Friday, September 10, 2004

Resilient city

Though the "tall buildings" exhibit at MOMA seems to Herbert Muschamp to illustrate the polemical point that yes, it's OK again, after three years, to think about skyscrapers in New York, urban planners have been counting on the city's resilience all along.

Looking to history, planners at MIT held a conference in February 2002 called "The Resilient City." San Francisco after the earthquake, Chicago after the fire, "cities have endured trauma and violence for millennia," said Tom Campanella, "much of it far worse than that unleashed by Mohamed Atta on September 11. Any study of the city in history will reveal that human settlements possess an essential ability to resurrect themselves in the wake of devastation."

Larry Vale offered a similar faith in urban regeneration, but he wonders about the process of memorializing what was lost. Whose stories get told, and whose are elided? "It is not enough to ask general questions about urban recovery; we must ask who recovers which aspects of the city, and by what mechanisms," he argues. "The process of post-disaster recovery is a window into the power structure of the society that has been stricken. Similarly, to ask about remembrance is to inquire how what is remembered gets constructed, when, and by whom."

As the process of memorializing and rebuilding has gone forward, at least in these still early stages, the tension does not seem to be so much about what is remembered: perhaps in 50 years, or 100, others will look back with dispassionate and critical eyes on the particular way in which Americans chose to memorialize the senseless murder of several thousand people in the context of waging preemptive war. By my lights, the memorial, a "simple articulation of the footprints of the Twin Towers," promises to be a powerful and lasting symbol of loss, inviting thoughtful reflection. But even now, "the power structure of the society"--or at least of New York--is fairly well laid bare in the struggle over the rebuilding of the rest of the site.

Two great architects, Daniel Libeskind and David Childs, have been thrown together to work out the one design for the new "Freedom Tower."

More layers of political and ideological tension are involved in the process of rebuilding the World Trade Center site than I can fathom. One of them seems to be a personalized debate over style and process between two high-profile architecture critics: Muschamp, of the Times, and Paul Goldberger, of the New Yorker--as suggested in a review of Goldberger's book Up from Zero.

Another comes out of sheer politics, power and money: Libeskind won the design competition, but developer Larry Silverstein wanted Childs. Hence the arranged marriage. In Goldberger's view, Libeskind's singular design is at risk.

Building in New York City has always been a matter of money and politics as much as architecture, with predictably mediocre results. But it seemed, for a while, that the city’s usual way of doing business would be suspended during the rebuilding of Ground Zero, since public sentiment demanded something more high-minded than the conventional New York real-estate deal. Hiring Daniel Libeskind was a good start. In the last few months, however, it has become clear that Ground Zero is not going to be remade as Libeskind would wish it to be. He is being made to conform to the city’s modus operandi rather than the other way around.

Still, he is hopeful:

By accepting the demands of the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein for office space, Libeskind forfeited his claim as a visionary, but he managed to synthesize the symbolic and the commercial in a design that can still be called avant-garde, which is no small achievement. And he might get at least some of the thing built.

You can see it going up--on a live web-cam! The resilient city.

No comments: