You probably got one emailed to you back in the fall of 2001. I bet I got at least ten. It was a brutally unsubtle joke, but in those early aching days when I first saw it it gave me a little satisfaction: the World Trade Center rebuilt as a blunt, defiant gesture. Philip Nobel saw it too. "Within days of the attack, a crude Photoshop doctoring of the Twin Towers — cut, multiplied, and pasted back on the pre-eleventh skyline — was making the rounds on the nation's jangling e-mail nerves," he writes in the first pages of his new book Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero. "This was the first scheme many people saw — FUCK YOU! — the first essay at making meaning through construction at Ground Zero."
In describing the labyrinthine battles to determine what would be built on the World Trade Center site, Nobel tells the story of an amazing moment in New York history. Never have more people cared more passionately about design — its communicative power, its transformative potential — and never have designers seemed more marginal to the process.
In just a few years, the issues around the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site have generated a surprisingly broad range of books. These include Michael Sorkin's bracingly contentious Starting from Zero; the considerably more measured Up From Zero by Paul Goldberger; Daniel Libeskind's predictably personal but surprisingly moving Breaking Ground; and Suzanne Stephens's indispensible overview Imagining Ground Zero: Official and Unofficial Proposals for the World Trade Center Site. Nobel's book differs from all of these in one crucial respect. Like the others, it is a book about design. Unlike the others, it contains not a single picture.
One senses this is no accident. For years, designers have complained that our work is too often reduced to eye candy, rewarded for its suitability in the forum of the coffee table book, rather than in the rough-and-tumble of the real world. Here at last is an account of the design process in context, surrounded by the all-too-real world of envy, anger, pride, greed and nearly every other deadly and not-so-deadly sin. The result of all that context? In Nobel's telling, design is rendered nearly irrelevant.
This irrelevancy was somewhat oxymoronic. As Nobel said recently in an interview with Metropolis, "The demands on the site, the perception that it had to provide symbolic answers, were firmly ensconced in the public's imagination...Everyone was talking from day one about architectural form. So the idea that you would take a step back and plan, discuss the context, and do simple space planning and then move onto architectural form — no one was ready for that." The public was looking for architecture as catharsis, as bold symbolic gesture, an image that could provide the jolt of that original crude Photoshop paste-up job.
But there were other factors at work, and as always in New York, power and profits were first among them. It was the interplay of those factors that drove the process in the end and will determine what gets built downtown. This tension obtains not just here but everywhere. And in the face of these challenges, one wonders what designers can truly rise to the challenge. In my favorite passage from Sixteen Acres Nobel describes the dilemma of design in the real world:
Every architecture project starts with an infinity of possibilities. And that has its own terror. On one side, there's the physical world in all its unruly grace — space, climate, the land — and the thorny trappings of human society — money, politics, use. Then there's history, weighing on this unformed thing, and taste, and clients, and time. Some of these factors can be listed neatly as fixed specifics in a program brief, but that does not strip them of their caprice. As an architect first faces a design, the competing forces arrange themselves into fleeting orders that collapse and collapse again as they are tested by an equally volatile set of priorities and goals. To commit this roiling mess to form is necessarily daunting...
This is true of all building, everywhere. But there is usually a repreive: when an architect commits to an exclusive ideological or formal strategy — be it Beaux Arts or blob — one path through the thicket is marked. That is a great relief, the comfort of style, and seeking it is one reason why, looking at the methods promoted by leading architects, we see so many fixed forms, universal ideas, and gimcrack gimmicks applied to widely differing architectural dilemmas.
The comfort of style, indeed. In the end, our cities are less the product of these protean visions, and more the wildly compromised outcome of interplay of factors beyond any one person's control. New York City in general, then, and the World Trade Center site in particular, may be the ultimate demonstration of this. In a forum a few weeks ago at the Architectural League, Nobel had a good phrase for the result: "a circus that imprints itself on the skyline." Until designers develop the mastery that will earn them a place in the center ring, they will have to take their comforts where they can find them.