This article appeared in February of 2003, only a few days before Daniel Libeskind managed to win the commission for the World Trade Center (WTC) reconstruction. After that, he was universally referred to — at least in the mainstream architectural media — as “the architect of the century”. For a while, it seemed that we had really missed with our timing. When the piece finally appeared it felt like we were taking a Canute-like stand against the inexorable tide of Decon, and of its arch-champion Daniel Libeskind.1
Nevertheless, as subsequent history shows, our article correctly anticipated certain developments, and in a very timely manner indeed. Now, a little over a year later, Libeskind has become a mere spectator of the showcase New York project by which he would put the world to rights; and his one-time champions are steadily melting away (Pogrebin, 2004). In London in July, meanwhile, an application for grant aid for Libeskind’s £70m “Spiral” extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum was rejected by the Heritage Lottery Fund, on the grounds that it “did not deliver well against our key requirements of conservation, education and enjoyment of the UK’s heritage” (Byrne, 2004).2
Libeskind’s original design for the WTC site was progressively revised, to the point where little of it is now left. While the impression was being spread around that the whole world wowed about Libeskind’s vision, the real powers controlling reconstruction — the Star Architect’s understudies, you might say — progressively adopted a more conventional style.
Is there clear evidence of cause-and-effect here? We’re not so sure, and our feelings are ambivalent. Libeskind’s fall from grace is clearly due more to the ever-shortening attention span of the fashionistas who set the cultural agenda, than to well-reasoned, scientific arguments. The fact that commentators can now dismiss Decon as acidly as once they rejected all things traditional is hardly reassuring: particularly when, as we see on the WTC project, it paves the way for commercial mediocrity.
Many people question how this could possibly have happened. After all, New York City was sold a vision more than a practical building, after a long and vicious media battle had been waged against supposedly traditional (and eminently practical) design proposals. Libeskind’s vision won out, with a great deal of fanfare. Yet now we have a gradual return towards the faceless brand of corporate architecture.
The result is, strangely, a feeling of regret and loss. So much effort could have been saved by adopting a humane design in the first place. And it needn’t have been modest: a soaring monument, yet adapted to the human scale and feeling in those regions where people have to walk, live, and work — a vision that does not abuse monumentality to discomfort human beings. What took place since awarding the project is indeed an evolution towards a design more adapted to the “geometry of life”; starting, however, from a fundamentally non-adapted basis.
As such, the end result will always be suboptimal, as any evolutionary biologist can explain. Moreover, we note with regret that what drove the evolution of the design were not so much forces adapting it to the human scale, but rather ones of profit maximization.3
The world needs an architectural vision; we just happen to disagree with Libeskind’s particular vision. The answer is not, however, a return to the faceless and lifeless boxes of the 1960s. That would represent the worst brand of retrogression, but is unavoidable when people eventually discover that the vision has problems. Any vision, from the most wonderful to the patently absurd, comes up against harsh realities, at which time practical compromises have to be made. Deciding on which parts of an architectural vision to save depends on whether those will give something back — such as an enhancement of human life. Does the design offer spiritually nourishing qualities worth paying a premium for? (Yes, we are being incredibly idealistic here; we passionately wish to see a new architecture in the new millennium based on the “geometry of life”). Reality begins to dissect the vision to see what is behind it: a sound philosophy of form that supports life; realizable ideas for a better world; newly acquired scientific understandings; whatever of value.
We exposed all the ideological flaws of deconstruction at the very beginning of this debate. We identified the theory as being based on what has proved to be empty intellectual discussion, which invents a fanciful but meaningless language that fails to connect to the product. Once Libeskind entered the limelight, journalists such as Deroy Murdock (2003) had a closer read of his published writings (Libeskind, 1997), and came away with a very negative impression. Ultimately, the deciding factor was a more mundane one: what we labeled as the “geometry of death” is not very practical to build, and does not provide enough rentable office space.
Libeskind was never really the problem. The problem was and is, first of all, the role played by Star Architects. All too often, they help unwittingly in paving the way for mediocrity, and the consequent despoliation of our cities. The WTC project is not the first one in which a Star Architect has secured legitimacy for an approach that a sizable component of the public roundly rejected. Dazzled by the performance, and perhaps briefly entranced by the heart-wrenching appeals to our emotions, we are too satiated to notice when the Star leaves the stage and is replaced by some less glamorous assistants.
Second, Star Architects lead us to accept that a comprehensive, all-encompassing, “artistic” vision is the best way to solve a problem as large as that of the WTC. It was clearly too large for any single individual, and the gap between ambition and achievement will be even larger with the team that succeeds Libeskind. Significantly, the best proposal for the site so far has come not from an architect or planner, but from the New York Times’s film critic, A. O. Scott, who argued for some low-tech interventions to stimulate “the ferment of the streets”, and warned against “too much planning”. Indeed, if there is a subtext to the piece we wrote about Libeskind, it is that “too much planning” is bad for you, but that there is a mathematical/scientific cure.
And so, in retrospect, Libeskind’s star may grow dimmer, but there are plenty of other “Stars” ready to take his place. It might be worth saying that New York contains one of the most sophisticated audiences for the arts in the world. If this audience can be fooled by the Disappearing Star phenomenon, then any audience can.
- 1. Canute was an 11th Century King of England, who vainly ordered the tides to retreat, to demonstrate the limits of kingly powers.
- 2. This proposal was the second main focus of our original article. Because the project was dependent upon a hefty sum of public money, it looked increasingly unlikely that it would be built. It was officially abandoned after the First Edition of this book.
- 3. This is, in fact, a central question in genuine architectural theory, but not one that is addressed by today’s crop of academic architects. Is it mathematically possible to transform a design representing the “geometry of death” into one embodying the “geometry of life” by minor or major adjustments? Christopher Alexander has invested several decades of effort in answering it. Translated into practical terms, this becomes: can we save existing Decon buildings through costly renovation after the present craze has fizzled out, or are we going to be stuck with fundamentally useless structures that have to be demolished?