The Height of the Art

Can Daniel Libeskind’s 1,776-foot tower reclaim the symbols of democracy?

Last winter, as it emerged from the first of what will be a great many consensus-building charrettes, Daniel Libeskind’s proposal for the World Trade Center site had retained its burden of symbols. The slurry walls of the Hudson-defying “bathtub” were still visible—and were still, per Libeskind, an evocation of the enduring strength of American democracy, despite the fact that their exposed height had been halved to accommodate a garage for tour buses and other logistical reminders of the shrinking distance between the old normal and the new. Still in place, too, was the “Wedge of Light,” a shrewdly conceived plaza in the European mode that would serve as a crossroads, likely a lively one, at the front door to the planned train station that is the project’s beating heart. The patriotic tower also survived the first edit uncut. That sheer, irregular aspiration rising from the northwest corner of the site is still planned to top out at—cue the fife and drums—1,776 feet above grade.

Of the things that changed in that first round—various tower skins were simplified, the ringing promenade was gone, the commercial square-footage was nudged back up to the maximum—one went largely unnoticed: the principal spire was reconceived as a television transmitter. The old mast went down with Tower One, of course, so there is a need for such a thing—a need so immediate that, unable to wait out the Ground Zero follies, an alliance of broadcasters is moving forward with plans for a 2,000-foot tower on a harbor-front site in Bayonne, New Jersey. Where? Picture this perfect postcard: the Statue of Liberty, looking north to Manhattan. Past the statue and well in the distance on the extreme west side of the Manhattan skyscraper massif, there is Libeskind’s delicate spike; close by the statue’s raised right arm, looming into the foreground, we would see the tallest building in the world, a stirring macrame-stayed tube designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox [Editor’s note: the above tower design is by Geiger Engineers and Gregory J. Higgins, Architect]. So much for regional hierarchy. Still, Libeskind might want to let this go.

Given the popular response to the attacks—endless unfurlings from sea to shining SUV, a true folk art pageant—Libeskind was smart to wrap his vision in the flag. Buildings don’t say much, and you’ve got to give people—and politicians—something to believe. That’s part of the game. But, as with the broadcast tower, there is something unfortunate now in the design’s reliance on default American touchstones; those symbols have been coopted by a gang that Libeskind certainly doesn’t run with. That astute, gentle adopted American in idealized cowboy boots, so quick to smile and bridge differences, is the very farthest thing from a warmonger (his outrage after being labeled as such by Herbert Muschamp was justified by much more than the receipt of the Hiroshima Art Prize). But those aspects of Libeskind’s plan for Ground Zero that trade in American Pie find their context altered now that the Bush Administration has taken the unconscionable step of forcibly opening a market in Iraq for the export of that corrupted commodity.

Among the proposal’s nods to stars-and-stripes America, the Founders’ height of the tower is easily the most popular and most easily-digested. That aspect of “Memory Foundations” was also the most media-ready—an all-conquering sound-bite: “1776!”—before the attention of the nation turned from rebuilding to its opposite. But what does it mean? Libeskind has reacted with shock to critics who have questioned his symbolic height—“If someone thinks that’s kitschy or nostalgic, then what do you think of what it stands for?,” he asked in the New York Observer—but it is fair to examine the architect’s demonstrated faith in the power of such applied devices. They abound at Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. But does understanding the genesis of that building’s zagging plan and slashing windows—both derived from an occult charting of selected geographical connections between German and Jewish Berliners before the shoah—introduce meaning to the space? If one skips the tour, does that secret meaning ever trickle-down into experience? Many people visiting that building (particularly in its empty, preprogrammed state) came away speaking of its ability to express absence or grief or loss; Frank Gehry noted that as its signal success. But if the same mystical generative lines were in-stead a reflection of, say, the old track of the Berlin Wall—as an unitiated observer might easily assume—would the space then speak of kill zones and enforced division? Of Mutually Assured Destruction and “99 Luftballons”?

At the Jewish Museum, many of the spaces do, incidentally, conjure the emotions the architect sought (let’s leave aside for the moment whether such unrelieved dark notes are the best way to recall in architecture the life of Germany’s Jews, who, it is too easy to forget, spent most of their history thriving, not dying.) And if he needed to lay out a skein of fractured Stars of David on a map of Berlin to get there, Godspeed. But as they stand now, the deployment of America’s beleaguered symbols at Ground Zero, though heartfelt, seems less momentous and more open to misapprehension. Is it possible—after Florida, after Baghdad—that these things no longer mean what all dreamers still hope they mean? And there is nothing inevitable in their assignment. The “democratic” walls could just as easily be tagged as stand-ins for heroism, or memory, or forgetting; and, at least as it now ap-pears, there is nothing inherent in the form of the tower that says, “Freedom rings, even here, even now” except a passing resemblance to the Statue of Liberty and the very American impulse to get its topmost member higher than those outrageous twin spoilers in Kuala Lumpur.

So a lot is riding on the symbol “1776.” Libeskind, realizing this, said early on he would not give it up. It is natural to wonder, though, what correspondence really exists between the height in feet chosen for a tall structure at an important place and the count in years used by convention to notate the ever more distant time in which an important historical event occurred. It is an algebra in which the units become nonsense; what meaning is there in a measure of “year-feet”? At the most literal level—a level of literalism invited by the proposition itself—there are other unfortunate implications. Does the ground plane then equate to year zero? Are we walking the stations of the cross on Fulton Street? Is that King Herod ducking into the Museum of Freedom? Such are the perils of literalism. And the perils of flag-waving we see everyday.

There should be no messages at Ground Zero that might inadvertently strengthen the abuse of patriotism. And it is too much to ask a building—lumbering and nearly mute—to finesse the reappropriation of lapsing symbols. Perhaps there should be no messages at all. We should ask of buildings, anywhere, only what they can credibly give: nothing too precise, nothing too literate, something along the lines of a gestalt. From the best architecture, the best we can expect is a suite of feelings—self-evident, indivisible from direct experience—and to conjure the right ones in the right place is the height of the art.

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