Blesok no. 33, July-August, 2003
How Downtown Can Stand Tall and Step Lively Again
EPT. 11 struck at one dream of urban planners: that the best way to make a city dense is to make it tall. Many people said terrorism had spelled the end of the skyscraper. Indeed, the whole notion of concentrations of high-rise buildings has long been under attack. For the last 20 years we have seen treatises – some excellent, some tiresome – that tell us why spatial agglomeration no longer carries benefits for businesses and markets; that global telecommunications have made it unnecessary for financial communities to assemble physically in one place.
We might wonder, therefore, about the verticality and density in the proposals presented last month for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. We might also ask how are we to reconcile these projects with an office space vacancy rate of more than 15 percent, even after millions of square feet were destroyed? How are we to reconcile these projects with the fact that many companies have left for Midtown Manhattan, Connecticut and New Jersey?
These are valid points, but they get at only half the story.
The other half is that strategic, creative activities – whether economic, cultural or political – thrive on density.
In a global economy, with uncertain markets and changing conditions, the most advanced and speculative sectors need concentrations of resources – talent, management, technological infrastructure and buildings. They need dense environments where information does not simply circulate but gets produced.
The geography of the global economy consists of both world-spanning networks and these concentrations of resources, as provided by about 40 global cities. New York remains at the top, even after the devastation of Sept. 11, along with London, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Paris. That each is different in what it offers the global economy further underlines New York's role.
It is part of Lower Manhattan's history to reinvent itself continually. In the late 1970's the departure of large commercial banks and insurance companies convinced many that Wall Street was finished. But these departures created room for what were then relatively small financial firms to grow. Similarly today, departures may make it possible for new sectors and new mixes of talent to emerge in Lower Manhattan. We have already seen this with new-media firms, which benefit from proximity to various resources and forms of expertise, including financial, legal and accounting.
There is an economic logic, then, to thick, dense places. But what are the possible architectures of density? In the last 40 years, architecture has progressed so that density can be achieved in a far broader range of forms than the iconic 1960's-style skyscraper. In at least four ways, however, public understanding lags behind what can be built.
It is still common to think that horizontality is more or less incompatible with density and verticality: Los Angeles is exhibit No. 1, followed by sprawling developments across the country. There is no necessary link between horizontal building and “thin” environments – think of any medieval city – but we Americans have become accustomed to equating “flat” and “thin.”
That belief feeds into a second notion, that horizontality is something that happens only at ground level.
A third notion is that verticality means upward, shooting skyward, rather than digging below the ground. True, underground space in New York does not have too good a name: we are inclined to flee our most familiar underground space, the subway, for good reason. But cities as diverse as Moscow, Montreal and Tokyo have made good-quality, usable underground space for transport, shopping and cultural events, in ways that address basic issues of safety, evacuation and ventilation.
Finally, tall, high-density buildings have become associated with dead public space at ground level. New York has plenty of examples from the 1980's and 90's, but in that same period Frankfurt pioneered in making lively public space at the bottom of its skyscrapers.
Poor architecture continues to reinforce old notions about density. Yet each of these four elements can be reconceived. Architectural horizontality has taken on a whole new importance at a time when economic, cultural and political networks that operate horizontally rather than hierarchically have been recognized as crucial. Today we can think of high-density, networked horizontal spaces high above the ground. One important study conducted at the London School of Economics found that there was no one-to-one correlation between height and density: three 30-story buildings do the same work as one 90-story structure. Thirty-story buildings are also more adaptable to new uses, and in that sense they can have a longer economic life. They also allow for more commercial activity at street level.
With our new technical abilities, we can think of verticality and its possibilities for density stretching downward and creating complex underground spaces. And we can think of verticality as allowing for dense, horizontal spaces that connect several buildings high up. Perhaps most challenging is the fourth element: What happens at ground level? We can have vibrant, dense street-level life when there are massive tall buildings in our midst, but the buildings have to be tall in a new way. Most of the proposals for Lower Manhattan had at least one of these forward-thinking aspects. The tall buildings in the proposals by United Architects (including Greg Lynn, Ben van Berkel, Jesse Reiser and Kevin Kennen), the Think group (including Rafael Vin~oly, Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban) and a third group led by Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl have dense horizontal spaces that cut across towers at different heights. Most of the projects extend verticality underground, creating the possibility of complex worlds where New York has mostly turned its back. Norman Foster's underground plan captures this, as does Think's transportation hub.
One might wonder why towers should twist and roll and fall over each other. Why not keep them straight? But the architects recognized that playing with verticality would give the structures a more adaptable and sustainable life. Thus metal and glass bend and stretch. The jaggedness of the Daniel Libeskind proposal admits future irregular growth; as architecture it explodes with energy. The United Architects proposal has stood out for me in this regard, a compound of flexible towers exploring their forms (though I would chop off what can only be described as the chimney on top of the rhomboid structure).
The jungle of wormlike tubes of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill proposal looked intriguing as design, mixing enormous density without breaking the skyline.
But even if Manhattan can use a new high-density complex, should it be in Lower Manhattan?
Today, when homogeneity – office parks, shopping malls – is overwhelming, Lower Manhattan still succeeds in mixing it all up: low-cost shopping areas sit next to the most powerful financial district in the world, immigrant communities reside on the northern edge and, less visibly, artists live and work in obsolete high-rise buildings once at the heart of the district.
The World Trade Center was a microcosm of this mix. It housed the third-largest shopping complex in the country, with many immigrant-run businesses, a lot of mid-level government offices and some leading financial services firms. The site captures something about the deep history of Lower Manhattan: a hybrid patch of humanity and urbanity.
Should architecture re-enact the area's past? No. That would be a form of death. Lower Manhattan is already onto its next set of economic histories. Confronted with this energy and anarchy, its architecture cannot fall back to evoking older, calmer sites in the city that continue to work well as design and as civic spaces, like Rockefeller Center. Equally, the fantasy of building the tallest tower ever in an act of total defiance (and totalizing architecture) is not forward-looking. It is, rather, redolent of the cold war, where having the biggest gun/tallest tower was what mattered.
Architecture should be an enabler of multiple forms of habitation – certainly in the case of Lower Manhattan – and it should be something unto itself, something that draws us in or takes our mind elsewhere or simply thrills us. Were there such projects unveiled on Dec. 18? Yes, and it was thrilling. As soon as I saw the images I saw the beginnings of new, intense histories for Lower Manhattan. Each of the projects had some extraordinary components and some troubling ones. I found the work of United Architects and Daniel Libeskind the most suggestive of new beginnings, particularly in their conception of the memorial spaces. Mr. Libeskind's design engages a sober spiritual dimension as it wrestles with the ground. United Architects' is dramatic and looks at the sky. Neither sells architecture short. They use verticality (and provide office space) but reinvent it; they do not confine verticality to the tower.
The reclaiming of complexity of space is particularly striking: the vertical gardens, museums and cultural centers of the Think team; the enclosures for the memorial in the Foster project, allowing silence and sky to rule; the Meier team's memorial plaza flowing out into the Hudson and lighting the piers.
It is possible that none of these projects will get built. That does not alter this moment of possibility and of accomplishment. The city succeeded, through a cumbersome process and a lot of mobilizing, in producing this concerted effort by architects, planners, urbanists and sculptors. Lots of people worked hard to allow the city not just to think big – something New York is good at – but to think in terms of grand architecture, something New York has done little of.
The unanswered issue that looms over these projects is whether they can create a truly public sphere. This has been largely absent from New York. Ours has been a capital of commerce and finance, lacking a public architecture for everyday life. Chicago has done better, says the London-based consulting engineer Kevin O'Sullivan; it has understood something about public space and public architecture that New York seems to run away from.
These projects show us Lower Manhattan as one part of a larger city: a transportation hub, a financial center, a site for government offices. But it is also a place in the city: this means that public space, housing and mixed street-level activities all need to be included in the final shape of the rebuilding.