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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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:
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?
- 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.