May 1, 2003
Everyone’s a Critic
As heard on the streets after the selection of a plan for Ground Zero.
These otherwise troubled times are truly a golden age for architectural awareness. Since the search for a formal resolution at Ground Zero began to grab headlines nearly a year-and-a-half ago, interest—and expertise—in the intricacies of architectural thinking has reached a point of cultural saturation that few had ever dared to imagine. It sometimes seems there is not a single New Yorker who cannot, at the slightest provocation, serve up his or her own sage reflections on the state of the redevelopment.
A consensus has emerged that the public’s outsize and persistent engagement in the design process—and the reflection of that interest in the mainstream press—is “good for architecture.” But the obvious corollary has been ignored: Is it good for the public? For better or for worse, the architect’s monopoly on architectural discourse is gone. Now everybody’s talking the talk. In the weeks after Daniel Libeskind’s Ground Zero site concept, “Memory Foundations,” was officially adopted, some random citizens of the great city reflected on the implications of the design. Their comments, as faithfully recorded, are presented below.
Magda, 41, patent lawyer, caught rushing down Broadway near Trinity Church:
“What I find so fascinating in the Libeskind design are its positions relative to recall and retrospection. But it’s really about ‘story.’ With the sacralization of the space of loss and its simultaneous exploitation, ‘Memory Foundations’ cements a master narrative of the event itself, anchoring it as images—and in space—to a suite of limpid formal instruments—the depression, two slurry walls, a slot that reveals bedrock, the spire—on the one hand, and to the slippery fixtures of commercial convention on the other, so-called ‘normative’ New York development: floor plates, parking, retail. An unremittingly self-propagating conflict between the sacred and the profane—that same conflict that, on so many levels, has defined all post-9/11 ‘debate,’ thus becomes, in Libeskind’s deft and troubling synthesis, an implicit critique of the American passion for ‘closure.’ I don’t have time to get too deep into this. But he’s given us a vehicle for remembrance that precludes resolution—a treatment that beckons the disease, if you will. It’s really a nightmare wrapped in a daydream revealed as a reverie. Intentionally or not, it will truly be a space of ineffible restlessness.”
Xavier, 23, pedi-cab driver, dodging trucks on Seventh Avenue:
“Among the things in play in this grand experiment in architectural publicity is certainly the role of the architect—specifically, here, the viability of a neutral position vis-à-vis authorship. And we must approach this revision through a kind of ethical lens: The personalization of the mechanisms of mourning may be an inevitable consequence of the apotheosis of Libeskind himself as he and his story become consumables subject to the mythologies of fame. Fuck, I mean, Bill Maher was talking about him on HBO! And he was really great on Oprah, I hear. My sister told me.”
Stacey, 29, talent coordinator, on a commercial shoot in Chinatown:
“In a way it’s all too perfect. Here’s this guy—charming, brilliant, photogenic; an American citizen, but better—an immigrant; a New Yorker, even (if not recently), who has lived all over and—perfect, see?—triumphed as a Jew in Germany. Born in Poland after the war, he’s singed by tragedy. And he comes to Ground Zero—the profession’s only specialist in an architecture of recovery—but as a persona always surrounded somehow in joy. A real trick. And he brings this idiosyncratic vision—heir, I guess, to that crystal city expressionism in which pre-ideological European modern architecture was born. Whatever. But he arrives, smiling, with a bag of tricks that includes both moving spaces—in that mixed-up competition he was the only one who had them—and a populist flair for symbols:1776! Right? And it all comes together in this montage of wish-it-were-true Americana for which Libeskind—reliving his hope-filled arrival as a boy on a ship in New York Harbor—has made himself the perfect messenger, God bless him. It’s almost too perfect for fiction.”
Corey, 26, former dot-com VP, waiting for opportunity at the Astor Place Starbucks:
“But who’s story will be told at Ground Zero? Daniel Libeskind’s story? There’s going to be pressure on the professional storytellers to skew it that way. What a hook he’s fed them. And then the media will stake out that path of least emotional resistance: Libeskind as a kind of personification of the site—a kind of avatar for the conflicts there. Spooky, I know. But it’s a good story. And it’ll be an easy sell. It’ll stick: people will buy it and believe it. In a way it’ll be true. And we all know what goes on when that feedback loop gets rolling. I mean, look at me? Things can get out of hand. Exaggerated. Lose their real value. I’d hate to see that happen downtown. Or would that make it more American?”