Public = Avant Garde ??

The ProposalsI read a little piece in the Times today concerning the two finalists chosen by the LMDC for the World Trade Center, and I have a few reactions.

Let us read some of what Mr. Muschamp writes:

“[Daniel Libeskind’s design] is an emotionally manipulative exercise in visual codes.

Alright. Does any ordinary user of the World Trade Center — worker, tourist, subway rider, etc. — have any idea just what Mr. Muschamp is talking about? Why has architecture become this jargony realm of intellectual nonsense?

I don’t know. The death and destruction of WWI caused a huge shift in Western values, specifically because science and technology was employed so successfully in the killing of a generation of men. In the decades after the war, the long-held idealized notion that technology would usher in peace and prosperity was dashed, and many of the prevailing assumptions in the arts were also vacated. It was in this void that the Modernists arrived– along with their avant garde aesthetics and their intent to social engineer.

So what has Modernism accomplished? Well, not much good. We’ve still got the rich and poor, yet we have ugly civic space. For instance, the original WTC was a wind-swept, anarchistic structure, cut off, and horribly out of scale from the surrounding streets and neighborhood. When you stood in the Plaza looking up at the structures, it was difficult to feel anything but dread. In fact, that seems to be a prevailing requirement of the Modernists– your building must impart DREAD. Unless, of course, you are one of the initiated. You have to be educated for seven years at MIT to understand the beauty of the Brutalist form.

Anyway, back to Mr. Muschamp:

And… the longer I study Mr. Libeskind’s design, the more it comes to resemble the blandest of all the projects unveiled in the recent design study: the retro vision put forth by the New Urbanist designers Peterson Littenberg. Both projects trade on sentimental appeal at the expense of historical awareness. Both offer visions of innocence ? nostalgia, actually.

Peterson Littenberg is nostalgic for Art Deco Manhattan circa 1928, before the stock market crash caused the United States to abandon the prevailing ideology of social Darwinism. Mr. Libeskind’s plan is nostalgic for the world of pre-Enlightenment Europe, before religion was exiled from the public realm.

This is always the argument of these elite intellectuals against classicism — that somehow, ornament, scale, proportionality and humanity are to be despised as Imperial. Now, obviously both plans are far from Classicism, but, in the interest of democracy, why cry historicism when the alternative is intellectualized ugliness?

The general public, I believe, longs for dignity in public architecture. I prefer the Think project, but the lattice work looks like Tinkertoy, and I find it tacky that they have pods within the latticework. How intimidating would it be to get in an elevator, and shoot up 100 floors to a “cultural space”, knowing full well that there is nothing but air and Tinkertoy beneath you? Frightening. The Eiffel Tower it is not.

No doubt whatever gets built at the WTC site will be very modern, and cutting-edge. It is my hope that it exemplifies the dignity and purpose human beings deserve and crave. Let the people choose, not the intellectuals.

3 Responses to “Public = Avant Garde ??”


  • i just wanted to comment that i like the site layout.

    i’ve got a blog, but i haven’t written anything yet.

  • well thanks… i’m looking forward to reading your site.

  • Hey, check out this post from gawker:
    Archlog has a copy of the anti-Herbert Muschamp letter that came from Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin office last week after Muschamp wrote a column favoring the THINK design. An excerpt: “Yesterday’s article by Muschamp is over the top. He is just not reliable anymore. Please get rid of this guy.”
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