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New York - The architects fight back





     Herbert Muschamp's design team has just published its work on the New York Times website. (This site requires free registration). The web pages are packed with names, ideas and images, and a busy public forum.

The forum can be an interesting place to start, as it shows some of the general directions of public thought in relation to the site. There are still a number of gung-ho messages that typified the immediate aftermath of the attack. "Build it bigger and better - that'll show them".

There are also those who can't stomach the thought of building anything on the site, apart from a park. Anything commercial wouldn't work as it seems to conflict with the idea of a memorial.

And then there are those that just want to get on with it. Those for whom the site is a disturbing tabular rasa that needs to be covered before the city can start to function properly again. These people might cite the rebuilding of european cities after the war as an example to follow.

The Muschamp team sprang from meetings of a new New York 5 (this time Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Steven Holl, Charles Gwathmey, and engineer Guy Nordenson). The meetings were in response to the six safe urban designs that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation published a few months back. These designs were nostalgic for an old New York. It was as if at last the site could be brought back into the city, after almost four decades after being abducted by a diseased modernism of inhumane towers and drafty plazas. One of the stated goals of the LMDC is to, "restore all or a portion of the street grid and reintegrate the former World Trade Center site with the rest of downtown."

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the LMDC approach for the NY5 was that it relegated the role of architect thought to almost an afterthought, a decorator. There has always been tension between planners, developers, urban designers and architects about who does what and it seems to have boiled over here.

This site requires a solution incorporating strong concepts that address issues that haven't been addressed before in the States. These concepts require a lot of dirty argument by experts and lay people. To facilitate this argument, radical and extreme ideas are required, not the patternbook multi-choice LMDC approach, a method reminiscent of choosing between display homes.

The NY Times initiative is commendable because it tackles planning and economic issues, it looks beyond the edges of the site and addresses the whole of Lower Manhattan, and because it is obviously a work in progress, presenting independent and conflicting ideas within a fragile master plan. Apparently there were many rowdy meetings and fax wars between the participants to come to a truce about how the master planning should work. This is preferable to the application of hundred year old city-planning rules to the site.

There seems to be one glaring omission from the NY Times process though and this might have something to do with the project being a reaction against the planning-led LMDC proposals. Where are the planners and urban designers and landscape architects in the NYT line up - they're all architects!? It's apparent in many of the methods of presentation employed by these architects that some aren't thinking much beyond their assigned buildings. They come across as objects in space rather than objects and spaces within a city.

about the WTC - read about the World Trade Centre and its architect, with links to interesting sites.


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