De-Architecture

We just marked the tenth anniversary of September 11th here in New York and around the country. I remember watching the day’s events play out on TV as a high school freshman, astonished as the situation morphed from bad to worse and forever affected by the grim moment when the first of those two behemoth towers came crumbling to the ground. As that surreal day progressed into an eerily plane-free afternoon and evening, I remember thinking how removed and fictively catastrophic the whole day seemed in the immediate aftermath and beyond. After a tumultuous decade reflecting and reacting to that era-defining day, last week 9/11/11 arrived to the nervous anticipation of a nation whose institutions and attitudes have been forever changed by the attacks of that clear Tuesday morning.

Fast forward to today and me writing this entry as a recently entitled Master of Architecture and New York City transplant. Witnessing the epic failure of two iconic skyscrapers at a young age certainly factored into my considerations of what I wanted to be when I grew up, a designer of buildings. Every time I see the 1WTC tower rising in the distance as I go about my day, I’m reminded of the integral role that skyscrapers have always played in the life and identity of any major city.

Written in 1975 when the twin towers stood brand new and wildly out of scale in Lower Manhattan, sculptor and architect James Wines‘ essay “De-Architecturization: The Iconography of Disaster” is a critique of urban renewal projects successfully propagated by architects and planners of the era in which the World Trade Center was created. Building upon an argument brilliantly voiced by Jane Jacobs a decade before, Wines’ essay criticizes the “diversionary utopianism” utilized by politicians and planners alike to sell the public on a wide range of urban renewal projects throughout the 1960s and 70s, based ultimately upon Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse concept from the early modernist era.

Citing the proliferation of disaster films like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake as an expression of people’s wariness about living in cartesian skyscrapers, Wines believes these movies served as both entertainment and psychological compensation for a public that was resistant to the changes wrought by historic neighborhood clearance and subsequent high rise development. Claiming that the subversion of form to function makes architecture the “inadvertent chronicler of a dehumanizing autocracy”, Wines strikes a populist tone in his critique of cold and monotonous skyscrapers going up in place of low-rise, human scaled settlements. There is a clear connection between Wines’ ideas about urban renewal and early reactions to the twin towers of the World Trade Center, briefly the nation’s tallest buildings.

Wines felt that the purgative power of calamity and ruin was the only force capable of eliciting a broad and predominant reaction among a mostly preoccupied urban population. Considering the destruction and communal despair wrought on 9/11/01, Wines’ ideas about “monolithic institutions crumbling under their own weight” and missing parts acting as the “humanizing questions to replace intransigent answers” are an eerie portent for the absence of the twin towers as a part of the NYC skyline in the years since their abrupt, calamitous removal.

Though not a residential project, the World Trade Center stood as a reminder of what happens when a revitalization project is pushed to a dizzying scale by designers and developers. Featuring a prefabricated system of perimeter columns rising 110 stories up and enclosing over 10 million square feet of open floor space, the twin towers stood for nearly three decades as triumphant evidence of function coldly dictating form. De-Architecture subverts this routine design dogma, defining a condition in which some element or quality of architecture is deliberately removed in order to challenge ideas about the two.

Wines’ concept of de-architecture found its greatest expression in a series of stores he designed for the now-defunct Best Products company between 1971 and 1984. Operating through a design organization he called SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), Wines took a pervasive but oft-overlooked building type, the retail box, and infused it with a series of simple and subversive gestures that upended traditional concepts of retail architecture and served as an early signal of Post Modernism’s obsession with surface manipulation.

The first of these nine projects was the Peeling Facade showroom in Richmond Virginia, featuring a veneer whose shape evokes a giant brick sticker, an ambiguous gesture that literally stopped passing motorists in their tracks. The Indeterminate Facade of Houston Texas came next, followed by my favorite, the Notch Showroom of Sacramento, with an irregularly cut corner on automated tracks forming the entryway and sole relief to an otherwise monolithic black box. Said Wines in a recent interview with Wallpaper magazine: “We were trying to take the basic dumb materials like brick and block and invert their associations. For me, the highest compliment we received was when customers said that they had never thought about architecture before visiting a Best showroom.”

The eventual failure and liquidation of the Best Products company in 1997 also spelled the demise of most of these fantastic retail projects, though one building, the Forest Showroom, still stands today in Richmond as a Presbyterian church. Fortunately these projects and Wines’ concepts have enjoyed a worthy afterlife in textbooks, exhibitions, and design magazines the world over. The eventual razed fate of these buildings seems appropriate to Wines’ subversive approach to architecture and its inherent links to destruction, as laid out in his manifesto. The physical evidence may be long gone, but the ideas will always remain.

-MJC

Update: NBC News visits 1 WTC in April 2012 as the building is set to reclaim the title of New York’s tallest:

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