"Quirky, discursive, and highly opinionated"--a frank and devastating assessment of architecture and the rebuilding at Ground Zero (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
Maverick architecture critic Philip Nobel takes us deep into the inner workings of Ground Zero, tracing the redevelopment of this battleground construction site from smoke-shrouded ruin to controversial master plan. Nobel gathers the huge cast of players at war with one another: real estate developers; grieving families; ambitious politicians; and most of all the architects, in the national spotlight as never before, charged with satisfying impossible demands and reconciling a sacred zone with daily life.
By turns tragic and comic, Sixteen Acres is a riveting story of high culture and low dealings, confronting the essential questions: Can buildings provide meaning? Are modern architects up to the job? What are the limits of architecture?
"Estimable . . . Nobel steps in where [others] fear to tread--by making sense of the spectacle."
--The New York Times Book Review
"Vastly preferable . . . Nobel, in refreshing contrast [to others on the subject], regards the circus-like chain of circumstances with skeptical detachment . . . and harrowing humor."
--The New York Review of Books
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Philip Nobel writes for The New York Times; The Nation; Artforum; Architectural Digest, where he is a contributing writer; and Metropolis, where his column, Far Corner, runs monthly. Trained as an architect, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
1FIRST RESPONDERSFRANK GEHRY, perhaps the most famous non-acting, non-directing, nonathletic son of Los Angeles, was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. He was in town for the opening, the night before, of an Issey Miyake boutique in Tribeca, just ten latte-soaked blocks north of the World Trade Center. The architect had contributed a signature cloud of folded sheet metal for the store's interior, and his son Alejandro, an artist, had drawn several murals. The next morning his son went back downtown for a meeting, and Gehry couldn't contact him as he watched the neighborhood smothered on TV. "I was in shreck," he said. Stuck in town with the airlines grounded, he would go down to the site later that week to take a look--"around the edge, as close as you could get." Because he toured the perimeter with his patron, Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Museum, it was soon rumored that the two had designs on the place. Though Gehry's interest was undeniable, and he played a longer game than any of his colleagues, he would sit out most of the ensuing follies--the projection onto the site of hysterical, inappropriate visions that sought to bring to Ground Zero, in the sneering words of the New York Post's indispensable real estate reporter Steve Cuozzo, "truth, beauty, and Architecture-with-a-capital-A."1The site was a magnet for all, but for architects--always thinking big--it was irresistible. They could see in the devastation a clean slate, a chance at greatness, a reprieve, at least, from anotherdecade of museums and Miyake. Or Prada. Rem Koolhaas was probably the most influential architect in the world at the moment of the attack. In the summer of 2000, a New York Times Magazine cover story had helped take him out of the design studios, where he was a hero without peer, and into the public eye, revealing for mass consumption his stable open marriage and his jet-set ennui, but also his passion for expanding architecture's ambit and his odd, piercing insights into our fallen world: public space is dead; shopping is our civic religion; the future of the city is elsewhere.2 His claim on New York City's attentions in the years before September 11 was a flagship store he was designing for Miuccia Prada in Soho. After a long drama--during which the whims of the architect and the forbearance of his client turned the commission into an arts-and-crafts playtime that more than one observer thought would "revolutionize" retail--in 2001 the store was nearing completion at last, having dallied through the city's boom.On September 11, Koolhaas was in Chicago, at a meeting for a stalled project there. He had flown in from New York that morning to find himself stuck with clients who decided that the end of the world would not delay their business. He could catch only glimpses of the event on television. After a day of indecision and appeals to travel agents (and, yes, a trip to a local Prada store), Koolhaas hired the cab driver he had been using, a Syrian man, and a second driver from Egypt, to take him and an associate back east. The trip through the flag-draped heartland would be salted with assertions of Israeli complicity and Osama bin Laden's innocence, and overshadowed by the passengers' fears for their drivers' safety in late-night Pennsylvania truck stops. When they pulled up to a Manhattan hotel in the very early morning of September 14, police standing guard rushed the car. Like Gehry, Koolhaas stayed in town and made his pilgrimages to the cauldron, often at night.Star architects were far from the only ones drawn by the allure of Ground Zero. In the first hours after the calamity, as every newly essential construction worker headed for the wreckage, lessburly sorts were struggling to assess their place in a world that had gone from decadent to defenseless in a span of a hundred minutes. In that utilitarian moment, those whose contributions to the crisis would by nature remain more abstract were already at work to forestall their irrelevance. A rush was on to stake a claim, to put sneakers and loafers down there with the boots on the ground. Poets flooded the zone with images, theorists with ideas; theater and fashion critics, asserting the pertinence of their criticism, assessed the collateral damage on Broadway (as actors started to pitch in at the support center at Chelsea Piers) and on Seventh Avenue (as model Heidi Klum volunteered incognito at a supply depot). Fashion designer Michael Kors spun the attack as an opportunity for couture in a statement released at his runway show the week after: "Life continues on, but it is an unavoidable truth that life is also irrevocably changed. We must remember that fashion and the fashion community have always been receptive to change ... . I know we will all be able to move forward in these trying times."3 David Bouley, star chef and owner of several restaurants near the site, opened a franchise--it came to be called Green Tarp--in a ruined deli hard by the pile on Liberty Street. David Byrne and Candice Bergen served stew to the workers there.Though physically Ground Zero resembled nothing that had been visited on this country before, from the beginning its culture looked just like America. There was, of course, that descent on the site by volunteers from all points, that salutary wave of giving at a scale the United States had never seen. But there was also, beyond the papers, a larger, more colorful, less useful descent, exhibiting in spots the full measure of prime-time narcissism. Depending on one's threshold for tolerating the absurd, this might have been an abomination or a hopeful reclamation--"Life victorious," as Daniel Libeskind, the World Trade Center site's eventual master plan architect, would repeat in later years. Either way, it was clear to all, especially to the audience at home--removed from what one volunteer referred to as the "tomato sauce and vomit" stench--thatthis disaster area, in its recovery and its redevelopment, would play by limelight rules. The parade of stars preceded in some cases visits by prominent politicians: Susan Sarandon circled the pile hawking donated pizza from the back of a pickup truck; John Travolta visited with volunteer ministers of the Church of Scientology, ready to offer succor in the form of "nerve assists." Product placement was not far behind: Campbell's Soup, Starbucks, McDonald's. The place was not without humor--workers called one tent, designated for R&R, "Ground Zero's"--or, naturally, a reflection of the politics that began there; invoking the nation's preferred emotional solvent, another tent was named "Freedom Café."It was the curse of culture makers to get a handle, each as his métier allowed. Actors could get by just by putting their bodies at the site; Hollywood would not attempt a September 11 movie right away. Others had to represent with their ideas. And in tapping the sensibilities of the day before to make sense of the aftermath, it became clear what every effort shared: a culture of surfaces had left its artists poorly equipped for depth. "Make no mistake," one poet wrote in an introduction to a large collection published in 2002, "our arts have thrived on remoteness, deflection, over-the-shoulder innuendo, a myriad of aesthetic dispensations, and have (have they?) disdained the masses in need of their sustenance."4Every artist drawn to Ground Zero faced the same problem--adapting the frivolity of his practice to the horror of what smoldered before him--but it was the architects who revealed just how perilous the new normal would be. On Sunday, September 16, 2001, the New York Times posted online the text of the next week's magazine section, in which architects first aired their ideas about the site. Under the title "To Rebuild or Not: Architects Respond," the editors arranged remarks from nine local opinion makers. The reporting for that story, the would-you-care-to-comment calls, took place within one or two days of the attack, in a week that most New Yorkers remember as progressively more harrowing, asfright overtook shock and--forgetting that al Qaeda takes its time between attacks--the city waited for the second shoe to drop.Most of those interviewed called for a defiant, though not identical, rebuilding; one proposed a national vote: "Maybe it's not just our decision."5 But the standout response came from Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, the husband-and-wife team whose theory-rich investigations at the intersection of technology and space had earned them architecture's first MacArthur Foundation genius grant. They struck one of the most regrettable notes of the too-soon thereafter: "What's most poignant now is that the identity of the skyline has been lost. We would say, Let's not build something that would mend the skyline, it is more powerful to leave it void. We believe it would be tragic to erase the erasure."6 No other early comment showed quite how far architecture's intelligentsia were from the grit of the event, or how ill prepared were the profession's fashion-addled thinkers even to answer some of the top-line questions posed by the attack: Why do we gather in cities? What does it mean to build to the sky? How can more building--mere building--make sense of all this?Architects found themselves in an awkward position: to exercise their professional expertise would be crass, yet all the time the public clamored for it, filling the letters columns of the papers and the open lines of radio chat shows. Rebuild to complement "the lovely lady in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty," one public radio caller urged in late September. "So we have here now another torch that is at the center of the old ruins." The columnist Liz Smith, on the same show to discuss the future of gossip, weighed in on the future of the site as well. "I think the spirit of the Phoenix will rise," she said, favoring the reconstruction of the Twin Towers.7 Ed Koch, the irrepressible former mayor, was also an early advocate for building copies. "We have the plans," he said.8 (At the time of its construction, he had decried the World Trade Center as "a conspiracy by people who think they know what is best for New York City.")9 Donald Trump, the taste-deprived developer, alsopiped up for the cause of reconstruction, with the caveats that any rebuilt Twins should have a touch more finesse about them, and must once again be the tallest in the world.10From the earliest days after the attack there was a near-universal belief that a building at Ground Zero could give meaning to what had taken place there, and that architecture's "best minds," despite such a long, long vacation from pathos, could create such a thing. But hubris was producing the wrong questions and the wrong answers: the response to the attack was not an architectural problem. "In my shock I want to rebuild it," a New York architect wrote on September 13. "That's all I can say because of the thousands of lives we cannot rebuild."11 How can a building stand in for a life? Even the Taj Mahal, built by a shah as a tomb for his favorite wife, could not succeed in reviving her. And that is a building serving no other purpose than memory. Ground Zero would have to be rebuilt with office buildings, and expressing vengeance and grief are not things that office buildings do; they may rise from a graveyard but they do not redeem it; they may fill a site but they do not heal it. The attempt to make of commercial construction an emotional balm would leave architecture's emperors standing naked over and over in the following years. But the public was so hungry. On October 2, Richard Meier, among the most famous architects in New York City, appeared on television with Barbara Walters. He had not been shy about his ideas for the World Trade Center site--the Times had interviewed him twice, and twice he favored rebuilding grandly--but to his credit, Meier declined to bring a sketch when, incredibly, he was asked.Shortly after his return to Los Angeles from New York, Frank Gehry, certainly high on any short list of best minds, was approached from all sides with requests for a therapeutic image. He demurred: "I just said no comment, no comment, no comment."12 Though it was an inexact parallel--the pickup-sticks chaos of the pile might have been more accurately compared with the work of the so-called deconstructivist architects--a consensus soonemerged, codified in November by New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, that the ruins were somehow Gehryesque.13 Everyone was searching for a solving name, and words were stretched to fit. "When the two towers collapsed," Jean Baudrillard wrote, "you had the impression that they were responding to the suicide of the suicide-planes with their own suicides." 14 One Dutch critic saw the buildings as "a death-collecting sandwich. Millefeuille, the horror of concrete puff pastry filled with bodies."15 "Somebody burned down the Christmas tree," a homesick ex-New Yorker wrote the week of the attack. "Burned it all the way to the ground."16 On September 12, a reporter for a local radio station described her push into the site and the emergence of one severed wisp of the towers through the still-thick smoke. It looked like "modern art," she said. And then there was Ada Louise Huxtable, the grande dame of American architecture criticism, who quickly established herself as one of a very few unshakably sane voices in the process. Asked by a magazine to contribute to yet another platform for pundits, she filed this rebuke: "It's a very large, tough subject, and there's too much static out there, too much talk and not enough thought ... . I frankly wish everyone would just shut up for a while."Robert A.M. Stern was another whose voice rose above the noise. A week and a day after September 11, the architect delivered a lecture for the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, one of the few Manhattan civic organizations that would not retool to address the crisis downtown. Stern is a diminutive man with perpetually arched eyebrows and a wry cock to his voice. He is also invariably the smartest architect in the room, a fact noted by Philip Johnson, his teacher at Yale, to whose mastery of the politics of the profession Stern is the only heir. The lecture was delivered as scheduled--Stern insisted--but he had adapted the speech to circumstance with poetic results."The toll in human lives is vast and the impact tragic," Stern said that day with characteristic sureness over his first slide, aconnoisseur's view of the Twin Towers from the west in sideways light. "The political and economic implications are only beginning to be understood. Architects and investors are beginning to consider the future of the skyscraper building type. I am not proposing to enter into that discussion now, but simply to point out that whatever its shortcomings as a work of architecture, the World Trade Center was a powerful symbol of our city. It was a landmark. Oh, the tricks history plays on our aesthetic senses; how we now miss this imperfect monument. Landmarks are important--buildings bear silent witness to what we do, what we believe. They are our immortality on this earth. And when a landmark is torn down we lose witness to our humanity. Buildings are at once silent witnesses and yet they speak."17That maximal take on the function of buildings would become a fixture of the American Pop understanding of the new cultural hot spot of Ground Zero. At that moment, the usually architecture-averse public was ready to buy into such a remedy: not buildings, architecture; not construction, not containers, not merely the largest of our business machines, but art, bearers of meanin...
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