After tragedy, urban design has become a tall order

Architecture: Commentary

November 11, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Two months after hijacked airliners took down the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, killing thousands and shaking the nation, it's clear that long-held notions of urban design were shattered as well.

Even as the tragedy still resonates, a growing contingent of architects and urban planners has begun to question many of the tenets that led to the design of the 110-story towers, the world's tallest buildings when they opened in the early 1970s.

As New York moves to rebuild lower Manhattan, they say, city and state leaders have an opportunity to benefit from experience and build something even greater than what the terrorists destroyed.

"The World Trade Center was not a very good piece of urban design," New York-based architect Stan Eckstut volunteered during an October conference in Baltimore. "Now we have a chance to make [the area] more extroverted, to expose public transportation. We need to have good streets, good squares -- Giuliani Square? -- all kinds of things unique to the city."

"We've learned a lot more about urbanism since the World Trade Center was designed," said John McIlwain, a senior fellow of the Urban Land Institute, during the group's annual conference in Boston last month. "We know that 110 stories is not efficient, even if people want to continue with the architecture of ego that it represented, and that windswept plazas are not the most pleasant public places. We know how to create a mixture of office and retail and housing."

The twin towers were the realization in the 1960s of a design concept envisioned in the 1920s, and any replacement should reflect more current thinking about urban design, said Jonathan Barnett, an architecture professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you ask me, it should be more like Battery Park City or Rockefeller Center than it was before."

These and other observers are not just trying to put a positive spin on a tragic event. They are offering objective assessments of two buildings that became familiar landmarks in lower Manhattan, but never enjoyed critical acclaim as works of architecture.

I suspect that many people quietly share this assessment of the World Trade Center. And even though emotions about the attacks are still raw, it's neither unpatriotic nor disrespectful to consider the aesthetic implications of the attacks on New York City, or what terrorism means for architecture in general.

Capitalism to the extreme

Architect Minoru Yamasaki's twin towers were icons of American capitalism and awesome feats of engineering. But from the standpoint of architecture and urban design, they were never entirely successful.

Close up, the towers were minimalist sculptures expanded to inhumane proportions. They overwhelmed the plaza and made people there feel small and insignificant. They represented everything that is cold and oppressive about modern architecture.

From a distance, they were simply too monumental for their fragile site near the tip of Manhattan. They upset the total composition. Moreover, their boxy shapes were uninspired and unlovable. They weren't

out at the time, only bigger.

Clearly, there's no shortage of ideas for rebuilding or reusing the land. A memorial most certainly will be part of any new project, perhaps set in a park or as part of a museum devoted to world terrorism. Commercial development also must be part of the equation, given the value of the real estate and the millions of square feet of office space lost.

Developer Larry Silverstein, who bought a 99-year lease for the twin towers last year, has hired two prominent architects to advise him. David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Alex Cooper of Cooper Robertson and Partners, have begun to explore ways to rebuild the 16-acre site. Childs was the lead designer of 250 West Pratt Street, one of Baltimore's best tall buildings. Cooper was one of the planners of Battery Park City, along with Eckstut. A new Lower Manhattan Development Corp. also will play a key role.

One unlikely outcome would be a carbon copy of the towers, which opened between 1972 and 1974. A poll taken shortly after Sept. 11 showed that a majority of respondents wanted the towers rebuilt exactly as they were, to prove the terrorists haven't won. But such an approach would be ill-advised.

The World Trade Center was the product of a particular time and place in architectural history, a period when "urban removal" was in vogue and modernism was the language of choice. In the early 1960s, few gave a second thought to the idea of wiping the slate clean and starting over with new construction. The World Trade Center was capitalism taken to the extreme -- the ultimate act of architectural hubris.

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