STICKS & STONES
James S. Russell on architecture
Monday, December 29, 2003
New York City periodically embroils itself in ordinary controversies that somehow get magnified to absurd proportions by the media savvy of its players and the media density of Manhattan. For this reason, I have up to now avoided the historic-preservation drama surrounding the erstwhile Huntington Hartford Museum (1964), a crumbling marble confection designed by Edward Durrell Stone in an utterly childlike historicist pastiche. Justin Davidson, in Newsday, does a nice job of putting the silliness of this controversy in context.
I will only weigh in to say that the building is a piece of architectural drivel. It only appears to possess some life because so much enervating new construction gets built uncontroversially and uncommented-on.
This is what really fuels activism in the cause of buildings that are at best ordinary—a trend visible nationwide. In New York, the pro-preservation activists have gotten buy-in from an impressive array of critics and academics. If this enormous and well-meaning energy could be harnessed to the cause of creating more new construction that doesn’t suck the energy out of our urban landscapes, we would have to worry much less about losing a building here or there—even one that might ultimately be deemed to have the great worth I can’t see in it.
Sunday, December 21, 2003
Big Box Holiday Cheer
Anecdotally it seems this has been an especially showy year for holiday lighting displays, especially on those streets where neighbors pull out all the stops in a Darwinian battle over colored kilowattage. My favorite vignette, seen years ago outside Philadelphia, involved a motorized dry-cleaning rack conveying Santa on a little roller-coaster ride around a yard festooned with enough lights to merit sunscreen. His sleigh was stacked with cases of beer.
Is this trendoid a 1950s throwback? A response to cheap electrical rates? The New Vulgarity? I’m looking for a big theme here. How about the Decline of the Department Store? One of Christmas’ time-honored rituals has been to haul the family downtown to look at the decorations in the windows. The throngs of suburbanites seem especially thick on the streets of New York this year, where this department-store ritual remains alive. No one goes to Wal-Mart, after all, to see their tree.
Which brings me to another trendlet: the handwringing over what might be termed the Wal-Mart effect on the American economy (in Fast Company and BusinessWeek, for example). I am not qualified to engage in the chicken-or-egg argument about whether the retail giant drives down wages as it drives down prices and offshores manufacturing, creating in the process a wage-stagnant sea of buyers that can only shop at Wal-Mart. This question has been fueling the punditplex for some time. But Wal-Mart’s store-location policies are unquestionably predatory. They have made a fine art of playing one town against another: extorting from local government taxpayer-financed roads, job-training aid, tax abatements or government breaks on property acquisition. (More about what’s wrong with Wal-Mart here.)
How do they get away with it, even in towns that don’t want these "big box" retailers? When local government revenues are under pressure, a single Wal-Mart can generate a quite spectacular amount of cash in the form of tax receipts. So four towns get to be losers so one can gain. Wal-Mart is not alone in this—their "category killer" (love that term) brethren—the Costcos, the Targets, the Home Depots—also play this game well. (A very good explanation of how this process exacerbates the very kind of urban sprawl many towns try to avoid can be found in William Fulton’s The Reluctant Metropolis, Solano Press Books, 1997.)
The principal victims of Wal-Mart’s predation have been the locally owned department stores that, for a few generations anyway, defined hometown retailing—the very places that spent the money to decorate the stores and streets of the old downtowns. For companies whose continued success relies on driving costs down, niceties like festive holiday decorations or architecturally appealing stores are not on the radar screen. Aware of its growing PR problem, Wal-Mart is running commercials stressing how supportive of communities it is, but I still see no sign of the Wal-Mart Thanksgiving Day Parade down the main street of Bentonville, Arkansas.
Congratulations to those dedicated to stringing miles of lights to enliven the asphalted acres of modern suburbia. (Holiday decorations, to my mind, can never be too vulgar.) OK, they probably bought them at Wal-Mart. The company has helped America close a circle. We’ve managed to privatize commercial Christmas glitz.
Saturday, December 20, 2003
"Freedom" Tower: WTC Deserves Better
New York Governor Pataki, New York City Mayor Bloomberg, architects Daniel Libeskind and David Childs, and developer Larry Silverstein formed a disheveled line on December 19, chuckling self-consciously at their photo-op show of unity. They yanked a chord, and a curtain fell away to reveal a nine-foot model of the Freedom Tower, the first and the largest of the new commercial skyscrapers to be erected at the site of the former World Trade Center.
After the arguments widely reported between Libeskind and Childs, the collective reaction to the design was "it’s not as bad as we thought." Unfortunately, it’s not as bad as we thought is about as good as it gets at Ground Zero. And it is not nearly good enough.
Consider the tower, primarily the work of David Childs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. However finished the model and renderings appear to be, the design has a long way to go. The Libeskind-inspired spire looks tacked on. The big news—wind power in a skyscraper—could be an extraordinary innovation or simply window-dressing. Much was made of the structural safety of the diagonal grid exterior column system and the torqued form of the tower. But it is only partially torqued (two sides rise sheer) so it is unclear how resolved the safety issue is, or what level of additional security the design will offer. Aesthetically, the half twist contributes to a visual ambivalence that all too aptly represents the process entailed in its design.
What is most dispiriting about this tower is that it will be a terrible place in which to work. By the time it’s ready for occupancy the degree to which it is outdated will be far more obvious.
Business in the center of a city with global reach and connectivity is all about collaboration and communication; it’s about creativity, picking up ideas and running with them. It’s about creating enormous teams with deep expertise and setting them to work to find the next big thing—or even the next little thing that will give the nanosecond of edge that is so often the difference between profit and loss.
It’s well understood in modern business practice that innovation very often occurs when ideas are shared informally, and global-standard business design creates numerous opportunities for such sharing in the form of attractive dining places, atriums, gardens, and courtyards. Global-standard buildings attract and retain valued staff not just with fat salaries but with user-controlled natural ventilation, light and views.
The Freedom Tower instead offers vast, deep floors ranged around a thick central core. That core cuts off communication. The square plan means hardly anyone can see out a window, and it is very difficult to carve out appealing team spaces or to unite floors spatially to encourage communication.
It is the layout of the old World Trade Center tower, a layout suitable only for arranging endless regimented rows of identical cubicles. A layout that proved very hard to rent during much of that tower’s life and now has no place in downtown environments where people are supposed to be working together not pushing paper solo. (Silverstein has failed to find a tenant for the similar 7 World Trade Center, which he has been marketing for more than a year.) These commodity buildings are suitable for commodity jobs: the call centers and back offices of the suburbs—jobs which are beginning to leave America, by the way.
Those square plans and cubicles appeal to developers because they simplify lease negotiations and are easy to build. They appeal to facilities managers because they are easy to manage. But cubicle landscapes are the least satisfying environments in the view of staff; they discourage idea sharing and team building.
SOM is capable of designing the most advanced building in the world, but Larry Silverstein has got to decide he wants it—or officials must insist on it. Commodity buildings continue to be built in the U.S. because it possesses among the most hidebound and innovation-averse real-estate industries anywhere. American Class A buildings are no longer regarded as high-standard buildings in London (New York’s chief global-finance competitor), Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, Japan—not even in supposedly backward China.
What’s today’s high-standard tower? One of the most ambitious is Swiss Re, coming to completion in London by Foster & Partners. (You can find it by searching under "projects" in the architect's site.) It features gardens for idea sharing and for blurring the boundaries between floors, an advanced approach to daylight and ventilation, and a floor configuration that offers almost everyone access to windows or views. (Or have a look at Foster’s proposal for the Trade Center site—it’s both gutsier and more sophisticated than is the Childs/SOM design.)
Americans have a stake in the values embodied in the structures built on this site. The memory of the people who gave their lives (most, after all, just doing their job) deserve better than this.
There’s nothing like getting fog-bound or blizzard-delayed in a terminal at holiday time, thronged with hair-tearing parents, screaming children and type-A traveling neurotics. While most of us don’t have a choice of airports to get trapped in, here’s my list of ones that offer architectural amenity to be appreciated.
Among the most calming of destinations is the International Terminal at San Francisco. The intertwining roof trusses that have become the iconic image of this airport look like a stretched chain of DNA. Daylight filters in through elegant fixtures created by artist/designer James Carpenter, dappling lush stands of bamboo. The San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was the lead architect. Good city connections via BART.
Much of Seattle-Tacoma dates from the ‘70s but has aged far more gracefully than many far younger structures. Its architecture, by a long-departed firm called The Richardson Associates, is very clean and elegant. It's easy to find your way around and the great little underground tram reduces walking distance. It has a great art collection, much of which is hidden in odd corners. Even the monster parking garages have a certain monumental dignity.
Fentress Bradburn designed the unique tent structure that crowns the main terminal at Denver International. There are many clunky aspects to the design, but the quality of light diffused through the translucent roof is quite beautiful and you can gaze across the plains to the Rocky Mountains if you can tear yourself away from the mall. Unfortunately, transferring passengers must leave the secured concourses to appreciate the terminal. The concourses themselves are big and clumsily designed (by several other firms), festooned with truly ghastly public art.
Dallas/Fort Worth isn’t very pleasant but it’s a fascinating period piece, conceived on an imperial scale (By TAMS and HOK—both still active if not very distinguished on the airport-design scene) just before air-travel was transformed by security. It was the drive-in restaurant notion transferred to an airport setting.
Chicago’s O’Hare offers three architectural landmarks. The United Terminal, one of the nation’s great airport spaces, was designed by Murphy/Jahn in the late 1980s. It is sunlight-drenched, with a fascinating exposed structure that obsessively but successfully organizes all the lighting, signage, and other technical stuff that modern concourses need. The neon artwork along the underground passage between the two concourses is still one of the world’s best examples of airport art.
The International Terminal (reached by scenic tram) by Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will is also handsome if a bit cramped. A beautifully arching departure hall is its iconic image.
Even the vast, 1960s main terminal (C. F. Murphy, architect) has retained a considerably amount of its Mies van der Rohe-inspired integrity through many generations of remodelings. I think you can still see into the elegant boiler plant.
Orlando offers a bit too much convention-hotel-meets-shopping-mall "lifestyle" for me, but it does have a kind of neo-Jetsons panache.
The New York office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill has built the best new facilities on the East coast. They did a brilliant job of extending and updating the iconic terminal at Dulles, designed by the great Eero Saarinen. A quarter mile of draped roof floats over a pavilion of glass—it is still one of the bravura emblems of air travel. They even managed to keep intact the brilliant unfolding of the terminal view as you approach on the toll road (conceived by landscape architect Dan Kiley). I have not seen the new midfield terminal (by the usually hapless HOK), but it is no doubt an improvement over its bomb-shelter predecessor. Soon (if not already) the big-wheeled transporters that haul passengers between terminals should be history. These critters, very Star Wars, were supposed to convey you in elegant gentility from ticket counter to airplane—no trudging up long concourses, no navigating sloping jetways. Mass air travel made them obsolete years ago.
The colorful, undulating arches of National Airport, reworked by Cesar Pelli are pleasing in spite of their techno-Gothic fussiness. Nothing wrong either with being minutes from the center of Washington via car or Metro train.
SOM is also responsible for the only reason to come to the otherwise disgraceful Kennedy Airport in New York (well, except to gaze on the sensuous curves of the crouched-eagle TWA Terminal, also by Saarinen. Now abandoned, its salvation is possible but not assured.) SOM designed the new International Terminal, in which a lofty winglike roof, slotted with skylights, soars overhead. This is a big terminal that’s easy to find your way through and appears to have done a nice job of dealing with the complexities of international travel
The new AirTrain inside the terminal (with station's connected to the other eight) takes you to Queens, Manhattan and Long Island). It is a two-seat ride to midtown Manhattan but should still offer a means superior to any other for getting to and from JFK. Better 40 years late than never.
Continental built a new concouse at Terminal C at Newark, also by SOM, featuring a sawtooth roof that fills an ample concourse with light. Continental markets combination rail/air tickets so that you can Amtrak from Connecticut or Philadelphia as well as Manhattan. (Sadly the train entails a 15-minute ride on a breakdown-prone and too-small monorail train, misbegotten by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.) Still, it’s by far the most customer-friendly way to depart and arrive.
SOM has long been fixing up the Brutalist Logan Airport in Boston (John Carl Warneke, perpetrator). I have not yet been able to appreciate the results, but faceted-glass lanternlike structures and big, airy ticketing halls looked quite appealing in construction. Boston has spent $14 billion on is freeways, but the close-by subway is often the speediest choice for getting into town.
Friday, December 19, 2003
I expected the finalist designs in the World Trade Center memorial competition to be difficult and controversial. The last thing I expected was a unanimous reaction. But that’s what we’ve seen. Unfortunately that reaction is disappointment. What went wrong? Officials and the jury have stayed pretty mum so far. Here’s my take on the received wisdom to date.
It is said that only young architects entered, working under the spell of Maya Lin minimalism. No way. With 5,200 entries from around the world, I am sure this jury saw everything imaginable and a considerable number of ideas—from the stupefying to the mawkish—that they would have preferred not to imagine. Still, it cannot have been easy to make a choice. I am guessing that there were at least 100 entries (but it could have been several times that number) that deserved very close scrutiny.
It is said that important architects avoided the competition because there wasn’t enough in it for them. Unlikely. Famous firms know that wide-open contests like this are very hard to win, but I have no doubt that many tried—or encouraged committed staff to try.
It is said that Lin, a juror, steered the panel toward ideas that looked like what she would do. I don't buy this either. The dynamic of a jury process is hard to predict. It is possible that someone did some steering, vetoing entries that didn't fit preconceptions. Certainly the abstractions of serene ponds, heavenly shafts of light, rows of trees and the lists of names that remind most observers of the Vietnam War Memorial seem safe—an easy consensus choice.
The real culprit here was the jury’s, or the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s, determination to interpret the competition guidelines quite literally. These guidelines are far more confining than the carefully considered and intelligently open-ended mission statement on which they were based. That mission statement was not ready in time to inform the architect teams (including Libeskind's) when they were devising their master-plan ideas in the Fall of 2002.
Instead of having a clear memorial intention to work with, the nine teams competing for the master plan (operating under enormous, and, in retrospect, unnecessary time pressure) had to work it out for themselves. By the time the memorial competition came along, the competitors had to somehow wedge their conception into Libeskind's. Given this tangled process, it is not surprising that no scheme made it as a finalist that went outside of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan. All rather literally took the tower footprints as their boundaries. Most followed the complex, guidelines-mandated hierarchy of memorializing spaces that focused on the loss of life by individuals. In trying to accommodate too much, the memorials ended up commemorating too little.
The literal-minded approach of these finalists failed to address the largest question of all: In creating such an elaborate and massvie memorial structure on such a prominent site, what exactly are we commemorating here beyond the senseless loss of life at the hands of murderers? 9/11 was an attack on American values, on America's position in the world, and on Western capitalism and Western values. Should the memorial have nothing to say about this? Should it ignore the origins of the attack in religious fanatacism?
These are very difficult questions to answer. But the memorial debate has barely opened them to discussion. Sitting in the pile of rejects may be an entry that somehow makes it all clear and compelling to us. But most likely it's simply too soon for us to sort this out. Events (more terrorist attacks, a more destabilized Middle East) could readily overtake the memorial-making process.
At the very least, we should see at least 20 or 30 more of the proposals. I want to know which ones the jury really clashed over--the ones they got passionate about, even if panelists ultimately deemed them to fail. We’d all learn a lot from that, though it is unlikely such a display would change what is the real outcome here. Failure. Will the jury and the LMDC to recognize that fact? Stay tuned.
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About James S. Russell
The subject of my 15-year-plus career in journalism has been architecture, but it is certainly not a confining one. I’m fascinated by the sociology of the workplace, the design potential of ordinary infrastructure, the politics of housing, the meaning of suburbia, the expressive conundrum of memory.
About STICKS & STONES
Architecture is hot these days—as well as curvy and glassy, frolicsome and intimidating.This frequently misunderstood and most public of arts is being talked about. That in itself is new. For better and worse, architecture entangles itself in the key issues of culture and urban life. S&S will dig into them.
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's ....
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