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Providence Journal

In lower Manhattan, go classical
February 14, 2002

What goes up on the 20-acre site of the World Trade Center will influence the direction of American civic design more profoundly than any single project in the memory of any living American. If we are lucky, rebuilding lower Manhattan could spark a second City Beautiful movement.

So it is good news that firefighters, police, survivors and family members of the victims of Sept. 11 and the general public will be looking over the shoulders of the developers, planners, architects and civic leaders who will control what is built.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's vision of a site devoted to a "soaring memorial" and no economic development is about as realistic as the in-Osama's-face notion of rebuilding the twin towers. After new Mayor Michael Bloomberg dumped cold water on Sir Rudy's notion, it was clear that the obvious would prevail: a collection of buildings and a major memorial. The question is, what will it look like?

Will it be a cacophony of egotecture with an abstract memorial to the dead -- all designed by the nation's (or even the world's) leading modern architects? Something glitzy but sterile like Potsdamerplatz, in Berlin, or Disney's new Times Square?

Or will it be a symphony of classical art and architecture, with a grandeur unseen in American civic design since the City Beautiful movement?

In 1893, millions visited Chicago's World Columbian Exhibition. Many returned home with grand ideas about what a town square or a civic center could be like. Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, the Beaux Arts ensemble of City Hall Park, in lower Manhattan, and elegant plazas in cities big and small, including Providence, were inspired by the exuberant grandeur of the exhibition's classical architecture.

It wasn't called a "movement" for nothing. It was popular. It could happen again, and it may be more likely than you would think.

Because clearing ground zero has gone so fast, critical planning and design decisions must be made sooner than expected. The pressure is heightened considerably by a widespread concern that lower Manhattan will lose its competitive edge to other global financial centers unless it rebuilds soon.

A short development timeline could promote a more classical outcome by forcing developers to act fast, before powerful design elites can coalesce around a modernist scheme. Politicians seeking to avoid controversy might back traditional designs that are more likely to please the general public.

A survey of architectural journals suggests that modernists are concentrating on designs for the memorial rather than the neighborhood as a whole. And most of the designs are as goofy and self-infatuated as you would expect.

Meanwhile, classicists are focusing on how to fit a memorial and a set of buildings together in a way that recreates the grid of streets disrupted 30 years ago by the World Trade Center's raised plaza.

For example, the fall issue of the Manhattan Institute's fine quarterly, City Journal, unveils a plan by Franck Lohsen McCrery Architects and Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart. Its 10 or 12 buildings, ranging up to 50 stories, hark back to the heyday of the skyscraper, with wedding-cake setbacks and unabashed classical ornamentation. A central plaza and sunken lawn are flanked by four monumental figurative statues, two females symbolizing history and memory, and two males representing police and firefighters, of up to 42 feet in height.

Architecture critic Catesby Leigh, writing in the Jan. 21 Weekly Standard, describes that plan and another by architectural historian Henry Hope Reed and artist Elliott Banfield that is even more pleasingly classical. It features a great column on a plaza flanked by monumental arcades. The first plan, says Leigh, "restores civic art to its rightful place in American urbanism and recognizes the classical tradition as the most promising source of a truly meaningful artistic response to Sept. 11," as would the second.

Truly meaningful, yes, but also truly comprehensible to the public, unlike most of the abstract proposals likely to emerge from the modernist camp. No doubt, the classical plans will be condemned as boring and nostalgic by modernist critics for whom clarity of meaning in art and architecture is considered unsophisticated. Let them rant.

Of course, a short timeline could also backfire, and a compromise satisfying to neither the public nor the modernists might be struck. Catesby Leigh is more pessimistic than I, yet even he still believes that "sooner or later, [classicism] will once again assert itself in our great cities, despite the best efforts of a deeply entrenched [modernist] regime."

With the need to rebuild lower Manhattan focusing public attention on architecture as perhaps never before, a new City Beautiful movement may never again see such an opportunity. Let's roll!

David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His e-mail is:

©2002 Providence Journal



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