9/11 Memorial Visit: The Crap Space Angle

Paleo Retiree writes:

Blowhard, Esq. and I recently spent a few sunny hours exploring the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. We weren’t interested in touring the museum, so (aside from rolling our eyes at its fashionably toppled-over exterior form) we skipped it. What we intended to experience were mainly two things: Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the site’s architectural showpiece; and the memorials themselves, reflecting pool/waterfalls (destruction! renewal!) that have been created within the footprints of the destroyed towers. The Calatrava and the holes are both worth making some remarks about, but what I found myself most struck by was the park itself. (Officially, it isn’t a park, it’s a plaza.)

Blowhard, Esq. will post his reactions to (and thoughts about) the Calatrava and the holes soon. Today, I’m going to treat myself to some rants, observations and jokes about the park, er, plaza, which encompasses the superblock that the Twin Towers stood in. In a word: it struck me as a stellar example of Crap Space. The handy-dandy lesson here is that Crap Spaces — my pet term for dead urban spaces — don’t have to be just leftover stray things that no one gave any thought to; they can be hyper-designed, hyper-intentional creations too.

Just to assure the reader that my negative reaction to this particular park, er, plaza isn’t entirely a consequence of me not getting what the space’s designers were up to: I do get it. The park, er, plaza’s design is about openness and inclusiveness, about flowing in a barrier-less way into and through the rest of the city; it’s about memorializing an awful event in the past while affirming continuity and growth into the future. (Hey, it’s “eco-friendly” too!) It’s also — small touch of cynicism incoming — a celebration of current public-space design-world cliches and themes.

Now that we’ve nailed the concept, let’s take a quick look at how the park, er, plaza works in reality, because that’s what really matters, isn’t it? Well, it is in my world.

Unlike many parks, er, plazas, this one doesn’t have a fence around it. It isn’t outlined in any conventional way, in fact. The assumption seems to be that the usual “this is a park” markers — cast-iron and stone fences, stairs, gates, statues, special sidewalks — have all along been exclusionary, if not downright white-cis-het-male-centric. Let’s take a look at what’s there on the ground.

wtc_benches_barriers_shade wtc_barriers_drainage

So much lovely openness … Well, if you don’t notice those stubby “no truck bombers allowed” pylons. They give me considerably less of a pleasant vibe than the usual stone walls or cast-iron fences do, to be honest. And I found the no-definitions-at-the-edges thing distressing too, like toilet paper that has started to fall apart.

Not only does the park, er, plaza have no defined edges, it has no defined entry points. There are no gates; there are no ceremonial anythings at the corners or middles of the park, er, plaza. Instead, and once again, it’s all open. Ah, “openness” — what a marvelous word. Here’s the SW corner of the park, er, plaza:

wtc_corner01_stairs

A few stairs and some awful stainless-steel-seeming handrails: all the moral dignity and visual interest of the back entrance to a shopping mall. For contrast, here’s what welcomes you four miles away at the SW corner of Central Park:

central_park

I sometimes like to think about urban creations in terms of architectural opportunity costs: In order to have this, we’re stuck sacrificing that. In the case of the 9/11 Memorial: in order to attain the necessary PC inclusiveness, we must do without punctuation, beauty, craftsmanship, ceremony, and definition. BTW, while there’s a lot of people hanging out around and on the elitist, racist, cis-het-centric Central Park statue (a memorial to the U.S.S. Maine, as it happens) in the photo above, I don’t see a single soul lingering in the 9/11 Memorial Plaza’s corner, do you? Like a present-day bank branch, it’s just some empty space that people hurry through.

Over at the northwest corner of the 9/11 park, er, plaza things are even more blah, er, inclusive. Here’s a shot of the corner from inside:

wtc_corner02_strips_drainage

There is nothing — as in nada — there to indicate that this is the corner of a park, not even the corner of a plaza. Seen from the outside looking in at the same corner, here’s what you’re confronted with:

wtc_corner02_stairs02wtc_corner02_angle01wtc_corner02_stairs01

Two stairways down to God-only-knows-where and, in between them, the corners — so sharp they make you anxious about the wellbeing of your ankles — of a few steps up to nothing-in-particular. Warmth? Welcoming-ness? I think not. Not even “helpfulness,” come to think of it. The usual touch of ceremony at the entrance to a park does serve to remind you of where you are, after all. It situates you both in space and so far as meaning goes.

Inside the 9/11 park, er plaza, there are no paths. Paths, one begins to suspect, are now considered anti-inclusiveness. Perhaps they’re seen as preventing people from making their own choices. How does this play out?

IMG_3878

My impression was strongly of people milling about aimlessly, unsure what to do next, and wondering which nearby restaurant might suit their taste and budget.

While the two big holes in the ground are obvious showpieces, the park, er plaza itself has, effectively, no center. It isn’t just fences, gates and paths that are oppressive, it seems; it’s the very idea of a focus point.

museum_memorial_1

In the pic above, look for a sec not at the structures and the holes but at the empty space, the area with the trees. I don’t know about you, but I can’t anything in the way of positive shapes there at all. It’s just a lot of emptiness, dotted with rows of identikit vegetation. For contast, here’s a map from above of Washington Square Park, a mere few miles away:

washington_square

Every single one of those green areas in between the paths has its own positive identity: its own shape, its own characteristics.

The 9/11 plaza’s empty space may have no structure, but it can’t be denied that it has a maniacal devotion to its own concept. But, aside from the “inclusiveness and openness” thing, what is it? I confess that here I’m a little baffled. Let’s examine what we’re given.

There are a lot of strips, rectangles and box-shapes that align with the edges of the old WTC buildings:

wtc_strips

Are we intended to think of a graveyard? But why do these lines and strips supply the ONLY sense of geometry the park, er, plaza has? That seems beyond monotonous. Most graveyards have more geometrical complexity than that, after all.

And what’s with the metal drainage-ditch covers? They struck me as just plain strange. They’re everywhere; they rattle a bit when you walk over them; and they’re bizarrely placed.

wtc_strips_drainaage

Are they a reference to the reflecting pool/waterfalls?

And once again with the barriers. Look down at the end of the drainage strips in the photo immediately above. Right in front of the anti-truck-bomber pylons are some small stainless fences that are about thigh-high. They’re there, as far as Blowhard, Esq. and I could figure out, because the drainage-strips don’t radiate “death, water, rebirth”; instead, to the unenlightened mind, they suggest small paths. But, since the parks’ creators didn’t want people actually using the drainage strips as paths, it was thought necessary to put up teeny-tiny fences to keep the mob from doing what, left to its own devices, it would instinctively do. So maybe what we have here is a lot of openness accompanied by a lot of surveillance-state, thought-and-behavior policing. I was reminded of Samuel Francis’ very handy concept of “anarcho-tyranny.” (Cops are much in evidence at the 9/11 site, but I neglected to snap a shot of them.)

This monomaniacal, impoverished conceptual geometry dictates both the plantings and the concrete boxes that stand in for benches, er, public-seating accomodations. The trees are lined up in rigid rows that make the trees in a French royal park look goofy and loose. They’re never allowed to cluster, let alone form stylized little groves or forests. Bizarre, isn’t it, how progressives can reconcile their distaste for factory-style ag — all those nightmarish rows of identical, cloned and GMO’d stalks — with their love of rigid conceptualism?

And the benches, er, public-seating accomodations have been placed with apparently zero regard for their relationship to trees and shade.

wtc_benches01

My stab at what these strips, stripes and blocks represent is that they have nothing to do with meaning, let alone comfort. They’re simply tropes that are currently fashionable in public-space/public-art circles. (You see a lot of this strippy/blocky stuff at the High Line too.)

Short version: once you’ve stumbled into this superblock-sized memorial, you’re trapped in a contempo-public-art-style concept, and what you sense as you explore the place isn’t some moving combo of wonder, grief and peace; the feeling is more one of being run through a checklist of required public-space/memorial features. Despite all the frantic semiological signaling, the checklist never coheres, let alone takes on organic life.

Two other parts of the experience that I can’t resist mentioning. The first is that the new buildings around the park, er, plaza are all very up-to-date. (In its early years, the area’s reconstruction was masterminded and overseen by the avant-gardist Daniel Libeskind.) They’re canted, they twinkle, they have louvers. Nearly all of them are ferociously reflective.

wtc_solar_oven

The area is so of-our-moment that even the park, er, plaza’s utility buildings are shaped like videogame monsters, and are wrapped in mesh.

wtc_mesh01

Along with bizarre angles, strips and swoopy-doopiness, mesh is a Very Big Thing in current design circles.

The effect is that the area feels less like a memorial space than a modernist sculpture garden. And — because no effort is made in the contempo-design world to harmonize anything with anything else, except maybe conceptually — this particular sculpture garden is one that feels random and stray, rather like … rather like … Well, in all honesty, rather like a cross between a perfume counter and a junkyard.

The other: because of the emphasis on whiteness and glitter, when you’re out in the park, er, plaza on a sunny summer day, the sun is coming at you from about six different directions. It’s a hard phenomenon to catch in a smartphone snapshot but it’s an inescapable part of the experience of the area. Here’s a snap of Blowhard, Esq., trying to dodge the day’s rays that catches a bit of it:

wtc_blowhard_shadows

You can see from the shadows at his feet how the light is bearing down on him from several different angles. Pro-tip: If you visit the 9/11 Memorial in the summer, wear a wide-brimmed hat and don’t skimp on the sunblock. The way that glassy/metal buildings reflect the sun onto pedestrians — the way that shiny buildings can bake and blind innocent passersby — is something that the architecture and design press hasn’t discussed enough, IMHO. Perhaps that’s because they aren’t all that interested in how their concepts and creations play out in reality.

After roasting in the WTC’s solar oven, er, park, er, plaza for more than an hour, we hightailed it to the nearby City Hall Park, which is as trad as can be: gates, paths, fences, poetic lamps, a fountain — all that schmaltzy stuff.

trad06_path_to_fountain

What a difference. Beauty … Quiet … The joy of being in the city but at a slight, nature-cushioned remove from it … Many rounded corners and edges … An absence of weirdo, hard-to-name new materials … An abundance of leafy shade, and leafy half-shade too … Seating and lamps placed with attentiveness to human concerns rather than conceptual ones … A proud central focus point with paths radiating out from it that define interesting positive shapes … Is it a coincidence that the people in these City Hall Park snaps don’t come across as faceless herds being hustled through an overdirected experience but instead as individuals, families and couples happily using a park instinctively for their pleasure and refreshment?

trad09_people-enjoying trad07_entryway_path

Pretty funny that one thing that everyday people have seen fit to do recently in this particular trad park is knock over a piece of buttplug-style modernist art:

trad01_modernism_toppled

Who are the officials who think that what a beautiful trad park really needs is a display of modernist sculpture?

Final question: Could it be that, despite the claims of our design-world betters, the language of traditional park-making — all those gates, paths and fountains — isn’t oppressive? Perhaps, in fact, it can be well understood as a time-tested recipe book — a pattern language — that generally serves the public well. Is it really in any need of being thrown out and replaced with trendy PC checklists?

In fairness: on a summer weekend day, the 9/11 Memorial is mobbed. It has become a standard stop on tour-bus routes through Manhattan. So it has to be admitted that the 9/11 Memorial works. And what works demands, in some ways, to be respected. But will the site prove to have any lasting power? I’m betting that in ten years it’ll be looking pretty sad and dated. But for now, who really knows?

Related

  • My previous Crap Space posting.
  • My favorite of the proposals for the Ground Zero site was this one, designed by Barbara Littenberg and Stephen Peterson. It has grace and dignity, it has a sense of perspective, it has many trad-urbanism virtues, and the area it would have created would have stood an excellent chance of becoming its own genuine Manhattan neighborhood. Naturally it was ridiculed in the architecture press. James Kunstler, though, liked it too.
  • The excellent goldbug/old-urbanist Nathan Lewis offers some helpful remarks about parks and public spaces.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff, formerly Michael Blowhard. Now a rootless parasite on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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33 Responses to 9/11 Memorial Visit: The Crap Space Angle

  1. Callowman says:

    When the design with the building footprint pools was announced, I mentioned to my favorite sniffy architect friend that I thought it was a shame there wasn’t any space you could do anything with in the park, er, plaza. A football field, a jogging path, a band shell or a nice garden or something. As is his wont, he sniffed audibly, peered down his nose at me, and explained that being a ceremonial space for contemplation, like the pools, WAS “doing something”.

    Damn, that stung. Maybe he was right.

    So … was he? Do they work?

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  2. Leonard says:

    First world problems eh?

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  3. peterike2 says:

    I found the pools at the sight moving, though I’m not really sure why. I did have a close relative who died in the WTC, so I suppose anything would have moved me when he was foremost in my mind there. They felt almost bereft of any meaning at all, so I could impose whatever I wanted on them. Which I suppose makes them bad art. But I felt they just let your mind go blank and let you focus on your thoughts.

    I agree that the space is terrible. It’s just a mess; people amble about, nobody seems to know what to do or where to go. And it’s ugly and harsh.

    I did like the museum. I thought it quite interesting, moving in parts. And there are just plain fascinating pieces like seeing parts of the old WTC foundation that are still there, huge and monumental and exposed inside the space. I didn’t pay too much attention to the “messaging” there — just sort of wandered through and let it wash over me. There is an artwork that’s thousands of pieces of blue paper — one for each person that died — each colored a unique shade of blue. I was looking at it, not understanding it at first. Then I overheard a tour guide explaining what it was, and that’s where I broke down and cried. Something about it got to me, but then the feelings had been welling up all day. It’s an intimidating place to visit at all, I think, if you were directly affected by the events.

    Anyway, this is the art:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry to learn about your relative. Can’t have been easy for any of you. I should have mentioned in the posting that I did find our visit to the area moving, at least until the design of it started annoying me. I didn’t know anyyone who was hurt or killed on 9/11, but the wound to the city is something I can sometimes feel pretty deeply. That said, the design of the area nonetheless struck me as more of a business opportunity for cagey, trendy developers and architects than as anything with any real dignity. I should definitely return and go thru the museum, though.

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  4. z says:

    I agree – it’s definitely a bunch of dead space. I don’t think though that it’s an insurmountable problem but the ‘solemness’ of the area will probably keep it from being changed much for at least 15-20 years.

    I think something worth doing in that place AND would be something for people, might be something that outlines the former buildings’ perimeters with, say, seating and trees, and other things that pulls people in, rather than as you say keeps them moving away.

    Modernist artists and architects wouldn’t know civic engagement if it bit them in the ass

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL, great line. I agree about the perimeters, by the way. I thought making BOTH footprints into giant holes/waterfalls was ‘way over the top, in a cringe-making way that reminded me of trees covered in yellow ribbons or doorways covered with teddy bears. I guess understatement isn’t our style these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. j says:

    Thanks your impressions. The implication of those cloned identical trees standing in perfect order are frightening. Is that the meaning of “Green”? or Natural? Human beings evolved in the African savannas and they feel most at home in parks that re-create that environment (sans lions nor flies). The park aka plaza is incredibly artificial, alien and inhuman.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wish I’d used those exact words!

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    • J – I’m an architect and urban designer who thinks Central Park is the greatest place in New York. And my favorite place in Central Park is the Poet’s Allee, where all the Elms line up.

      We are spiritual beings in the bodies of evolving apes. Classical architecture and landscape is just as much an imitation of nature as landscape urbanism that imitates the Savanna is. It reflects the the Nature with a capital N that artists have been trying to bring down to earth for millennia. It’s part of Human Nature too.

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  6. agnostic says:

    More wonderful Jewish architecture. No visual-spatial sense, and neurotic as hell. Ought to make for a transcendent park-going experience.

    They’re going for a Wailing Wall concept, leaving the ruins rather than build something anew. New Yorkers, Americans, and Chinese tourists are not meant to move on with their lives, but must stand in awe of the void left by the fallen towers. As though anything built in their place would desecrate such a sacred site.

    Only problem is: no one cared very much about the WTC towers, certainly not in a deeply attached and rooted way, a la the Second Temple that was at the heart of ancient Jews’ religion. Even the forced sentimental value of the towers post-9/11 is not even a generation old.

    Thus it feels totally fake to try to amplify our sense of loss by leaving two craters. Loss of what? People lost other *people* who they were closely attached to — but not the towers themselves. How do we honor them by making the memorial a place for trying to re-ignite our anger, or continue to stew in resentment — sorry, “reflect” — over the tragedy?

    The goal of the pools, the central objects, is beyond neurotic. It’s trying to undercut any healthy response, whether to cope with loss and move on, or to build something new in honor of them.

    BTW, not only are the two responsible parties Jews (Libeskind for the master plan and Arad for the memorial), they’re foreign-born and Israeli citizens (though Libeskind is a dual U.S. citizen). Hard to think of a group that would have a point-of-view that was *less* typical from the average American regarding 9/11 and coping / honoring. That’s New York City for you.

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  7. agnostic says:

    That’s my take on why there’s no defined spaces anywhere on the site — it’s meant to be a great big stylized void to inspire awe of What Was Lost. Charming and comfy park benches, humanistic statues, etc. would profane the holy nature of the site.

    Except no one ever treated the site as holy, therefore the taboo against creating a new sense of place is totally manufactured.

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    • j says:

      Agreed. Three marginal observations:
      (1) The space is open, so presumably, secure. A consideration in New York 2015.
      (2) There is almost nothing to deface or steal. It is extremely clean and it is easily cleaned/washed.
      (3) The Wailing Wall metaphor is wrong. The Temple was rebuilt in the past and will be rebuilt again.
      If the destruction of the Twin Towers would have been in battle, some heroic monument would be appropriate, but it was burned down by Sunni terrorists.

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      • I agree with this from Agnostic: “The goal of the pools, the central objects, is beyond neurotic. It’s trying to undercut any healthy response, whether to cope with loss and move on, or to build something new in honor of them.” The area does seem devoted to maintaining the site as a kind of stylized open wound. That’s one reason I suspect it’ll age badly. In twenty years, the event will start feeling like something in the distant past, and more and more people will be around who weren’t even alive at the time it took place. What will these people make of the memorial? Won’t it look mighty bathetic to them?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bill B. says:

        I think the point that this is supposed to be in memory of a terrorist event is an important one. How to get around that? If it was not to be simply rebuilt then perhaps an old fashioned park with a classic Marianne type figure soaring upwards, buttressed with vestigial stairways upon which are firemen figures climbing upwards. Perhaps with some juicy roman epithets pre-approved by the founding fathers carved around the bases.

        It would be big but not massive. It would celebrate Western civilisation but without saying so directly. It would be important that “Marianne” not be nicknamed the tranny superman.

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  8. Glengarry says:

    Takeaway: Rename it to Parker Plaza.

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  9. j says:

    Bathetic in twenty years? Who can say? People keep visiting those empty, hollow, meaningless, deadly boring Japanese zen gardens. Anyway, New York cannot suffer vacuum and the place howls out for nonrepresentational art objects.

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    • Bill B. says:

      I spend much time in Asia where I see that no piece of meretricious commercial tat is so vile as to be not worth being photographed besides. The more mindless the better.

      Strangely expensive modern art objects are often ignored. Ugly is good; ugly but pretentious not good?

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  11. Arthur says:

    It may be interesting to note that the pre-9/11 World Trade Center plaza (the “Austin J. Tobin Plaza”) actually did have a large, circular fountain with bronze sphere centerpiece (the centerpiece actually survived but was not brought back). The surrounding area was paved mostly in gray granite, interrupted only by lines of red granite extending radially out from the fountain. Architecturally it was a modernist plaza of its age, to be sure, but it deployed formal geometry in a classical manner that was coherent to visitors. It was severe, but it wasn’t arbitrary or discordant.

    Here, I get the sense that the primary design decision was leaving the building footprints as water features, and that the rest of the park/plaza was just filler, sketched in with, as you mention, various aesthetic “tropes” of the contemporary landscape urbanist canon.

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  12. Slumlord says:

    You know, I hate to say it but I disagree. This is a contemporarily appropriate memorial to 9/11. In an age that doesn’t believe in God, nothing better is to be expected. For me, the pools are a focus point, which frankly frighten me. Whenever I look at those ponds I fear falling into them and being dragged into the deeper pool in the center which seems bottomless. Seeing the names on the periphery, with water flowing toward the deeper central pool, I get the impression of souls being sucked into Hades, and the notion of the permanence of death with no escape.

    The style of the garden surrounding the pools is a European version of a Zen Garden. There’s the stone, the vertical elements and the tightly controlled composition, it’s designed for contemplation and not enjoyment, and the the way I look at the memorial is that it is a Zen garden of Death. A place where one contemplates the finality of it.

    Contrast this with the Maine memorial, built by a different age. There’s plenty of suffering to be seen in the lower layer of the monument but while grief is acknowledged, there is clearly an impression made by the powerful “muscular contemplatives” of a power temporarily paralysed by grief. Yet the eye is drawn up by the use of gold in the allegory of victory which sort of alludes to the fact that the score is going to be settled and balance righted. Righteousness will triumph over the death of the victims.

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  13. Kevin O'Keeffe says:

    I’ll be turning 45 next week, and so I suppose I will eventually get around to one day visiting New York City. When I do, I now know to be sure to check out the U.S.S. Maine memorial at Central Park, and will probably skip the so-called “plaza.”

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  19. DRLunsford says:

    Excellent piece. I would point out that the original WTC plaza was itself a horrible place, a vast expanse of flat rock tiles surrounding a cold and forbidding globe-thing symbolizing nothing. And many of the victims (can I remind us of this?) fell to their deaths in it. When I saw this new plaza, I was reminded of that, to my considerable horror. So in a sense, it fits, if for the worst of reasons.

    -drl

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