You have to look beneath the skin, for example, to appreciate the extraordinary elegance with which Charles Gwathmey has manipulated a single duplex unit into a variety of apartment layouts, which then generate the modeled facades.

Has Muschamp forgotten why architecture exists? If the buildings from his plan were constructed, most everyone who lived, worked, and played near them would be “unfamiliar with contemporary architecture.” Most New Yorkers won’t care how “conceptually rooted” the buildings are, nor will it be possible for them to “look beneath the skin” of the buildings to appreciate their “extraordinary elegance.” (And about those conceptual roots: One proposal for a West Street residential building actually cites the video game Tetris as the chief inspiration for its design.)

The World Trade Center site does not need star architects blanketing its surface with strange buildings. It needs architects who will show sensitivity to their surroundings—not just the tragedy that happened on the site, but the evolution of lower Manhattan and the needs of the people who live and work there, both now and in the future.

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