In Defense of Delirium
M. J. Dockery
Private vs. Public Sector in Lower Manhattan
"Manhattansim is the only program where efficiency intersects with the sublime."
Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York
I suspect I am among the minority of design professionals (and concerned citizens) who breathed a protracted sigh of relief when I learned that Larry Silverstein, the lease-holder for the WTC site, remains a major player in the rebuilding process. Mr. Silverstein has been at turns marginalized and vilified by the general press and the design illuminati. As a result, the nature of his role in the rebuilding process has been ambiguous.
As a developer, Mr. Silverstein represents for many the least significant voice in this process – the voice of speculative capital. As such, this thinking goes, he brings only the contamination of self interest and tastelessness to what should be a thoughtful and sensitive process of High Design. Most observers hope that Mr. Silverstein will be released from his contract with the Port Authority, so that the Public Sector can alone determine what form Architecture in lower Manhattan should take.
I fear that this sentiment, which has done much to inform the process thus far, fails to acknowledge the deeper issues at stake in this historic endeavor. As a speculator in search of posterity and profit, Mr. Silverstein embodies the archetypal spirit that built this city. His intentions for the site, as sanctioned by his contract with the Port Authority, represent the will of the marketplace. In this highly symbolic context, his position should be considered of paramount significance. Silverstein personifies the notion that a City might be constructed on the assumption that free enterprise and private property are the hand-maidens of individual liberty, and that dreams of individual achievement serve as engines for whole economies. To sideline him is to forgo these principles. To let the Public Sector play developer in Lower Manhattan is to capitulate to the forces of anti-capitalism that perpetually seek to humble this City and all that it represents.
A nagging sense of unease has thus far shadowed the rebuilding process. The travails of the LMDC and the spectacle of the much-ballyhooed design competition have diverted attention from the curious method by which the process was conceived. The essential question refuses to subside: Why is the Public Sector, by way of the Port Authority and the LMDC, in the real estate business? Why, in the world’s first global metropolis, should the State suddenly become the pre-eminent patron of Architecture? Surely the magnitude of the loss and trauma of the event should give us pause. But ought we to alter the fundamental way in which we build? And if so, do we not condone the logic of the perpetrators?
A brief look at Manhattan’s beloved skyline suggests what roles the Public and Private Sectors have played in its’ history. The City was built on the preposterous dreams of speculative risk-takers, each intent to best their competitors and, leave a mark for posterity in the process. It is an outrageous physical testament to the promethean aspirations of irrational optimists, a three-dimensional narrative that bears witness to the efforts of people whose visions were not to be compromised by economic adversity, physical hardship or the Old-World burdens of cultural and religious identity.
Prior to the 20th Century, The Public Sector played a supporting role in the physical development of Manhattan. The adoption of the street Grid from the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan is the perhaps the definitive example. The genius of that plan, as celebrated by Rem Koolhass in Delirious New York, is first the radical equality it imposed at the street level (all blocks are the same size), and second, the complete absence of rules regarding what may rise within any single block. A vast, neutral game-board was super-imposed on the island, providing a simple framework that failed to specify what should occur in the spaces between the streets. According to the text that accompanied the plan, those decisions could only be made by “…the pernicious spirit of speculation…” The result is a city of unprecedented height, density and variety – or delirium - that is held in check at the street level by the Grid. According to Koolhaas, the Grid, “…defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos."
When the Public Sector builds, this splendid delirium yields to rigidity. The first World Trade Center provided a clear illustration of this principle. Washington, Paris, London are all likewise products of Public Sector building initiatives. As much as we may admire the beauty and repose of those places, we must acknowledge that they are different from Manhattan in a fundamental way: they are not Capitalist cities. None qualify as a ‘metropolis’ in the contemporary sense of that word. As Koolhass understood, Manhattan is radically different from these traditional urban models. Manhattan is a ‘counter Paris, an anti-London’. (I find it infinitely curious that Mr. Koolhass, among this city’s most prescient admirers – is entirely silent on the rebuilding process. Perhaps he has been away in Old Europe for too long? If so, please come back, Mr. Koolhaas, we need you to get involved.)
The balance between the Grid and the Block was disturbed the first time the Port Authority got into the Real Estate business. It was entirely undone by Robert Moses in those parts of the city that were unable to resist his bulldozers. It is disturbed with each violation of the street grid by any singular protagonist. Do we wish to repeat these follies, only this time with structures that may resist all appropriation by the Private Sector?
Both schemes currently under consideration convey the anti-capitalist ethos of the rebuilding process. Daniel Leibeskind has proposed a poetic formal juxtaposition – cavernous void with crystalline needle – that attempts to address the problems of monument and memory. In another setting, these forms would perhaps be appropriate (Berlin?, Baghdad?). In Manhattan they become fossils of loss, frozen shards of tragedy, emptied of all possibility for renewal and rebirth.
The lattice-work towers of the THINK team serve as monuments to the spectacular quality of the attacks themselves. The light-frame structures recall the original buildings, yet present them emptied of all life, and devoted to ‘cultural’ rather than ‘commercial’ uses. The implication is clear: Capitalism is no longer welcome in Lower Manhattan. In this sense the violent transformation of the World Trade Center into the World Cultural Center may be considered the long term achievement of the 9/11 terrorists. By removing ‘Trade’ and the programs with which it is associated, these elegant towers are complicit in the destruction of the original complex. They verify its demise, celebrating it’s’ absence in the skyline for posterity. They become exclamation points at the end of Al Queda’s savage statement.
It is of course easy to make these observations without a personal connection to the horrors of 9/11. If someone I loved had perished, I too would perhaps be looking to the Public Sector to control the site. I would hope, however, that I would in time grasp the fact that the best memorial to that person would be a resurgent and vibrant metropolis, teeming once again with hungry dreamers from all nations, striving for excellence and self-betterment while seeking refuge from the myriad forms of repression that all traditional cultures necessarily engender. I would want the festival of opportunity, the relentless sublime of an ever-changing metropolis, to continue unabated. To allow the events of September 11 to change the nature of the city’s identity would be to capitulate to the forces that brought them about. The best course of action is to revisit the logic of the 1811 Plan; Let the Public Sector establish the street grid, and let the Private Sector determine what gets built in between. Any other solution would be a concession to our enemies and counter to the fundamental spirit of the City.
M. J. Dockery New York Institute of Technology, School of Architecture &
New York Institute of Technology, School of Architecture &