Michael Bierut | Essays

The Comfort of Style

Anonymous proposal for rebuilding of the World Trade Center, circa September 17, 2001

You probably got one emailed to you back in the fall of 2001. I bet I got at least ten. It was a brutally unsubtle joke, but in those early aching days when I first saw it it gave me a little satisfaction: the World Trade Center rebuilt as a blunt, defiant gesture. Philip Nobel saw it too. "Within days of the attack, a crude Photoshop doctoring of the Twin Towers — cut, multiplied, and pasted back on the pre-eleventh skyline — was making the rounds on the nation's jangling e-mail nerves," he writes in the first pages of his new book Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero. "This was the first scheme many people saw — FUCK YOU! — the first essay at making meaning through construction at Ground Zero."

In describing the labyrinthine battles to determine what would be built on the World Trade Center site, Nobel tells the story of an amazing moment in New York history. Never have more people cared more passionately about design — its communicative power, its transformative potential — and never have designers seemed more marginal to the process.

In just a few years, the issues around the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site have generated a surprisingly broad range of books. These include Michael Sorkin's bracingly contentious Starting from Zero; the considerably more measured Up From Zero by Paul Goldberger; Daniel Libeskind's predictably personal but surprisingly moving Breaking Ground; and Suzanne Stephens's indispensible overview Imagining Ground Zero: Official and Unofficial Proposals for the World Trade Center Site. Nobel's book differs from all of these in one crucial respect. Like the others, it is a book about design. Unlike the others, it contains not a single picture.

One senses this is no accident. For years, designers have complained that our work is too often reduced to eye candy, rewarded for its suitability in the forum of the coffee table book, rather than in the rough-and-tumble of the real world. Here at last is an account of the design process in context, surrounded by the all-too-real world of envy, anger, pride, greed and nearly every other deadly and not-so-deadly sin. The result of all that context? In Nobel's telling, design is rendered nearly irrelevant.

This irrelevancy was somewhat oxymoronic. As Nobel said recently in an interview with Metropolis, "The demands on the site, the perception that it had to provide symbolic answers, were firmly ensconced in the public's imagination...Everyone was talking from day one about architectural form. So the idea that you would take a step back and plan, discuss the context, and do simple space planning and then move onto architectural form — no one was ready for that." The public was looking for architecture as catharsis, as bold symbolic gesture, an image that could provide the jolt of that original crude Photoshop paste-up job.

But there were other factors at work, and as always in New York, power and profits were first among them. It was the interplay of those factors that drove the process in the end and will determine what gets built downtown. This tension obtains not just here but everywhere. And in the face of these challenges, one wonders what designers can truly rise to the challenge. In my favorite passage from Sixteen Acres Nobel describes the dilemma of design in the real world:

Every architecture project starts with an infinity of possibilities. And that has its own terror. On one side, there's the physical world in all its unruly grace — space, climate, the land — and the thorny trappings of human society — money, politics, use. Then there's history, weighing on this unformed thing, and taste, and clients, and time. Some of these factors can be listed neatly as fixed specifics in a program brief, but that does not strip them of their caprice. As an architect first faces a design, the competing forces arrange themselves into fleeting orders that collapse and collapse again as they are tested by an equally volatile set of priorities and goals. To commit this roiling mess to form is necessarily daunting...

This is true of all building, everywhere. But there is usually a repreive: when an architect commits to an exclusive ideological or formal strategy — be it Beaux Arts or blob — one path through the thicket is marked. That is a great relief, the comfort of style, and seeking it is one reason why, looking at the methods promoted by leading architects, we see so many fixed forms, universal ideas, and gimcrack gimmicks applied to widely differing architectural dilemmas.

The comfort of style, indeed. In the end, our cities are less the product of these protean visions, and more the wildly compromised outcome of interplay of factors beyond any one person's control. New York City in general, then, and the World Trade Center site in particular, may be the ultimate demonstration of this. In a forum a few weeks ago at the Architectural League, Nobel had a good phrase for the result: "a circus that imprints itself on the skyline." Until designers develop the mastery that will earn them a place in the center ring, they will have to take their comforts where they can find them.

Posted in: Architecture, Media, Social Good, Theory + Criticism

Comments [5]

The Frontline documentary 'Sacred Ground' managed to expose the dirty power struggles involved in the project as well as one could have hoped. That it demonised David Childs and Larry Silverstein is probably more to do with their actions than a bias towards Libeskind's perspective. Great television.


my own hat has to go off--very reluctantly--to the real clients, the made men at the Port Authority and their don, George Pataki. From the get-go, they pushed for a program that would replace ALL their lost revenue stream, and they got it.

Nobel identifies this as a powerful motivating force behind the design process, but it was hardly ever acknowledged at the time, and it was certainly never questioned.

In the latest New York Review of Books Martin Filler provides an assessment of Sixteen Acres and the other books referred to in this piece. Worth a read.

Michael Bierut

Thank God for the space planners. Good space planning makes for good buildings, and that is all there is to it. Stewart Brand points this out in his book, How Buildings Learn.

I just finished reading Great Fortune, a book about the construction of Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller Center was all about space planning and paying the outrageous land rent. Raymond Hood was a great architect in that he could deal with the physical use of the building and he could make it look pretty. He could listen to space planners and do something great.

As for the World Trade Center site, it's real estate. The World Trade Center towers may have been destroyed, but the land has not been mysteriously removed from the face of the earth leaving some kind of dimensional void. The space still needs planning, and it still has to make money.

Of course there are going to be dirty power struggles. People have billions of dollars at risk, and it is the flow of those and other billions that will make or break the new site. Remember, in our society, money is how we account for our social obligations to strangers, and New York City is full of strangers. Destroying a chunk lower Manhattan to satisfy some aesthetic or spiritual whim would do more harm to New York City than the destruction of the towers.

I, for one, am pleased to see the true indigenous New York City rebuilding process in action, as ugly as it may be to watch.

All this brings to mind a story recounted by our favorite loud mouth Donald Trump. The opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964.

"The rain was coming down for hours while all these jerks were being introduced and praised. But all I'm thinking about is that all these politicians who opposed the bridge are being applauded. Yet in a corner, just standing there in the rain, is this man, this 85-year-old engineer who came from Sweden and designed this bridge, who poured his heart into it, and nobody even mentioned his name.

I realized then and there that if you let people treat you how they want, you'll be made a fool. I realized then and there something I would never forget: I don't want to be made anyone's sucker."
Adriano P

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