900 pages on WTC rebuild

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Newly opened Liberty Park at WTC. (AP photo/Mary Altaffer)

I am remiss in not having been aware, until yesterday, of Columbia University emerita professor Lynne Sagalyn’s 900-page book on the politics and economics of rebuilding the World Trade Center after 9/11. It is called  Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan , and yes, it is 900 (901 to be exact) pages long, small type, wide format. Her website links to an interesting review of it in the Washington Free Beacon, “Life Goes On, Even at Ground Zero,” by Bruce Fleming. His review might easily have also been a review of Judith Dupré’s fascinating book One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building, which I reviewed at length a couple of days ago. The sensibility of Fleming’s review, if I have interpreted it correctly, is that people who visit the site take its mammoth pretensions in stride. He does not directly criticize its design, certainly not as sharply as I do, but I think his piece captures the public’s attitude toward the WTC rebuild to perfection. Here is an excerpt, in which he seems to express a mild exasperation at the skeletal PATH hub station:

If I write a book, you don’t have to read it. But if, like Santiago Calatrava, you got the contract to design the place where my PATH train from Newark, N.J., pulls in, I have no choice but to be in your building.

As I learned on a recent trip, the sensation of arriving via the PATH from Harrison, N.J., and ascending into the “Oculus” is like finding yourself, like Jonah or Pinocchio, in the belly of a whale. You’re in Calatrava’s “transit center” that I read is supposed to look from the outside like (oy vey, as New Yorkers say) hands releasing a dove. Only it doesn’t look like hands releasing a dove; it looks like what’s left of the Thanksgiving turkey carcass after a particularly hearty repast. But be warned: it’s not just a train station. You’re not meant just to use it; you’re supposed to “get” it. The good news is that no points are taken off if you just shrug and move on to see what else there is to see. …

At Ground Zero, there are no realistic sculptures. Just Michael Arad’s holes in the ground, vast black square drain holes for water that falls rather than shooting up, located where the twin towers were located. If you didn’t know why they look the way they do, and why they are so big, and why they are here, you wouldn’t know. It’s conceptual. And the so-called “Freedom Tower” is similarly symbolic, purposely made to be 1776 feet high, though in fact a rather forlorn single skyscraper looking a little out of place.

As an ensemble, it makes no sense, and we have to have it explained to us—as Sagalyn does. In this it’s like much contemporary art, which is about the concept, not the object. Knowing about the political wrangles for power that produced this jumble of competing ideas makes it cohere, sort of. Oh, so that’s why it’s this way! …

Anyway, Fleming offers an interesting take on the WTC rebuild, maybe not as sharply as my own but perhaps deeper in the way he takes it in stride. I certainly hope to read Lynne Sagalyn’s book, at least those parts of it that bear more on design – and especially stylistic bias, if any, in the WTC design process – than on the economics of real estate. Fascinating topic, to be sure, but frankly, at 900 pages, we all are forced to set our priorities and budget our time. Still …

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Helsinki art stinker junked!

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Winning entry for proposed Guggenheim Helsinki. (Moreau Kusunoki  Architectes)

The proposed Guggenheim Helsinki just went belly up, glug, glug, glug, after a five-hour meeting of the Finnish capital’s city council, which put the kibosh on a project one opponent called “a McDonald’s of art.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported the decision today in “Guggenheim Helsinki museum plans rejected by city council.” I devoted five (5) posts to this in 2014 and 2015, bemoaning the absence of any of the 1,715 entries in a design competition (and I looked at virtually all of them) that paid any attention at all to its setting on Helsinki’s waterfront.

The museum, conceived as a series of charred timber pavilions, would have cost $138 million, with the biggest chunks coming from the city and private donations after Finland’s government torpedoed plans for a state contribution. Many Finns were miffed that the not-exactly-penniless Guggenheim Foundation would be charging them over $1 million a year to use “Guggenheim” in the museum’s name.

Many of Finland’s arts community imagined benefiting from another “Bilbao effect,” anticipating an economic boom from architects visiting the latest piece of iconic modernism. They seem not to have got the memo that no “Bilbao effect” has been sighted anywhere around the world since Frank Gehry’s über-goofy Guggenheim Bilbao opened up in Spain.

It is regrettable that few of the proposal’s many opponents seemed to object to the design, by the Paris-based firm of Moreau Kusunoki, on aesthetic grounds. The “McDonald’s of art”  jibe referred to its being basically a franchise of the famous foundation, based in New York City.

But hey, any port in a storm. It’s good to see a major assault on the beauty of a great city rejected for any reason, and by its own city council to boot!

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Helsinki, Finland (aegeanair.com)

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“Three towers of evil”?

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Hope Point Towers proposal, left, and distance between site and downtown. (Fane)

A critic of the three towers proposed for the Jewelry District in Providence, city council president Luis Aponte, calls them the “three towers of evil.” Well, that’s a little much. “Foe dubs proposed Providence high-rises ‘towers of evil,’” by Associated Press writer Matt O’Brien, ran in the Miami Herald, where, I assume, locals are gathering to wait out the local winter. It sums up the critique that the towers are “out of character,” all three being multiples of the existing height limit. He quotes Aponte walking “evil” back a bit:

“It’s completely out of scale and out of sync with the district,” Aponte said. “I hope this is a first draft, a first attempt to show what’s possible and that cooler heads and clearer thinking prevail.”

Yeah. Let’s hope so. What bothers me, however, is developer Jason Fane’s sneering opinion of the city’s historic architecture:

“If you look at Providence now, your first reaction looking at the skyline is of this place that doesn’t look like it’s on the forefront,” Fane said. He described the 380-year-old city as having “cutesy” historic districts but in need of a modern icon. “Providence is a great city. I’ve been delighted by it. But if you’re honest about it, a lot of Providence doesn’t look up to date,” Fane said.

What a jackass! Providence is a great city precisely because of the old buildings he calls “cutesy.” Providence is the only city in America whose entire downtown commercial and financial districts are on the National Register of Historic Places. If Rhode Island’s capital had had as many old buildings torn down as most American cities, then Fane’s buildings would fit right in. Fane seems to want Providence to embrace the sterile gigantism that has made so many cities such unpleasant places. His opinion is the conventional wisdom, and it is why so many people are turned off by the trammeling of our built environment. Providence already has too many “modern icons,” such as Old Stone Square and the GTECH building. Most people find them off-putting. If more of that is what Fane thinks would be good for Providence, let him find some other place to wreck.

Here is Fane’s parting shot:

“Basically the government in Providence will have to decide if they want something big like this and if their vision is the same as my vision that it’s important to do something that’s iconic and symbolic and that people will notice,” Fane said. “Or not.”

Sorry, Charlie. People already notice Providence. It is not the hick backwater you seem to think it is.

In fact, today’s Journal oped page has a more interesting piece by Friedrich St. Florian, the designer of Providence Place mall and the National World War II Memorial, in Washington, and Dietrich Neumann, a professor of architectural history at Brown. The arguments they put forward in “Let’s dare to change Providence’s skyline” are more nuanced and respectful of the city’s highly intact historical fabric.

They are correct that the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building’s Art Deco design was a break from Providence’s classical tradition of commercial architecture when it opened in 1928. But it was built right smack in the middle of downtown. And they correctly note that Boston placed some early towers, such as the Pru and the Hancock, in Back Bay. But their placement in an already robust area outside of downtown Boston was very different from today’s situation in Providence. Whatever the city’s planners may say, the I-195 corridor in the Jewelry District is not part of downtown, and most luxury residents of the three new towers would not walk to shop or dine on Westminster Street. They would drive. In essence, Fane would set up an urban center that competes with downtown rather than helping downtown generate a greater vivacity through higher density.

Plus, if these towers are built at the proposed location, have you tracked what the sun would be doing? It would be circling the horizon in a way that would cast the planned 195 park in shadow for most of the afternoon. It is easy to imagine sunbathers having to move their blankets every few minutes to stay out of the prongs of the fork of the Hope Point shadow.

But I have a bone to pick with Friedrich and Dietrich. They close with the notion that “it’s time to be courageous.” Is it more courageous to truckle to the conventional wisdom, which is exactly what Fane’s Hope Point Towers do? Or to challenge the architectural establishment’s slavish embrace of a bad idea that has been enriching architects at the expense of their clients and the public for a century? I refer to the idea that because we live in a machine age, we need a machine architecture. Precisely the reverse is true. Evil does not characterize this proposal, but neither does courage.

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Review: 1 WTC’s biography

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1 WTC at left. (Nicola Lyn Evans/WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff)

The new World Trade Center reflects what was worst about the old WTC towers and their brethren demolished by terrorists on 9/11. The Twin Towers were sterile, inhumane structures that epitomized the crushing brutality of urbanism at its worst in the 20th century. One World Trade Center, the main character in Judith Dupré’s fascinating One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building, is identical, a big mistake resurrected for the 21st century. It is sterile and inhumane. It is stunning but it is not beautiful. It is not timeless. No, it is stuck in a time warp. It is not heartless and it is not soulless, but its heart and soul exist in spite of its form. They exist only in the spirit of the thousands of humans who died on 9/11. Okay, not only. The thousands of men and women who built it are also part of its heart and soul.

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Judith Dupre (Joe Woolhead)

Okay, I’ve got that off my chest. I do not like the building. New York should have rebuilt in the spirit of the heroic period of its skyline. If the rebuild had hit the reset button circa 1940, Lower Manhattan, New York City, the nation and the world would have been able to move into the future from there. The ongoing time- warp bubble of modern architecture would have been popped, and a gigantic step in a (still) possible return to the humane in how we build cities might have been achieved. Someday it will happen because modern architecture is unsustainable.

The book’s early chapters on the slow-motion rush to design a rebuild for Ground Zero are thin, but more than we are likely to get. The architectural establishment will hold its cards close to its vest. I have argued for over a decade that the architectural establishment conspired to make sure that no traditional WTC master plan would ever be built. I have had no pushback against that theory. Dupré herself believes that complex factors deterring a traditional rebuild ensured its impracticality. I believe it could have been accomplished by the same collection of outsized talents in development, engineering and construction that she describes had they been instructed to try. And that might have happened if the deck had not been unjustly and immorally stacked against such an eventuality for half a century.

In short, Dupré got amazing access behind the scenes to how One – as it is often called in her book – was built but not why. Just look at the earliest phases of the rebuild.

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Franck, Lohsen, McCrery plan. (City Journal)

The classical rebuild master plan by Franck, Lohsen, McCrery, published in the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly City Journal just a month or so after 9/11, embodied the aspiration to bend major civic projects back toward humanity and civility. In spite of itself, their plan probably served as a warning to the architectural establishment of danger ahead. So, to a degree, did the two Peterson/Littenberg master plans out of six original master plans by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation seeking how to fit 11 million square feet of lost commercial space onto the site’s 16 acres. The Peterson/Littenberg master plan was supposedly rejected by the “public.” That word served as a journalistic stand-in for the architect-wannabes who think architecture, to embrace its inner Zeitgeist, must make what the actual public would consider to be goofy design statements. And the wannabes dominated the early dog-and-pony shows. Alas, Ground Zero developer Larry Silverstein and the LMDC wimped out, joined in the hosing of the public and, because the architectural establishment was already biased against traditional architecture, we got the Libeskind proposal.

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Libeskind master plan. (Libeskind)

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Meier, etc., plan. (felixsalmon.com)

Fairly early in the design process, architect Daniel Libeskind’s master plan, featuring his 1,776-foot Freedom Tower with its stark version of the Statue of Liberty’s torch amid a scrum of jagged, fractured towers (all featuring his patented “pain” slashes), won the competition. But that came only after Governor Pataki vetoed the judges’ top choice of Think, a team led by Rafael Viñoly. “I may just be a hick from Peekskill,” said Pataki, “but those towers look like death to me.” The paired pastiche towers of latticework did not even pretend to satisfy Silverstein’s practical needs. All of the late-stage finalists were stinkers. They treated the rebuild contest not as a solemn honor but as a great career move to boost their “brands.” Imagine if, say, the giant Tic-Tac-Toe boards designed by the starchitects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl had been built. Or Sir Norman Foster’s twin juking, kissing towers. Maybe Libeskind was the best at summoning the oleaginous words required to impress the powers that be. Eventually, Silverstein (who had leased the WTC mere weeks before 9/11) put his foot down, took over the design process for the Port Authority and the LMDC, shoved Libeskind to the margins and gave the job to an adult, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Childs, alas, according to the “public,” turned the building into something that could actually be built, albeit a lesser work of imaginative architecture. Shame on him!

I imagine it is this thought process that Dupré might be channeling when she asserts that many people told her they thought they were “not supposed to like” the building that eventually was designed by Childs. Now, with the building a fact on the ground, it is the sort of thing, rather, that people are “supposed to like.” At least as far as the architectural establishment is concerned. Dupré’s book will surely help turn skeptics into believers.

And One helps, too. It is no schlump of a building. Shaped from inverted vertical triangles that rise and twist into horizontal square and octagonal floorplates, Childs’s design, aside from being more practical, drinks much more deeply from the wellsprings of genuine creativity.  Writes Dupré:

One World Trade Center is the color of the sky, assuming over the course of a day blue’s every shade and nuance. Through this kaleidoscopic display of refracted light and color, the tower insists on the present unrepeatable moment and, for that reason, is forever new. A gentle giant, it meets its Janus task – to stand tall while avoiding any appearance of hubris – by inviting into the surface everything around it: wafting clouds; the architectures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their ornament and angles caught in its planes; and the passersby who appear fleetingly in its story. Much like the city it loves, One’s truest identity is found in its capacity to absorb, change, and endure. It may appear minimal and unadorned, but it is not.

“For all its prismatic changeability,” she adds, “the structure itself is austere, formed of fundamental geometries – square, octagon, square – that belie its structural complexity.”

Dupré’s chapters describing those structural complexities, how they were designed, engineered and erected, are the heart and soul of her book. The chapters unfold almost as a tale of suspense. She includes enough detail about the difficulties of getting the many centers of authority involved to cooperate – from the eight stories below ground of One’s foundation up through its bomb-proof base, its curtain-wall shaft of 13,000 specially designed glass panels, and its controversial spire – that one cannot help but strive to read between the lines of ego battles and turf wars that must have blasted any hope of finishing the building on time and on budget.

The quotes elicited from the 70 players Dupré interviewed – she is the only journalist to get such extensive insider access – and the murky areas that snuggle unstated between the lines create a mounting frisson.

For example, she quotes Port Authority director Christopher Ward, who she describes as “fond of dropping both literary references and f-bombs,” who sought more cooperation in the Ground Zero rebuild. Here he is urging that they need to answer jurisdictional questions about:

how Silverstein’s infrastructure would work with the museum’s infrastructure, which would work with the retail part of each one of those components, which would deal with the Vehicle Security Center, which was the Port Authority’s – up till then there had not been a centralized decision-making group representing all of those stakeholders.

Ward’s concerns give an idea of the centrifugal forces that were somehow transformed into converging authorities. One of the most compelling forces was the demand for safety. Dupré channels comedian Chris Rock’s joke on Saturday Night Live that “they should change the name from Freedom Tower to the Never-Going-In-There Tower. Because I’m never going in there. … I don’t care if Scarlett Johansson is butt naked on the eighty-ninth floor in a plate of ribs.” After 9/11 it briefly became the conventional wisdom that as a building type, the skyscraper was history. The innovative safety features of One helped to turn that meme around, just as the superior sustainability of traditional architecture might someday end up hammering nails into the coffin of modern architecture. The concrete core that protected many of One’s safety features, plus the elevators, electrical and other systems, also held the building up more strongly. The concrete core was new to the city’s building traditions, and it was more secure than the steel skeletons that had been the main structure of tall buildings for decades. Dupré describes how the builders sought the advice of the first responders:

“You’re our client,” [former SOM partner Carl] Galioto told them. “We want to understand what you need to be effective.” Stunned, they replied, “No one has ever asked us that before.” They wanted the lobby, in the event of a fire, to be dedicated to firefighting operations, so all tenant staircases empty out into the surrounding streets, not into the lobby, freeing the room for firefighters. One elevator has a shaft and doors to ensure safety in a fire. In an emergency, the shaft is pressurized and an emergency door opens into a pressurized, dedicated vestibule that connects to a staircase reserved for firefighters.

Safety was only one of many competing interests. Another was that the height of the tower, 1,776 feet, earn it the title of tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere. Its 408-foot spire is almost a quarter of its total height – but would not count if it were declared to be merely an antenna, which is what it is. The Willis (Sears) Tower, tallying up at 1,451 feet, in Chicago, has held bragging rights as tallest hemispheric building for 40 years. Dupré deals with the spire in sections called “Spire,” “Off With its Head” and “Tallest in the Nation.” The alleged spire was to have been cloaked in a fiberglass “radome,” but it was guillotined in the value-engineering (cost cutting) process. “We would have designed the spire differently if we knew it was not going to be enclosed,” a manager of the firm that designed and fabricated it told Dupré. “It has an industrial look now, with all its trusses, diagonals and platforms exposed.” It sure does! It looks out of place on top of such a sleek building, like Marilyn Monroe performing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in curlers. Dupré discusses the debate, held behind closed doors at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, in Chicago. As the globally recognized arbiter of tallness, the CTBUH was swayed, Dupre says, by David Childs’s emotional defense of One’s iconic altitude, not by its own rules, which count spires as part of height but not antennae. Although Dupré suggests it didn’t really matter, since One was likely to be lapped soon enough in Manhattan itself, her lack of skepticism toward the ruling is disappointing. She should at least have raised an eyebrow. Instead, she opines that the decision was not about “feet or meters. It was about the meaning of height and the ideals implied by 1,776 feet.”

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Twin Towers. (Wikiwand)

Okay. But where was her Deep Throat on this vital matter? No big deal, really. My wife and I visited the observation deck of Taipei 101 in 2007, then the tallest building in the world. Our visit was a couple of months before 101 was lapped by a building then under construction that is now the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. Today, One World Trade Center is two buildings ahead of 101 in the tallest tower sweepstakes but six behind the Burj. The Willis is now seven behind One and 13 behind the Burj. The Empire State Building was tallest for 40 years until topped by the Twin Towers of the WTC, whose title lasted only two years – 1972-1974 – before they were topped by the Willis, with its own run of 40 years. Not just the Western Hemisphere but the West itself no longer competes in this game. Europe’s tallest building is Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Tower, completed in 1997, and now tied with four other towers at 984 feet. They are the 129th tallest in the world, preceded by the next taller three, tied at 126th, each of which nudge out the five next shortest by less than a single foot. Is a nation’s manhood (so to speak) measured by the height of its tallest towers? Not anymore. Probably never was. (Or maybe it still is. Shh!)

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1 WTC, left. (Michael Mahesh/PANYNJ)

Still, Dupré has been for two decades and remains the reigning queen of books about tall towers. Her 1996 classic, Skyscrapers, has been updated and reissued twice since, most recently in 2013, a year prior to the completion of One. In it she offers elegant and factually comprehensive descriptions of the tallest buildings of late and of the earliest tall buildings, reaching back to the heroic era of New York’s classic towers, including such favorites of mine as the Flatiron Building, completed in 1902, and the Woolworth Building, completed in 1912. The Woolworth was the tallest for a while but would now be ranked, oh, what, maybe 1,294th? I have no idea and probably nobody else has.

Dupré has written excellent compiliations of the world’s greatest bridges, churches and monuments as well, each edging a little bit in the direction of her book on One, which is her first book on one building – although actually it takes readers on side trips to the rest of Ground Zero, including the first rebuilt tower, 7 WTC, and one, at least, as yet unbuilt – 2 WTC, which was recently taken away from Norman Foster and given to the Danish bad boy Bjarke Ingels, of BIG – and of course the two memorial fountains that occupy the footprints of the Twin Towers, the 9/11 museum beneath them, and the PATH transit hub designed by Santiago Calatrava that looks like it belongs in the dinosaur department of the Museum of Natural History. To each of these Dupré gives in miniature the same erudite treatment she gives to One.

Many years ago, I was enthralled by a book, Skyscraper (singular), by Karl Sabbagh and published in 1991, about the development and construction of a tall building in Manhattan, One Worldwide Plaza, of 50 stories. Dupré’s One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building is like that book on steroids. For one thing, OWTC is big: a coffee-table book with intellectual credentials. And like any good coffee-table book, it is filled with extraordinary photographs.

There are lush distant views at sunset, shots of different parts of the building that – OMG! – look more like jewelry than architecture, shots from atop One or looking at One from nearby buildings, including one of One’s reflection caught in the glass of 4 WTC. There are shots in each direction of the view from One’s notable observatory. There are time-lapse shots of the building’s construction. There are detailed shots of One’s mechanical systems. There is a photo in which small massing studies of One stand as if waiting their turn to strut down the runway. The number of diagrams of the building, the Ground Zero site, the museum, the innovative structural arrangements, maps of the building, of the site … it goes on and on. Some of the sketches by famous architects who entered the design competition are, um, intriguing.

This book is the biography not just of one building but of an entire project, the most ambitious and important building project in the nation’s history, excluding perhaps only the interstate highway system. And it takes the widest look imaginable at an endeavor vital to the spiritual and emotional revival of the nation after 9/11. My opinion of the project notwithstanding, One World Trade Center is as big a book as its subject is tall. (But it will fit under every Christmas tree.)

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One reflected off Four. (Achim-Bednorzt)

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One and corner of memorial next door. (PANYNJ)

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Massing studies for 1 WTC. (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

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Early sketch of Libeskind master plan. (Daniel Libeskind)

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Lower Manhattan from above Statue of Liberty. (Nicola Lynn Evans/WSP/PB)

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Unbuilt New York (Whew!)

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Images above and below from “Never Built New York” (The New Yorker)

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The architectural writer Alexandra Lange reviews Never Built New York in The New Yorker: Her piece is called “The New York that Could Have Been,” a title that suggests she yearns for it. The book, written and compiled by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, illustrates profusely just how many bullets the city has dodged over the years. There are a number of examples from a century ago, such as the Egyptian pile proposed to replace that era’s City Hall in 1893 by Scottish architect George Ashdown Audsley, that might have been admirable additions to the Big Apple, but the book is chock-a-block with the sort of crash-and-burn modernist egotecture that Manhattan has wisely avoided countless times over the years, but, I’m afraid, not quite enough.

Lange points out that New York is filled with many architects’ worst work, but adds that “it’s difficult to feel real regret that many of these plans never came to be.” As the design of One World Trade Center shows, some relatively modest designs have replaced more ridiculous designs (often described as more ambitious), for which the city may count its blessings.

But The New Yorker does Goldin and Lubell proud with its slide show of images from the book. Click on the link above, because the illustrations are a wonder to behold. Lange describes many of them as if she wishes they’d been built. Most New Yorkers (and visitors to the city) will beg to disagree. The reasons they were not built are often painfully obvious – which, because so much that is regrettable was built, doubles our relief that so much was not.

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Modern music in recovery

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Here is an interview by Paul Senz of the Catholic World Report of Robert R. Reilly, who amid a career in the foreign-policy establishment discovered that modern classical music has undergone a renaissance. In fact, he finds that this revival has been under way for quite a while, but mainly underground. Here is a link to his thoughts via the Future Symphony Institute. Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music was published a decade ago or so ago and has just been revised and reissued. Beneath the lovely photo that accompanies it at Future Symphony is his interview with CWR, called “Surprised by the Beauty of 20th Century Music.”

Although a day late, we may feel free to give thanks for this aspect of a broader renaissance. Here is a taste:

Modern art strove hard to earn its bad reputation. It succeeded. People fled the concert halls because they did not want to hear what sounded like a catastrophe in a boiler factory. Likewise, many people shunned modern painting when canvases looked like someone had spilled a plate of spaghetti. Modern architecture seemed to be a contest as to who could design a building that best disguised the fact that human beings would be in it.

Unfortunately, the avant-garde gained control over the levers of the art world – by which I mean the commissions, the prizes, the positions in academe, the cultural press, etc. Unless you played ball with the avant-garde, your artistic goose was cooked. This was not true for some of the giants who continued to write in the traditional tonal manner, but it was decidedly true for the up-and-coming younger composers from the mid-20th century until about 20 years ago. They suffered a lot.

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A Thanksgiving foto feast

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Give thanks for Lee Juskalian, my West Coast friend who continues to avidly follow development news in Providence (occasionally letting me in on some of it). He has sent me these marvelous photos. Thanks, also, to the unnamed artists whose pleasing work we are blessed to behold. To access them click on this link to a Google space called “Grand and Amazing Sights.” Then, when an email about a religious group comes up, click on the line that envites you to enjoy amazing photography.

And, oh yes, happy Thanksgiving.


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Porto beauty trumps video

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Porto, Portugal, screenshot of video by Kirill Neiezhmakov.

Last night I posted a Kuriositas video of Madrid that, using time-lapse and hyper-lapse videogrpahy caught the beauty of Spain’s capital. It was by by Kirill Neiezhmakov. I visited his website and found a video, “A Day in Porto,” Portugal’s second largest city after its capital, Lisbon. It is also the home of the author of Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, one of my bibles. Malcolm Millais sends me lots of interesting stuff by email, some of which ends up on this blog.

Neiezhmakov’s video of Porto illustrates the pitfalls of that art form.

People who click on a video of a particular city such as Porto are probably interested more in seeing Porto than in the technical virtuosity of the videographer. Now, Neiezhmakov may be the best in the business, and his innovative videos certainly prove the virtuosity of his talent. But if I call up a video about Porto, I don’t want to spend the first minute or so waiting for the videographer to stop jumping off a bridge to point his camera at a couple of fish and a shoreline. And when he does at last get around to shooting the city itself, I would rather see Porto than a shot of a camera screen with Porto in the background. There is a lot of speedy zooming in and out, and other videographical loop-the-loopery. These tell me more about Neiezhmakov’s talent than about the beauty of Porto.

Don’t get me wrong, the beauty of Porto is evident throughout, but I would like to be able to linger on it. I am not interested in the Neiezhmakovian virtuosity, except as a tool to get me to Porto. I grant there are those for whom Neiezhmakov’s technique is more interesting than his subject matter. I’m sure the next step in his development as an artistic videographer will be to achieve a range of video tricks that do more to teaze out the beauty of Porto, or whatever his subject may be, in ways that display his talent without allowing his talent to step on his subject.

And he really does need to choose better music – though I suppose that’s purely a matter of taste. However, when his subject is the beauty of a historic city, a background of classical music would be far more enchanting, and more evocative of the subject matter, than the pop fare he chose for Porto or the juiced-up elevator music that accompanies his video of Madrid.

Having said all that, I salute Neiezhmakov and await his inevitable growth and maturity in melding the art of videography with the beauty of the cities he helps us visit.

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Madrid time- & hyperlapse

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Screen shot from video of Madrid (Kuriositas)

I’ve never been to Madrid, personally or, really, photographically, until this evening. The video on Kuriositas, “Madrid Timelapse & Hyperlapse,” by Kirill Neiezhmakov, brings the beauties of the capital city of Spain before our eyes, most delightfully, though Neiezhmakov could have chosen music better than the juiced up elevator music he has chosen – still, the focus here is visual. I don’t know the difference between timelapse and hyperlapse, but assuredly the latter is associated with zooming in and out. Madrid has also goofed up a few districts with bad modern architecture, but hey, we live in the modern era – what city has not? Fortunately, it appears that one can generally keep away from such places in Madrid, which remains a beautiful city – under assault, to be sure, as are all beautiful cities – but still primarily characterized by its loveliness. I am charmed by the Kuriositas introduction, which is here:

Truth be told I have always felt sorry for Madrid – what with Valencia and Barcelona also in Spain it is almost like being a woman with two younger, more beautiful sisters always around to remind you… My own personal opinion aside, we have featured a number of hyperlapse and timelapse videos by Kirill Neiezhmakov on Kuriositas in the past – and for one very good reason: his work is always superlative. So, older sister Madrid, step out of the shadows in to the light!

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Jane Jacobs at Ada Books

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Jane Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern, in New York City. (Streetsblog)

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The photo shows the late Jane Jacobs sitting on a stool at the White Horse Tavern, in Greenwich Village. On Saturday evening, I saw Jane Jacobs sitting on a table at Ada Books. She was in the form of a stack of books on display (and for sale). A wine-and-cheese was afoot for the newly published Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs. It is edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring. Storring has run Providence’s Jane’s Walks (I’ve given several of these tours), and now lives in New York. Zipp is a professor of urban studies at Brown.

Jacobs would have been a hundred in 2016, and so all things Jacobs are big this year, even though “Big Plans” are trying to mount a comeback against the “little plans” for which she argued back in the 1950s, ’60s and beyond, maintaining her urbanist activism after she moved to Toronto in 1968. The short pieces in Vital Little Plans are taken from both periods, starting with a poem and then “Diamonds in the Tough,” an article for Vogue on the jewelry business in the Bowery. “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment” concludes with this prototypically delicious Jacobsean paragraph from the June 1956 issue of Architectural Forum:

We are greatly misled by talk about bringing the suburb into the city. The city has its own peculiar virtues and we will do it no service by trying to beat it into some inadequate imitation of the noncity. The starting point must be study of whatever is workable, whatever has charm, in city life, and these are the first qualities that must find a place in the architecture of the rebuilt city.

Two plans in Providence that tried to sterilize and suburbanize the city were the Downtown Providence 1970 plan and the College Hill plan, both around 1960. The first died of neglect because nobody really wanted to do something so ugly. The second succeeded because benign neglect enabled so many to act on their own to avoid the urban removal the plan had in store for College Hill and Benefit Street (in spite of its reputation for saving them).

Jane Jacobs seems to have taken over official planning doctrine in America, including Providence, but in so many cases it amounts to lip service. No city planning department, if it truly respected the mother’s milk of Jane Jacobs’s urbanism, could abide what’s being proposed along the Route 195 corridor, or a decade ago, the toppling of a decade of public-spirited design by the architecture of the 1 percent, epitomized by the GTECH building.

Jane Jacobs would find herself at home in Ada Books, at 717 Westminster St., just beyond Route 95. Enter its very Jacobsean shopfront and you will find yourself cuddled about by bookshelves that seem to embrace a mixture of old and new books, mostly small ones that fit many to a shelf, featuring the widest range of subject matter, interspersed with comics, cards, posters and other non-book media. The eyes on the street in this literary neighborhood belong to Brent Legault, its founder and proprietor, who opened the shop in 2008. He has expanded, but he like all other independent booksellers has felt dark shadows pass over his institution. But it is still there, and anyone who loves words must pray that Ada Books will be around to enchant us for many, many years.

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A graphic portrayal of Ada Books, located at 717 Westminster St., Providence.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments