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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Perception and Memory Architecture

The perception of built space is an integral consideration for the designers of inhabitable environments across a range of scales. In his book Points and Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City, architecture theorist and Princeton design school chair Stan Allen describes buildings and cities as a composition of individual elements that combine to make singular wholes. From the tiles that line a subway platform, to the windows in an exterior facade and street wall, to the infilled blocks that define neighborhoods, cities embody and consume fantastic amounts of energy to support the shared pursuits of many.

While informed architecture considers individual buildings as part of highly interdependent systems, design intelligence recognizes that architecture, infrastructure, transportation, and natural landscape are not to be siphoned into distinct spheres of action but are intrinsically tied to and informative of one another. Today the successful realization of building projects and urban planning strategies is dependent not on a single master-handed designer but rather a consortium of concerned interests. The architect’s job among all these players is to understand the goals of each and distill them into a product and artifact that not only satisfies programmatic functions but also imparts users with symbolic meanings and somatic responses.

In his discussion of perception’s importance to an individual’s experiences within built and natural environments, Allen establishes a binary distinction between smooth spaces and striated spaces. The former is defined by a standard that is explicitly organized and overwhelmingly apparent in its expression, while the latter stands in contrast, defined by complexity and ambiguities in every direction. The dualism between smooth and striated spaces is manifest physically in two prime examples, the ocean (smooth, infinite horizon) and the major cities of the world (striated, hectic) which have a seemingly infinite scope of vertical striations and unique permutations within them.

Smooth seas or deserts are composed of a dominant line where water or mountain meets the sky, while striated cities are a great multitude of temporarily fixed and ever shifting points, the perception of which induces the sensation of parallax within the individual. The effect of this phenomenal accumulation of objects shifting constantly around us gives big cities their own frenetic energy, whereas the overwhelmingly simple dichotomy of water and sky in nature has the opposite effect, inducing feelings of serenity by reducing surroundings to two pure planes whose sheer scale assures their immutability to human intervention.

Due to the alleged immutability of nature, civilizations have continuously relied upon buildings and sculptures as memory objects. In his book The Art of Forgetting, Adrian Forty describes the power of physical objects to preserve shared memories, citing the 20th century as an era of cataclysmic social upheavals, whether by world wars, genocides, or natural disasters. Architecture’s seeming permanence and role as historic symbol gives buildings a prominent role in shaping the memories of such events for future generations. In recent history, memory architecture has resulted in a great variety of museums and monuments being erected around the world, the commissions for which have become prized goals for architects and artisans alike.

A major challenge for those who seek to memorialize a more recent tragedy is how to properly enshrine events that have only begun to be considered within the wide arc of history. Memorial architecture is especially pertinent in 2011, as one of the most painful memory projects in history is opening later this year. The National September 11th Memorial, designed by architect Michael Arad is set to be completed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of that epoch-defining day and memorialize the people who died in the World Trade Center in 2001 and 1993.

The design and construction schedule for this hallowed urban space, the hole in the city’s heart, has been a huge source of media coverage and consideration over the past decade. As designed by Mr. Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial will consist of a leafy public plaza at street level, surrounding two sunken pools that occupy the tower’s footprints. Waterfalls will cascade over the edges and thirty feet down on each of the four sides of the pools, settling into a smooth and contemplative surface before falling again into another central absence, forming a closed loop system. Taking a cue from Maya Lin’s seminal Vietnam Memorial in Washington, the names of the victims will be etched into the four walls that define the edges of these two sunken pools.

Although commercial and institutional functions are to follow in the form of a museum and new tallest skyscraper for New York and the country, the memorial pools and plaza have been designed and timed as a solemn dedication to the men and women who died there on September 11th 2001. With only nine months to go until the nation recognizes the 10th anniversary of its darkest day, it will be truly remarkable to witness the completion of the memorial and the continuing stages of rebirth at the World Trade Center site over the coming years.

-MJC


Update:
As the 9/11/11 date approaches, the memorial is nearing completion with the etching of thousands of names. For more on the finishing touches of Michael Arad’s design for this sanctified urban space, follow the jump.