If Architecture Were Optimism

In the last year or so, reading or watching the news has become a game of roulette. Taking my chances, I scan pages or flip channels hastily in an attempt to avoid disturbing imagery and narrative in favor of landing on something meaningful and at least slightly optimistic.

Therefore, I was surprised today to find myself enticed by a beautiful, powerful image of the New York skyline on the cover page of the Sunday Times, only to read further to find a scathing article by Michael Kimmelman titled “A Soaring Emblem of New York, and its Upside Down Priorities; 1 World Trade Center is a Cautionary Tale.”

While the article lacked any mention of hostile takeovers or race riots, the negative tone of the article suggests that the newest, tallest building in North America “speaks volumes about political opportunism, outmoded thinking and upside-down urban priorities…It’s what happens when a commercial developer is pretty much handed the keys to the castle. Tourists will soon flock to the top of the building, and tenants will fill it up. But a skyscraper doesn’t just occupy its own plot of land. Even a tower with an outsize claim on the civic soul needs to be more than tall and shiny.”

Kimmelman goes on to discuss the building’s lack of mixed-use programming, pedestrian engagement, as well as a symmetrical, relatively generic composition that suggests “New York is a metropolis bereft of fresh ideas.”

“Stripped of prospective cultural institutions, as well as of street life and housing, the plan soon turned into something akin to an old-school office park, destined to die at night — the last thing a young generation of New Yorkers wanted…Mr. Childs faced a nearly impossible task: devising a tower at once somber and soaring, open and unassailable, dignified but not dull,” states Kimmelman, regarding the Skidmore, Owings, Merrill architect David Childs that designed 1 World Trade amidst many stakeholders and competing priorities.

Situating Kimmelman’s article in the context of the current media sphere and a recent Wednesday night in New York that I spent standing at the building’s base only to be told that “areas weren’t open to the public yet,” I am left with a relatively stale taste in my mouth. Despite living in a world where violent history continues to repeat itself and old and new battles are being forged daily in highly graphic means of representation, I still believe that architecture, in its purest form and definitions, should and must remain a symbol of unrelentless optimism.

While I can’t disagree that street level may not yet be deemed a success for 1 World Trade, I would like to make a general plea that critics’ switch their syntax and thinking in the way that both critique and candor are being applied to architecture.

In looking at the image in the Times, what drew me to the picture was the scale of the tower as well as the presence and strength that it holds in filling a long and painful void in the New York skyline. In this image, it is the gesture, not the detail that may be deemed most important.

To speak generally, all architecture projects are comprised of scales to consider and agendas to reconcile, areas for innovation and opportunity, and strategies considered that are already tried and tested. I can only imagine the list of priorities that 1 World Trade entailed, but am still celebratory of the feat that it was realized despite perhaps the greatest obstacles any project could possibly have—fear and memory.

Architectural projects resulting in buildings are a manifestation of hopes and aspirations. Many architects, as serial optimists and idealists, are still attempting to be brave and bold in a climate much like medicine and education, in which reporting and accountability often trump a general respect for creativity, innovation, and the idea that each project requires a unique approach and related outcomes.

As a current resident of Denver, a city that will double in size by the year 2030, I often drive around the city and find myself taking note of each new multi-family, mixed-use, office, grocery, or retail building that didn’t exist upon my relocation to Denver a little over two years ago. While I may not agree with the aesthetic or form of each development, I try to remain respectful that these projects are a result of growing and projected needs, and a general belief that as a city grows, its desire for resources, community, and transportation-oriented development will also continue to grow. Each of these developments is an optimistic response to a city investing in the future—perhaps the most optimistic concept of all.

I would argue that 1 World Trade, despite some mishaps and perceived “flawed” aesthetics, is still a successful symbol of stakeholders working with a lead architect and an architecture firm to create the most appropriate response to a tragedy at a discrete moment in history. This is the nature of creating a building meant to define a skyline view—i.e. a view that is most often captured by a two-dimensional photo in which a building is defined by its height and profile- two features that quickly become both icon and symbol.

While New York and its Financial District at street level will continue to organically change and evolve, I believe that the new tallest building in North America provides a moment of order and solemnity amidst the foreground of people, chaos, and life that remains the primary illustrative medium of any city at any given moment.








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