September 11, 2001

It looked good in the beginning. All that attention, all those stars taking their star turns in print and on television, politicians and the public clamoring, architecture in the center of American culture as it had never been before. In so many ways, as crass as it still is to say, September 11 was the break the profession had been waiting for ever since modern forms usurped the classical, and modern architects began scrambling to find a way to make them speak. With the nation calling—“Build us a symbol to ease our pain!”—the chance to create a truly epochal modern monument was at hand. And a certain type of architect—most of them?—dreams of little else.

So they rallied—and schemed—in plain sight. Yet somehow the idea that the response to the attack would be “good for the profession” was everywhere early on. As were the grandiose statements: You want a building that will at once resolve the rivalrous and incompatible demands put on the site by greed, pride, fear, vanity, rage, and death? No problem—buildings do this sort of thing all the time; it’s just a matter of finding the right shape. Triangles? Grids? Something shiny? Maybe a blob—they’re all the rage. Four and a half years passed, filled to overflowing with mostly irrelevant architectural fantasias, as well as backbiting, lawsuits, mendacity, stunning incompetence, and most crucially, ill-advised hubristic claims for what it is that architecture can actually do today given the complexity of the art, the idiosyncrasy of its leaders, and the poverty of the symbolic languages at hand. That now passed diva moment in the first years after the attack was not “good for the profession.” The dream of a meaningful monumental modern architecture died at Ground Zero.

The perfect form will redeem us. That seemed to be the consensus among architects, whether involved with the project or, as so many were, scrambling to get involved. That confidence was infectious; it inspired the public and allowed architects to bully their way onto a stage already crowded with other less poetically inclined interests. But it also complicated what was already a fatally complicated redevelopment process. At a time when the redevelopment of Ground Zero was not yet an architectural problem—is it even now?—the enthusiasm generated by architects’ claims of genius, whether stated outright (à la Daniel Libeskind) or merely implied by their designs (vis Lord Foster), clouded the issue and helped to doom the endeavor. Planning, anyone? It was sidelined in the fuss.

At the same time the very deep rifts in the profession were on full display. To catalog all the tragicomic moments and outrageous misdeeds in the campaign to rebuild the World Trade Center site would be pointless. They’re already in the public record (try Googling “Ground Zero” and “kitsch”) and probably also at the front of every conscientious designer’s mind. It is not an overstatement to describe the events as an ethical and artistic catastrophe, a permanent stain on the profession. Take, as one small example, what the public saw at the very pinnacle moment of the redevelopment process in 2003, when media saturation was at its highest. A Svengali poet with virtually no experience was selected as the site’s master-plan architect; and the developer, to protect the financial interests promised to him in the lease on the property, rebelled by bringing in a corporate architect he could trust. One architect could make speeches and sexy images, but he couldn’t sell a free car to a businessman. The other, it seemed, would do anything the businessman wanted but was incapable of making even a marginally inspiring design for a skyscraper. Two architects, two architectures, neither getting the job done alone.

That was a sad and sadly informative sight, watching the profession shatter on CNN, but the fatal moment—the one that should be studied if a fix is to be found—had come a year earlier, in the summer of 2002. The site’s keepers, having failed in an attempt to begin the design process on a sober, practical note (the public—primed for architectural genius—wouldn’t stand for it), turned with sudden enthusiasm to the stars. The cry went up in architecture circles: Victory! This will be good for the profession! But what those celebrants forgot, what is becoming clearer with each passing year, is that they—the politicians who were the de facto clients at Ground Zero—had no choice. They needed a plan for buildings that could be both money-makers and monuments, but they were not about to get the former from the starchitects and the latter from SOM. There simply was no ready middle ground to which they could turn to get full service, and until there is—until American architecture culture can produce and promote a body of work and a way of working that offers competent, inspiring, and (dare we ask for such a thing) beautiful alternatives that can thrive in the real world—clients will have to make do with the same false choice next time around. And that would be a tragedy.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Cities