I am struck that the two respondents to my epic letter on Libeskind's World Trade Center design (AJ 17.4.03) both complained that they 'had to read it twice'. How many times does an architect look at anything that fascinates him? Why should a piece of writing be any different?
Why do architects expect to consume writing like a car driver glimpses a glass box (even one by Herzog & de Meuron), as it flashes by on the freeway (blink and it's gone)? What else is there to dwell on after the first visceral impact? In Herzog's words, postarchitectural tristesse?
I cannot but treasure the description of my literary style as 'intensely decorative and heavily embellished with obscure references'. The aniconic, grey-cement architecture that replaced the inter-War Moderne (Art Deco to Thing-Collectors) accompanied a determined attempt to control the populations of Europe by denying anyone (whatever their class, for it was a blanket taboo) the ability to write on the walls of public space.
In the US, after the 1939-45 war, they went even further by abolishing public space itself.
Architects are known, by the mass public, to have collaborated in this repressive project. As welfare state politics crumbles before the assaults of capitalism, the mass media, and so on, architects scramble for any mythology that justifies their control of both exterior and interior surface-scripting (or rather de-scripting).
Decoration is the conceptual medium of lifespace-design.
Everyone except architects recognises this. But styling buildings to look green with softwood plank walls and vent cowls is dumb. Destyling their surfaces with the nonsensical scribbles of Libeskind merely puts off the evil hour when architects must face up to the fact that they will either show themselves more capable of iconic engineering, or be replaced, as they have been in Las Vegas, by illustrators and filmset designers. Architects in the hotter spots of the US now work only as project managers.
How are the mighty fallen!
Everything that man makes is 'embellished with arcane references'. It is politically repressive at worst and blissfully ignorant at best to refuse to recognise this fact and deal with it openly and professionally. The only thing that matters is the intellectual sophistication and quality of the surface-scripting.
So what is so illuminating about planar glazing and rivetted zinc? Is this free-thinking or empty-headed? This is why I asked what the difference was between Vegas and the WTC design? Maybe someone would be so kind as to tell me.
For my part, Libeskind's WTC is (as Lord Fawsley used to remark) 'fundamentally flawed'.
New York has a confused and violent climate, and no tradition of lazy outdoor Latin-living - even though it has the same latitude as Rome.
Its tradition is for giant and wonderful internal public spaces - lost railway stations and skyscraper lobbies. Why make the monument to the fallen a giant bomb-pit overhung with crazypaned architectural decowreckage?
In summer it will fill with the irrigation sprays needed to water the plants and become a broiling soup-pit of humid heat unswept by the sea breeze. In winter the humid cold will sink down into its depths and freeze at night to kill all but the hardiest plants and stiffen the sleeping winos into human ice-men.
It would be far more authentically NY (a far from chaotic and highly regulated city) to oblige all of the developers to build huge internal plazas and then make sure their external doors all lined up so that one could walk from one to the other through that city's humid heat or whistling cold.
At least these monumental compositions would be alive - and what a chance for surfacescripting. NY was, after all, the capital of the 'Moderne'.
John Outram, by email