Awful Architecture, Clueless Critic, Corroded Culture If I were a cat, many of the proposals for the WTC rebuilding would make me bare my teeth, arch my back, bush my tail, and hissssssss…(if any of my readers hadn’t already figured that out). And now I think I’ve found another reason for that reaction.
Under my first heading, awful architecture, let me quote Nikos Salingaros and Brian Hanson, who argue that Daniel Libeskind’s work actually embodies a “geometry of death”. In the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for instance, “ he reproduces the visceral revulsion of the Extermination Camps… (with a) specific geometry (which) succeeds in making us anxious and physically ill, and recreates the terrible purpose behind the camps…by triggering our memory and senses strictly through form, space, and surface. A visitor to the Berlin Museum may well feel sick and depressed after going through the Jewish Department Extension, and this, we believe, is an appropriate experience.” I would have to agree. The problem is, Salingaros and Hanson continue, that Libeskind won’t or can’t move beyond this, and uses the same geometry in his plan for the WTC site.
Now I have to be cautious here, because Salingaros & Hanson make a number of sweeping claims, and some of them seem to lead back to a level of mathematics that I’d never be able to understand, let alone evaluate. However, I do believe that an artist’s “sense of life” will show up in their work, even if it’s just a whisper. This “sense of life”, as Ayn Rand defined it, is our individual, intuitive, often almost subconscious set of answers to questions like, “Can we actually understand the world?” or, “Is there actually a difference between good and evil?” which affect our thoughts and actions, even if we aren’t aware of it. Of course, a sense of life can be vague and inconsistent, or well thought out; bright and shining, or dark and repulsive. And that’s one reason I so violently disliked a lot of the design proposals, especially the ones displayed by Max Protech – the sense of life they echoed often gave me really, really bad vibes. So S & H’s definition of this “geometry of death” caught my attention:
“The first component recognizes death outside of us (by) an absence of the organized complexity found in organisms, and the presence of structural disorganization that marks their death and decomposition. (It also) encompasses structures that could never have been alive in the first place… "alien" forms (which) exert … the fascination children and adolescents have for things that scare them.”
“The second component … recognizes death within us. It indicates (or mimics) a failure of our cognitive mechanisms … by providing insufficient information to understand our environment (via) spaces and surfaces that frustrate our sensory embedding within our surroundings…
“These two components suggest specific techniques for simulating the geometrical presence of "death" in buildings: (i) Dehumanizing structures and spaces--either too small or too large for a human being to relate to, built deliberately without a connective scaling hierarchy. (ii) Shapes that stand out from nature by lacking connective symmetries and attachment to the gravitational axis. [I think this is a fancy way of saying the buildings don’t go straight up and down](iii) Random, geometrically disconnected units that have no obvious means of support. [I think this is a fancy way of saying the buildings look like they’re about to tumble over] (iv) Corners and sharp edges projecting toward us. (v) Sheer, empty surfaces without internal differentiations…unresponsive or intentionally repulsive to our visual and tactile senses…”(Death, Life, and Libeskind,” In the Cause of Architecture)
Well, that certainly describes Mr. Libeskind’s proposal, all right, whatever his inner motivations might be, though Salinagros and Hanson do admit that, as far as they know, nobody has ever written these “trade secrets” down. So let’s turn to something a bit less hypothetical. Mr. Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy define the deconstruction movement in design and architecture as follows,
“this style aims to break down established forms into jagged, unbalanced fragments. It makes broad political claims…centering on the notion that the universe is nothing more than a collection of parts. Therefore, disassembly, or deconstruction, of existing institutions, ideas, and traditions is essential to solving today’s problems.”
The problem, Salingaros and Mehaffy argue, is that the universe is really a system “in which wholes are greater than the sum of their parts...a sequence of patterns, in which components merge to create new entities…from the scale of atoms up to that of organisms, right into full-blown societies and ecosystems.”
This means, they add, that cities are “not mechanical collections of abstract forms (but) living fabrics that evolve over time…(so) an intelligent design philosophy must respect history and nature, and incorporate the slow, adaptive process that brought them into being.” However, they contend that,
“the ‘decons’ get all the important details wrong…this inhuman style ignores humanity’s inherited tendency to seek evolved, history-based structures…(and their) monstrous abstractions…only damage the type of urban fabric that real humans actually enjoy living in. In place of the slowly adaptive richness of the human city, the decons want to impose metallic confections… (“Deconstructing NYC,”The American Enterprise, Mar. 2003, p. 13).
OK, now we have something that doesn’t require me to guess at motives, and that also explains why Libeskind’s plan looks the way it does. This also explains why I get “bad vibes”; the “decon” sense of life reminds me of the bits and pieces of deconstructed style I’ve encountered in literature, history and art, and wherever I find it, its total rejection of beauty and truth gives me what James Lileks would call “the deepest creeps.”
John Derbyshire (“February Diary,” National Review Online, 2/28/03), contends that, New York City being New York City, “Nothing is going to get done on that scale without years - decades, very likely, of litigation. This is a city that can’t even figure out how to provide public lavatories for pedestrians. By the time every interest group…has had its say, it’ll be mid century. Now I think Mr. Derbyshire underestimates New York City here, but if there were any scrap of consolation in his heartbreaking scenario it would have to be the hope that we might by that time have a new generation of architects who will have gotten this decon fad out of their systems…
As for one of the trendy notions I’d like to see architects ignore, that leads us to my second heading, Clueless Critic, in this case Ben MacIntyre, who says that Libeskind’s proposal will “not be elegant or refined, but a thing of shards, symbolism, and strength, robustly ugly…a slangy observation in the New York tradition, closer to a curse than a prayer.” Then he suggests that THINK’s plan, with its “lovely, gauzy pair of twin ghost towers” and Foster’s “lovely connecting triangular towers,” were “too clever, too beautiful.” (“Out of the Inferno, a Towering Symbol of New York, London Times, 3/1/2003)
Setting aside any opinions about the three plans, let me get this straight, Mr. MacIntyre - you think that Libeskind’s plan is ugly, but consider that A GOOD THING?? And you think it’s possible for buildings to be TOO beautiful?? In that case, Sir, I must ask, what IN ** THE ** WORLD are you thinking? Just how many people do you think would choose to work in, pass by, look at, do business in, or hang out around buildings that are “robustly ugly” instead of buildings that are clever, lovely, and beautiful? I’d like to think I’m wrong, but those statements make me suspect that you don’t understand real, everyday people very well, or that you could care less about what they think of the buildings they have to deal with day to day. And if that’s the case, your attitude seems to me, at least, downright arrogant and condescending.
Pardon me if I seem hopelessly old fashioned, but I’ll go along with the architect Cass Gilbert, who said, “ aim for beauty; originality will take care of itself," because his "resume," which includes the exuberantly soaring and unashamedly beautiful Woolworth Building, seems to show that he, at least, knew what he was talking about.
Under my final heading, Corrupted Culture, I’ll try to draw all these threads together. First, more about deconstruction, from Mehaffy and Salinagros (“Deconstructing NYC”):
“But for the decons and their followers…all meaning is merely ‘socially constructed,’ any construction is as valid as any other, and echoing earlier styles would only ‘privilege earlier elites.’ That’s why anything with the slightest whiff of ‘tradition’ or ‘history’ must be rejected as too ‘reactionary’…The decision about the Twin Towers’ replacement will have enormous consequences for the shaping of our cities…For modern deconstructionists, the enduring values of tradition, continuity, and commemoration of American democratic ideals…all the things we should be rebuilding in our severely damaged world, all the things one would hope a 9/11 monument would embody – are things to be avoided or even attacked.”
So, setting my personal reaction aside, we seem to have a in deconstruction a style of architecture designed with no regard for the people who’ll have to use it, or for well being of the cities they live and work in, and which scornfully tosses aside any respect for tradition, truth, beauty, or (one can safely assume) American values. If other developers are willing to pay good money so that this stylistic plague can continue to blight our skylines, well, there’s not much anyone can do. But the WTC site demands proud, soaring, beautiful structures that will not only give a much-needed boost to New York City’s economy, but also honor our dead, and reaffirm why this country is worth fighting for So that is why I say that NO deconstructionist nightmare vision, whether or not it’s Libeskind’s, should rise on that site!
A couple of nights before the war started, Peter Jennings solemnly informed us (as if we DIDN”T already know this) of all the things we had to be afraid of- fear, fear, everywhere! A fear for every fancy! Fear lurking in every bedroom closet, like the childhood boogey man! OK, yes, we have some nasty new worries to add to the traditional list, but still…
Please understand that I'm not trying to diss anybody's fears, since I have some myself. But we need to remind ourselves, as FDR once did, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself –that we’ve been through rough times before – remember WW II or the Cold War? – and that we can pull through this, too, with God's help, if we don’t loose our resolve – so buck up, and stiff upper lip! (And fervent prayer above all!) Now I’m sure that pastors all across the country spoke of faith and assurance the next Sunday, since God is the ultimate comfort in times of storm, but it might have been nice if Mr. Jennings had wrapped that segment up with something like, “But still, as Franklin Roosevelt once said…”
So now that they can’t worry about the war plan going wrong, our reporters start fretting about the chaos in Baghdad, interviewing locals who are simply irate because our troops haven’t managed to get water and power restored, or stop the looting. **SIGH** - Look, I really don’t mean to diminish the awful times the people of Iraq have been going through, but could the media cut us some slack here? I mean, HellOO! There’s still a war going on here, folks, and our inventory doesn’t include magic wands yet…
And now that the Iraqi museums have been completely trashed …Yes, I’m enough of a historian to appreciate how awful that is; I can’t help thinking of the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. But trust the newsies to interview a scholar who says that the one thing the Iraqi people (and history as well, one assumes) will remember is how they lost their past because our troops did nothing to stop the looting(!) Well, excuse me, but don’t the looters bear even a little bit of the responsibility here?
So maybe I’m just irritable, but it DOES never seem to fail – our media do seem to be happiest when they have at least a little something, preferably about the U.S., to complain about.