In the wake of 9/11, is triggering fear a responsible act for public architects?

One morning in mid-December, as a transit strike threatened New York and the city’s ambient anxieties simmered, Clinton Boisvert, a 25-year-old freshman at the School of Visual Arts, entered the Union Square subway station with a roll of packing tape and 37 boxes painted black. On each he had written the word FEAR in white block letters. After he had taped his boxes to the walls of that crowded junction, photographed them, and rushed back to school to present the project, fear is what he got. A curious rider opened one and found it empty, but—trading old-normal blasé for terror-time vigilance—called the cops anyway. Soon one of Manhattan’s largest stations had been sealed, service was disrupted on three subway lines, and the bomb squad was going box by box with dogs and a robot, assessing the threat.

Everyone agreed it was a stupid move: the police, who called him “clueless” and charged him with reckless endangerment when he turned himself in; his lawyer, who said Boisvert was sorry with “a capital S”; Barbara Schwartz, his sculpture instructor (who nevertheless told reporters he had earned an “A” for the semester); and certainly every commuter-cum-art-victim whose day had been derailed by the full antiterror deployment.

The art establishment echoed that consensus. Hans Haacke, whose own heavy-handed political art has earned him tabloid attention, told Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Post that the project was naive; in the same article, Artnews editor Robin Cembalest put the action in context: “Artists who aren’t that good tend to go for push-button things…like a playwright who uses f—- all the time.” The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman interpreted Boisvert’s intentions more generously—“to make tangible, as sculpture, what New Yorkers have felt since 9/11”—but dismissed such an apologia as “art mumbo jumbo.” Boldly staking out a moral terrain, Kimmelman concluded that “by provoking fear, the work trafficked in emotional violence.”

Emotional violence should not be taboo in art; even the current battery of patriotic repressions does not include a limit on the means and methods of expression. But, as Boisvert learned that night in jail, something happens when artsy gambits cross over into life: away from the proscenium of white gallery walls, the suspension of cause and effect can’t hold. That other larger, less predictable, more consequence-prone place is the natural home of architecture—the deep end of the pool, the big picture, the real world.

Architecture is the only art that society has to trust. So, one would think, there is no place in a public architect’s palette for “emotional violence,” particularly when considering a job where the emotions are raw and the violence was recent. If only it were so. In what appears to be a desperate rear-guard effort to stave off irrelevance—We do too have the goods to meet this challenge!—some kneejerk architects have been stenciling FEAR on their World Trade Center ideas for over a year and a half now. We have been given whole cities of towers that attempt to root themselves to events at that site through the pathetic device of mimicry. The last towers fell, so the next should appear to fall? Be afraid of the impoverished architectural imagination. Be very afraid.

Peter Eisenman has of course been the most egregious button pusher (and what a foulmouthed playwright he would make!), but the Boisvert spirit lives even among the nine relatively housebroken plans that were developed for Ground Zero at the end of last year. Most could not resist playing with extreme vertigo as an attention-getting device—all those sky gardens and exterior catwalks—and some offered the predictable images of outright collapse: Daniel Libeskind imported his usual shattered forms into a siting concept that deserved better; Lord Foster and SOM tweaked and twisted their towers to mimic a losing struggle with gravity; United Architects proposed a megastructure that leaned drunkenly over streets that have experienced the real thing. Presenting that menacing project at the unveiling in December, Greg Lynn’s post-terror fascination with architecture as a battleground morphed into a spirited description of his building’s “thousands” of redundant escape routes—an insensitive selling point that caused one shocked September 11 survivor, interviewed on NPR, to ask why someone would bother to design a building that foreshadows its own collapse.

Good question. Just as exploiting the fear of terrorism is the shame of Clinton Boisvert—or, for that matter, the Bush Administration—shouldn’t responsible architects resist such easy manipulations? Why trigger fear? Why celebrate it? Why give it life in an icon? Why make it stylish? Whatever is built at Ground Zero should be poised to outlast the tunnel-vision neurosis of the current siege. Put some other label on the box.

Recent Programs