Talking points

David Childs

By David Stanke

With a prepared statement of a simple paragraph, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. announced that a collaboration between two architects would be responsible for producing a “world-class icon” and a “powerful symbol of our nation’s resilience.” A power struggle with overtones of politics, money, and ego is settled. With all of the interests involved, the final decision about who takes the lead on the first building to return to the World Trade Center was a simple struggle between form and function. And the right decision was made: Function must take priority over form.

For all the platitudes of nearly two years espousing the symbolism and statements that must be made at the W.T.C., the first real issue is that it functions. Any other conclusion would imply that these 16 acres should be a $10 billion art project. Architecture differs from art in that it succeeds only when it supports the human activities for which it is created. We look at buildings, but if it were people just looking, the buildings would not be there. Art can be viewed and interpreted; architecture must first support the patterns of our lives. Daniel Libeskind is an artist, whose projects set the tone for museums, which have simple use patterns. David Childs designs functioning skyscrapers that must support a wide range of activity. Who would you have take the lead on this project? If you answered Daniel Libeskind, please answer again if it were your $2 billion or so for the Freedom Tower.

Anyone concerned that this decision reflects misinformed priorities should consider the nature and intent of the 9/11 attack (speaking only of the W.T.C. piece). It was not an attack on Western art. It was not an attack on American ideals. It was an attack on the engine that makes everything else in American run: business. The buildings themselves were there based on the success of American business. The massive quantities of art that were destroyed were purchased and supported by business. The vast majority of people who died were business people. A decision to let symbolism and concept dominate function and economics might feel good now, but in the long run, we would realize that we had built on a weak foundation.

Libeskind must now perform the essential task of all artists. Artists work within the physical boundaries of their medium to create works that speak to the human imagination. Buildings, like paint, metal, and wood, are ruled by specific physical laws and limitations. Artists may push the boundaries of those rules, but they cannot break them. It is the challenge and privilege of being Daniel Libeskind to work within structural and business limits to create a design that speaks to his vision (and please let that vision evolve) and establishes a loved piece of the New York cityscape.

As for how the deal was done, there are unfortunately too many signs on the surface of horse-trading that took place behind the scenes. If the idealism spouted in the aftermath of 9/11 had any meaning, rational men of good intent would come together freely seeking the best solutions. But when Libeskind hires lawyer friends of Gov. George Pataki for representation, it is all too clear that decisions are made not on quality of work but on relationships to the decision maker.

Has the public trust been betrayed by allowing changes to the L.M.D.C. design contest winner? There are a number of facts that bear repeating. The Libeskind design was not the public favorite. It was one of three more or less equally favored in the polls. And the Libeskind design was perhaps the most unique, invoking a reaction of either love or hate. In a one-on-one vote of Libeskind against the other favorites, those who disliked Libeskind would have rallied around the competition. Never mind that the rebuilding of the original W.T.C., perhaps the most popular option, was not even offered for public review. But as the political tide in favor of Libeskind became apparent, anyone who wanted to be part of the planning picture fell in line. Libeskind won the political battle, not the popular battle. No one is betrayed by changing this plan.

We should all be grateful that Daniel Libeskind has agreed to work in collaboration rather than in control. A few months of being a cultural superstar could make one inflexible. But in the end, artists are not about control. The results of this design process will almost certainly benefit from collaboration. Simply being a part of this design process is a lifetime opportunity and learning to espouse one’s ideas without control is one of the life’s greatest lessons. The priorities are set. With the political and ego jockeying out of the way for this building, let’s hope that all of the participants focus on the real task: excellence in architecture.

David Stanke owns a condominium across the street from the W.T.C. site and is one of the founders of BPC United, a Lower Manhattan residents group.


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