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Through the collective grief, Alex Garvin focuses on planning a new identity for New York and facing up to the true human scale of the World Trade Center redevelopment

Alex Garvin's lecture at the Royal Society of the Arts was the second of three weekly lectures sponsored by Arup Associates under the broad heading of 'Future Context:

An architectural lecture series'.He was effectively sandwiched between Saskia Sassen and, somewhat bizarrely, His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. The connection, apparently, is the theme of 'inspiration'.

Garvin is the vice-president for planning, design and development at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and his particular inspirational tale described the process of the competition for the World Trade Center site. I admit that I had gone along with some dread that the speech would be a ponderous replaying of bureaucratic decisions, meetings and regulations, but was pleasantly surprised.Not only did Garvin come across as a knowledgeable and effortless speaker - making even the necessary reference to bureaucratic decisions, meetings and regulations palatable - but he gave an insight to the human scale of the story.

During the course of the speech, he subtly lambasted architectural journalists for not having bothered to develop an in-depth analysis of the various schemes, relying instead, he said, on 'superficial' acceptance of immediate appearances. For a start, he was annoyed that the press had suggested that the architects had been asked to submit proposals for a 'design competition'. No wonder the public became aggrieved when design changes happened almost immediately, he said. Poring over the actual first page of the official tender, he read: 'This is not a design competition and will not result in the selection of the final plan.'

His lecture was quite an eye opener.

He revealed the extent of the macro-level rethink that was going into the redevelopment at the World Trade Center. He displayed the consideration that had been given to the value of existing traffic and pedestrian connections and the need to open up the area to improved flows - flows that had been cut off by the original World Trade Center. 'I always argued against the damage that the original Twin Towers would do, 'he told me later. 'The original towers were terrible. They destroyed the city.'Garvin's project is to repair that damage.

He acknowledged that New York (and US) identity is now being reforged around the common bond of collective grief. Memorialising the site - treating the footprints of the Twin Towers as holy - had, he said, been more of a top-down decision, rather than demanded by the populace, and he recognised a certain paradox in promoting regeneration through mourning.

In practical terms, though, the 'loop and spine' proposal, originally devised by Garvin, has been set up to form a circle of renewal around the site.

This situates the Libeskind building in a broader urban context; regenerating Broadway (the spine), opening up Fulton Street, boulevardising West Street, etc.Wider still, the site will link with a new high-speed rail to connect the centre to the two main airports. Emotional literacy aside, this is a scheme to rebuild New York.

So how did this quietly spoken man get to be in a position to determine New York's future? His fast-track to influence seems to have taken 30 years or so.When in his senior year in Yale he was given a copy of Jane Jacobs'The Death and Life of Great American Cities, he took a planning course and then asked the Dean of Faculty if he could do a combined degree in architecture and planning. The course didn't exist, but was effectively created for him and he has taught the 'Introduction to the Study of the City'module once a week since 1967.

Even though he qualified as an architect and worked in the office of Philip Johnson, he decided that he preferred the planning process - or says that he realised his limitations in architecture - and set off on his rise through New York's planning system, reflecting that 'I never wanted to be a bureaucrat'.

He had prefaced his speech - available at www. thersa. org/acrobat/alex_garvin_text. pdf - with the claim that he is less interested in architectural theory and style, than in 'the nitty-gritty that makes a plan work - financing, political considerations, markets and design issues' - sometimes called buildability. His early experience of arguing for regular and diligent maintenance of the housing stock in Washington Heights, for example, rather than letting it fall to ruin and rebuilding it, proved more cost effective. Such good old-fashioned capitalist pragmatism - some might say economic realism - colours his practical work, and indeed was a big factor in the Twin Towers decision.

During his speech, he showed before and after pictures of Libeskind's and Think's designs; ie, before and after Garvin et al had brought into play the particulars of the site conditions, budget, traffic flow requirements, commercial projections, etc. From the evidence of the different artist impressions, the Think scheme seems to have been rationalised from the photogenic double towers into boring translucent vertical silos. Libeskind's, on the evidence of the pictures, was, at least, eminently buildable from the start.

From the '80s, Garvin had dabbled very successfully in New York real estate.However, as he tells it, from the publication of his book The American City: What Works, What Doesn't in 1996 'everything changed', and he was in demand.He is now leading up New York's bid to host the 2012 Olympics, tendering for 1,500, two-bed, twoperson homes that will be designed and built to house a 'real community of real people', but which will be effectively given over to Olympic athletes prior to the 'real people'moving in.This is to ensure the 'sustainability'of the scheme, 'a word', he says, 'that hasn't really yet taken off in America'.The schemes will be put on the web for public scrutiny, building on the participatory process 'invented'by Garvin for the Twin Towers project.

On the issue of public participation, I ask whether he feels that having 4,300 New Yorkers - and others that had been affected by the atrocity of 11 September - attend an interactive meeting to decide on the original designs was something of a sham. After all, those block plans were terrible, weren't they? Moreover, since then, the competition shortlist had no such participatory involvement. Garvin is adamant that, had the public not intervened in the beginning, one of the original block plans would have been accepted by the Port Authority and built.

Ultimately, he is a pragmatist; renowned for instilling in his students the need to experience buildings before praising or condemning them. He worries that 'nowadays, as a culture, we in the West have taken a wrong turn we condone fantasies (but paradoxically) we are living in the most conservative moment, where we fear the new'.

Garvin, at least, remains a man who is prepared to put his head above the parapet - standing above the real (or faux) participatory process to give a lead. As he says: 'Throughout my career, I've always taken risky stands.' Then, as if to avoid being misrepresented, he adds: 'I'm not interested in vision. I like the real world.'

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