A Rush to Complete Plans for Downtown
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
For nearly a month, a wide cross- section of New York has been toiling to produce a plan for
the redevelopment of the financial district. The American Institute of Architects, the New York
City Partnership, and the Real Estate Board of New York have formed a coalition, the NYC
Rebuild Task Force, with the mission of completing a plan within the next few weeks.
(Details can be found at www.nycrebuild.org.)
The coalition's goals include: send a message to Washington that New York is up to the task
of providing a unified, patriotic response to the World Trade Center attack; take advantage of
current low interest rates; and announce to the world that New York's financial center can
hold. While other groups may be formulating plans of their own, this seems to be the main
event for now.
NYC Rebuild's executive committee includes representatives from prominent architecture
firms, including Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Fox & Fowle, HOK, and Kohn Pederson Fox. And
indeed the entire operation appears driven by what in architecture is called "the charrette" â€”
the extreme 24/7 panic condition that descends upon architects' offices as deadlines
The term originated in the 19th century at the Ã‰cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At the end of
thesis term, a cart (charrette) would pass through the streets of the Latin Quarter to pick up
thesis projects. Architecture students, apprentices in professional ateliers lodged in the top
floors of Left Bank buildings, would toss their drawings into the cart from the windows above.
All were eager to win the Prix de Rome.
Many New Yorkers have probably experienced charrette syndrome in their lives. Ad
campaigns, fashion collections, magazine closings, legal briefs are typically prepared under
charrette conditions. And it is widely understood that the material produced en charrette â€”
the drawings, articles, ad campaigns â€” is often secondary to the experience of producing
something quickly under extreme pressure.
At a moment like this, when people are struggling to reckon with a future that lies beyond
their control, the charrette holds therapeutic value. It is a source of distraction and even
pleasure. Anxiety is alleviated as adrenalin and endorphins engulf the brain. For those racing
against time, the clock stops. Given the uncertain political and economic prospect, it is safe
to assume that the plan produced by NYC Rebuild will not materialize as envisioned. As an
exercise in solidarity, and as a way of coping with trauma, however, it is worthwhile.
Architecture critics have been traumatized also. We've just witnessed the great American
skyscraper turned into a weapon of mass destruction. My therapeutic program includes
projecting my own fantasy version of the design now taking shape under the auspices of
NYC Rebuild. This fantasy was partly inspired by the news that Larry Silverstein, a private
developer who holds a 99-year lease on the demolished World Trade buildings, had hired
David Childs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Alex Cooper of Cooper Robertson to help
him plan the redevelopment of the 16-acre site.
All people with bow ties agree that the modern "blank slate" (towers in a park) approach to
city planning was wrong. Therefore, the architects will first want to replace the World Trade
Center's "bleak," "sterile" plaza with a more "contextual" approach.
Toward that end, they immediately began by researching old maps of Lower Manhattan,
depicting the streets that were there before the Trade Center was built. In their quest for
"authenticity," they looked at maps from this period and that period and eventually drew up a
composite of several. Curiously, the composite bore an astonishing resemblance to â€” the
Nolli Plan of Rome!
For architects of a certain age and artistic temperament, the Nolli plan is architecture's holy
grail. Created in 1748 by Giovanni Battista Nolli, it depicts the Roman network of medieval
and baroque streets along with views of great monuments, drawn by Piranesi. Initially
prepared for purposes of tax assessment, it is a potentially useful document for studying
how the relationship between public and private spheres is inscribed in urban space. Even
in the 18th century, for example, city property owners were keen to exaggerate how much
"public," that is, nontaxable, space encroached on their sites.
Unfortunately, the Nolli plan is seldom used by contemporary architects and planners for
serious purposes. Typically, it is intended as a symbol of pedigree. For one group of
American architects, it represents the "classical" tradition connected with the Rome Prize, the
City Beautiful movement and the connotations of social entitlement attached to the firm
McKim, Meade, & White. For another faction, it signifies the more recent lineage of figure-
ground abstraction associated with Colin Rowe and his students at Cornell University's
architecture school. In both cases, the plan is used a-historically: a piece of Roman history is
meant to lend authority to work that bears little relationship to the history of our own time and
The Nolli plan is invaluable at charrette time. Since most architects are already familiar with
it, no serious thought or research is required before beginning. Just whip out the plan and go
to work. Call it a street map of lower Manhattan, or call it the Schmolli Plan. Developers are
easily impressed by pedigree. From the horizontal Schmolli matrix, we then extrude some
vertical Schmolli â€” so many towers, at such and such a height â€” whatever is considered
"appropriate." Next, we commission urban designers and other consultants to create
contextual paving, street lights, signage, bollards designed as flower pots, barricades
concealed behind fluttering banners in coordinated colors, and other street level Schmolli.
We invite the retail-entertainment complex to provide cafes, shops, a multiplex, and a
museum. Put out some public art. Or invite a group of young, "avant-garde" architects to be
the new Schmolli art. Stage an international competition for an artist-architect team to design
a "world-class" memorial for victims and heroes. Time's up. We made it!
I took a break from my own version of charrette syndrome to look at some images in "Cities
of Artificial Excavation: The Work of Peter Eisenman, 1978-1988." Eisenman represents the
Colin Rowe-Cornell faction of mapping, though in lieu of the Nolli plan he sometimes works
from Piranesi's visionary scheme for the Campo Marzio. Eisenman's "artificial excavations"
represent an alternative way of using historical information. They use urban palimpsests â€”
street maps, vanished landmarks â€” not to assert claims of historical authenticity but rather
to expose the extreme artificiality, the arbitrary dimension, of building on the past.
Now I'm not suggesting that an Eisenman building would be better than a Schmolli building.
In fact, one of the key points of interest in the artificial excavations is that none of the projects
were built. They represent an approach to architecture in which thought precedes building,
and even replaces it at times. This may be the only solid approach New York architecture can
take in response to the current global crisis. Whether Eisenman's own concepts are solid
ideas, or merely figments of ideas, he has nonetheless opened the door for those who
believe that architecture should be recalled to a standard of intellectual rigor.
If nothing else, the terrorist attack demanded that New York architects bring themselves up to
speed on issues of critical importance to any serious discussion of the city's future. The
international flow of currency and information. Access to public, private, and cyber space.
Architecture's roots in military fortifications. The convergence of our own technology â€” tall
buildings and airplanes â€” in terrorist warfare. The nature of risk.
Ideas on these issues have been developed by many of the thinkers and teachers I have
reported on since 1992, including Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castels, Ulrich Beck, Gregory
Bateson, William Morrish, Jean Gardner, J. B. Jackson, Carl Schorske, Jurgen Habermas,
Mike Davis, Jeremy Rifkin and Richard Rorty. There is nothing for us now but to be students
of their ideas.
A charrette may not be the ideal time for learning. On the contrary, its function is to
emphasize action to the exclusion of reflection, thought and reason. It's not a time to say
"Whoa!" In any case, no one acquires information just by skimming a couple of books. We
absorb it, in the traditional way, over many years of debate, reflection, story- telling and
experiments in application. With effort, information can be rendered into knowledge. With
luck, dots get connected. Clarity may emerge. And it is worth recalling that the charrette
originated as an educational process.
Now, if I had a big charrette, I would pass through the streets of Manhattan and invite
everyone to throw down their Schmolli Plans. I'd donate the lot to Yale, and I'd say: This is
New York, 2001. Keep your Schmolli to yourself. Truly, New York does not need your services
right now. The healthiest action we could take at this point is to relax this rage to control. Let's
rebuild ourselves first, in other words, and contemplate New York's future from a more
educated frame of mind.
|HARVARD WORLD TRADE CENTER