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When the media is a mirror

Paul Finch’s letter from London: The 9/11 anniversary and a debate on the merits of the architectural press

Seeing those memory-etched images of the World Trade Center attack again was a reminder that the iconography of many of our cities is indelibly bound up with tall buildings.

In the case of New York that has been the case for a century. Rem Koolhaas observed shortly after 9/11 that the reason those images were so shocking was because they showed the entirely unexpected and brutal conjunction of two of the defining symbols of the 20th century – the skyscraper and the aeroplane.

Of all the comments made about architecture at the time this seemed the most perceptive, especially coming from the author of Delirious New York, which has a sub-text concerning incipient disaster in the city, previously only experienced at huge scale when Coney Island burned down. I hope that one day Koolhaas will produce a third edition of this masterpiece of urban criticism, telling the story of how Manhattan responded to the 9/11 crisis in the way it knows best: by building – and building tall.

The other critic who brought an interesting perception to the events of ten years ago was Charles Jencks. He reminded us that the architect of the World Trade Center towers, Minoru Yamasaki, was also the designer of what had previously been the most famous demolished tall building, the Pruitt-Igoe social housing scheme in St Louis, a management failure that seemed in part to have stemmed from its relentless slab architecture.

Jencks described that demolition in 1972 as marking the death of Modernism. 9/11 seemed to mark an end to another era in architectural history, with predictions at the time that it meant the end of glazing, the end of subterranean car parks and indeed the end of tall buildings, none of which has taken place, though David Childs’ replacement Freedom Tower certainly has fortress overtones at street level.

What seemed even more obvious last week was the way in which 9/11 happened as an inextricably linked live media event, with global coverage impossible to control because the situation was so unexpected (though not unprecedented, given the previous attack on World Trade Center in 1993). The way the specialist press dealt with 9/11 tended to veer towards the technical (‘Could it happen here with our structural codes?’) rather than looking at symbolism or the representation of power, though more reflective pieces have appeared in subsequent years and of course recently.

By chance, a debate took place last week courtesy of the RIBA’s Building Futures Group (chaired by Dickon Robinson) with the provocative motion that’The architectural profession has been let down by its press’. Proposing were Hugh Pearman (RIBA Journal/Sunday Times), Will Hunter (Architectural Review) and Will Alsop, whose relationship with the press is something of a rollercoaster. Opposing were Building Design doyenne Amanda Baillieu, Piers Gough (always ready with a quote and liked by journalists), and me, representing the AJ.

The motion was pretty roundly defeated, but what struck me was the relative confusion on the part of both journalists and architects about what the relationship with the media is, could be, or should be.

My contribution used the old sixth-form debating society tactic of half-flipping the motion and seeing how it played, for instance that the architectural press has been let down by architects. The profession is like a boxer who has fought too many fights, for the wrong promoters, for the wrong fee, and with the wrong referees. He surveys the bruised face, the bloody nose, the closing eye and says: ‘There’s something wrong with that mirror.’

I exaggerated for debating purposes but there is a serious point here, not least whether the architectural press has a duty to support that boxer. I believe that it has.

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