Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Architecture Matters after Sept. 11

I grew up in the suburbs of Manhattan in Long Island.  A trip to New York City was about as foreign an adventure as one could hope to have.  I remember taking the Long Island Rail Road into Penn Station and looking out the window the whole time. Right before you take the final plunge into the tunnels of  New York, there is this moment that you can see the skyline .  I remember being 12 years old and looking at that skyline thinking how impossibly tall the Twin Towers seemed. It would be many years later that I stood at the base of those buildings and looked up watching the towers disappear into the sky.

On September 11, 2001 I was a young architect working in Manhattan for a large design firm.  Most of my clients were financial firms in lower Manhattan and I would routinely take the Path train in from Hoboken, where I was living at the time.  On that day, I would have been coming up from the Path around 8:45 AM if not for a last minute schedule change that put me in Midtown instead.  I remember coming up from the N/R subway line and seeing crowds around the TV's in the lobby of the GM Building.  The rest, as they say, is history.  I spent the better part of the day walking all over Manhattan trying to get back to New Jersey. I made it as far south as 14th street and as far north as 96th street. I watched ash covered people emerging from downtown as a chimney cleaner would emerge out of a chimney.  The loss of human life was incomprehensible.  It's the kind of thing you never quite get over.  Even 10 years later, the loss that we feel for those who died cannot be repaired.  Not with a memorial.  Not with the death of any terrorist leader.  Not with the sacrifice of thousands of others.  It will never heal.  Unlike Pearl Harbor, this attack was right in our face, in the wide open space of a beautiful morning and broadcast internationally for everyone to see.  It's not the kind of thing people will laugh about in 30 years.  It's the kind of thing that stirs up the same emotions every time you think about it.

I don't know if it's because of my career or my personality, but I have always felt that the best tribute to those who died would have been to build those buildings back, exactly as they were.  I mean no disrespect to the families of the victims by saying this.  I realize that there were many bodies that were never recovered and those families will never be made whole again.  But I also believe that those buildings represented more to our country than just steel and glass. When built, they were innovative, iconic, and symbolic.  They represented the greatness of American engineering and were incredible works of Architecture.  There are few buildings that have been built in NYC in the last 40 years that could be identified by the average person on the street.  A visit to the top of the World Trade Center was nothing short of magical.

Architecture is not exactly America's national past time.  There are few notable structures that really influence people's lives.  The destruction of life on Sept. 11 was irreplaceable.  The destruction of Architecture was replaceable.  I can't think of any better symbol of American resolve and unity than to put those buildings back exactly as they were.  It would have sent a message to the world that we will get back up.  And in that ascension we will heal together.  As far as I know they did not leave a big hole in the Pentagon.   I think the memorial that was built is moving and elegant.  I also think that it would have been just as elegant if it were a few blocks south.  To visit the site of the former World Trade Center a decade later and be staring at two holes in the ground only makes me feel sad. And while that might be the desired result, I don't want to feel sad anymore.  I would rather feel inspired and proud.  I think that Architecture could have done that.  I think that Architecture can do that.  I think Architecture has to aspire to that, otherwise what's the point?

Friday, September 9, 2011

What does 'modern' mean anyway?

If you are one of the many people who attended a Design school of any type within the last 30 years you probably were taught to be somewhat forward thinking.  Most schools today try to best prepare their students for the world which they will enter upon graduation.  And let's face it, that world is a MODERN world.  It is a world full of technology and opportunity for those who wish to embrace it.  I don't know how many successful architects are still using a T-square and a drafting table, but I doubt it's very many (Glenn Murcutt may be the only one).  

That being said, when the conversation turns to Architecture, the word 'modern' has a very negative connotation.  Modern buildings are thought to be harsh and cold, made of steel and glass and very often devoid of emotion.  Modern homes are thought to be reserved for movie stars and egomaniacs who like the idea of living in a place that looks like it's meant to be on display but not really 'lived in'.  Even the real estate industry has turned it's back on the word 'modern' by replacing it with 'contemporary' in its listings.  If no one disputes that we all live in a 'modern' world, then why are modern buildings so few and far between?  I don't see people driving around in Model T's, so why would people build their houses in the styles of by-gone eras?  I think the answer lies in the fact that no one really knows what 'modern' is.

Let's start with a textbook definition.  Modern is defined as 'of or relating to present or recent time'.  By that definition anything that exists today is Modern.  If you went out and built a pyramid tomorrow, it would be a modern pyramid.  This is part of the problem.  I don't really think that the definition of the word itself is applicable anymore based on how quickly our society changes.  Relatively speaking, a Sony Walkman relates to recent time.  Compared to a record player,  a Sony Walkman is modern.  It is also extinct.  

The next problem is that there are very few examples of great modern design.  If you open a trade publication you will find that most of the modern buildings that get published border on the ridiculous.  They may photograph well and appear very progressive but in fact are borderline dysfunctional and very expensive to maintain.  To me, this is not what inspires people, or at least, it doesn't inspire me.  Judging from the widespread lack of modern housing, I'm guessing it doesn't inspire alot of home buyers either.

A few years back, the American automobile industry was headed for extinction.  For years they had just regurgitated the same old designs and relied on the American consumer to buy their cars regardless of the competition.  For 'the big three' there was only one way out  of the crisis and that way was 'modernization'.  They had to update their product lines, focus more on design and fuel efficiency in their fleets and start creating products that reflected the technology of the day.  They introduced features such as parking assist, voice commanded automation, and better engine technology.  All of this in sleeker more interesting modern designs.  It has been shown time and time again that creating well crafted, socially relevant products will yield great success.  To circle back, we have to ask ourselves:  "Is the building industry really doing this?  Are they giving modern design a good name?"

I think that modern architecture is not about building something that relates to present time.  I think it is about building something that relates to present life.  And in that pursuit it cannot be contained within an Architectural style.  When I look at the homebuilding industry at present, I see the automobile industry three years ago.  Unfortunately, there are no major homebuilders leading the way with socially relevant, modern designs.  They just keep reformatting different versions of the same thing.  If we as a society are truly to embrace modern design as a medium then we have to look at the most successful examples from Joseph Eichler to Steve Jobs and understand how the tools that we have available to us today can carry us into a better tomorrow.