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Libeskind and the great Ground Zero theme park

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Both Le Corbusier and Heidegger proposed that the Greek temple was a pure expression of physical force. They ignored the archaeological facts, established 100 years before they wrote, that their marble architecture was a stained and polished proscenium, shining in the sun like a Hindu temple, erected to project the ivory-eyed enfleshments of ideas, as such.

The West has remained unable to enlarge its conceptual envelope to assimilate these hoary truths. Anyone still persuaded of the received wisdom of 20th-century Modernism should have felt a similar level of shock and horror watching The Fight for Ground Zero (Channel 4, 6.9.04). Libeskind, after the surprise of his success with an iconography of erasure, upon the Jewish Museum, Berlin, has been even more surprised at the continuing success of a symbolism of denial when applied to every other sort of building. However, he now finds himelf locked into what can only be described (in the sense used by the Chinese) as a 'very interesting' situation.

His adversary is an architect of the sort that Libeskind has described, in his opaque book Radix-Matrix, as 'tinder for the bonfire'. David Childs even admits his design derives from the ideas of the structural engineer.

Childs argues, with physiocratic logic, that the design of very tall buildings is strongly influenced by material engineering. This he places in the service of Larry Silverstein, to maximise lettable floorspace and the range of the broadcasting antennae.

Libeskind, on the contrary, finds himself the agent of the public, channelled through the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and New York governor, George Pataki, who want Ground Zero to 'tell a story'. It should be realised what a crime this is against the originary spirit of 'received Modernity'. Le Corbusier argued for the abolition of 'symbolism' (that is to say, perhaps, except his own).

Libeskind also finds himself in a new situation. From being the purveyor of an intellectually fashionable ideology of denial and deconstruction, he faces the task of standing on the site of an act of 'real deconstruction'.

Looked at iconically, what is the difference between the ruins left by Al Qaeda and the torn and twisted envelopes built by Gehry and Hadid? Libeskind's proposal for a tower that measures time back to the Declaration of Independence in vertical feet (suitably 'native' in a metricated world), and of a ray of sunlight (or shadow) that strikes on the Day of Remembrance, must lead him on, in a never-ending symbolic spiral, into the liturgy of the design of the ritual of remembrance itself, and so on.

From being the fashionable, rootless, vagabond, internationalist, prophet of doom, Libeskind finds himself returned to his own, Bronxed-out, ground zero where he must invent the signs and symbols of a corny message of upbeat faith in the future of the Ameriican dream.

This has led to severe soulsearching in the ranks of the black-uniformed power dressers, descendants of the lostand-gone 20th-century intelligentsia - Marxist midwives of the upcoming materialist utopia. The avant-garde have lost their most intellectually dexterous champion, and it hurts.

Rather more interestingly, one may now place bets as to whether, and how, Libeskind can avoid becoming an accomplished snake-oil salesman of the orthodox American theme-park sort, and carry his respectably intellectual baggage to the destination destiny has marked out for him.

Or whether he must, in the prophetic words of Reyner Banham, 'shed his cultural load so as to run as fast as the engineers'.

Personally, I wish him luck. He is clearly going to need it.

John Outram, via email

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