Saturday, September 09, 2006

Ughh! Why the Reconstructed Ground Zero has Become a Big Letdown

So five years on after that tragic day, Ground Zero in New York remains a big hole. After much back-and-forth, a final design has been approved for the Freedom Tower. Originally conceived to become the tallest building in the world, its height of 1776 feet will be all the less impressive compared to other skyscrapers coming on line, in particular when the Burj Dubai will be surpassing 2,300 feet. What once would have been a poetic crystal form has now become boring glass obelisk with a top spire that relates very little to the rest of building shaft below it. The spire’s only there to conform to the buildings final height, which in my book would never be considered part of that measurement. At least the Freedom Tower will not be the one of the simple boxes that characterized the old twin towers, but will likely function better and be more attractive than Minoru Yamasaki’s austere and lifeless environment of before.

A few days ago, designs for three neighboring towers at ground zero were unveiled. From the provided rendering, I’m sorry to say that I am quite under-whelmed at all the proposed towers. None of them indicate anything all too extraordinary, no formal innovation that has become characteristic of contemporary skyscrapers elsewhere. No attempts are evident in trying to incorporate technological features that allow tall buildings to produce their own energy, to realize amazingly complex geometries and conform to aerodynamic realities of the site. The potentially most disappointing fact is that these three towers were designed by the world’s best known ‘starchitects’, and rarely have I seen such uninspired design from Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki. I’m certain that special restrictions were placed on the designs for projects at ground-zero, from security to the laws of commercial real estate, but if these proposed schemes are the best such celebrated designers can come up with, it therefore proves that talent is as ephemeral and fickle in the realm of design as any other art. So far the assembly of towers seems to be no more captivating than the downtown skylines of countless American sun-belt cities.

Such subdued designs may be a testament to the ability for even the best architects to turn out real duds, but I suspect the mediocre architectural result at ground zero is more a problem of planning. The reconstruction at ground zero has been marred by an incoherent planning process, consisting of various state and city-sponsored committees, private civic groups, and the developer. The new Freedom Tower and its neighbors are good examples of the inadequacy of “design by committee”. When an architect has to work with a hydra-headed client, pleasing various conflicting factions, the resulting compromise logically produces an aesthetically compromised building. Rarely has design by committee ever produced worthwhile monuments and structures, since it reveals an unsettling fact about design that harmony-seeking people are loathe accept: Design is more an individual pursuit than a collective one. Design teams are less a collaboration among equals than a hierarchy in which one person conceives and the others enables his concepts.

The design of buildings is inherently undemocratic. The client is the only one that votes, so one hopes that he votes with quality and tastefulness in mind. Every built masterpiece we acknowledge today, from the great Roman monuments to Hausmann’s Paris, was the result of patrons, uninhibited by other municipal groups, sponsoring visionary designers they believed in. An individual patron can convey a simple purpose, which often begets a design driven by a more powerfully unified and coherent concept. In contrast, multiple patrons communicate competing and often contradictory purposes, resulting in a muddled scheme that tries to do too much. When certain groups can take responsibility making design recommendations without backing them up with their own pocketbook, it becomes too easy to be indecisive.

Taking financial responsibility for ideas to be implemented by the architect provides a welcome clarity and efficiency to the design process. This is why most architects prefer to be paid by one owner with one voice rather than answering to a committee that is not accountable to taxpayer-provided funds. Architects work better when the relationship with the client is simply structured. The only reason an architect is willing to deal with a committee is for prestige offered by prominent public buildings. Otherwise, architects would rather look for wealthy owners sympathetic to their design philosophy and willing to unload generous amounts of money to realize their ideas.

I suspect the architects for the towers (David Childs, Foster, Rogers and Maki) jumped at the chance in being able to contribute designs in the most well-known urban site in the world, with all of its recent historic and cultural significance, in exchange for submitting to the contradictory wills of ground zero’s various committees and clients. From my perspective, this understandable tradeoff has nonetheless lowered the esteem I once had for these once-great architects.

Note: Archidose shares his own mixed review of the new towers, finding particular merit in Foster’s diamond-topped tower.

Call for Entries: Do your peers at school or at work acknowledge the quality of your architectural renderings? Then maybe you have a shot at winning the 32nd Annual Ken
Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition. Entries are due by October 31st , and submitting an entry requires little hassle, so please visit the competition’s website, The competition is limited entries from the U.S. For a brief overview of the competition you can read my recent post here.

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