Almost 5 months after the disaster of Sept. 11, we in this city, especially if we lived through that horrible day, are still scrambling how to cope with it. Walking into the Max Protetch Gallery to view the "NEW WORLD CENTER-DESIGN PROPOSALS" show was like searching for a relief. It is, as if we collectively are trying to find peace and act as usual in whatever we are doing, getting together with friends, going to the openings, working, attending panel discussions (what next?), following the TV networks or Times...in search of that relief. The show wasn't the magic pill; it didn't cure you of anxiety but it made you think. As a true indicator of our times, it blended perfectly, regardless the message of individual work with other everyday images of this cross-pollinated, incestual culture of death. In the media: A depressing mix of a gun at a journalists head, the Super Bowl with its commercials, the President announcing in "The State of the Union" address a permanent state of war in the sky, seas, deserts, cites, caves, and inside your computer, killer terrorists, Enron sleaze, economy of the city and the world at large going down, Davos with the globalization in Manhattan, crazed Osama on the loose etc… Is the relief in sex, art or maybe in the "Lords of the Rings"? Architecture is as hot, cold-blooded, rational, paranoid and schizophrenic, good and bad as anything else. Apart from this feeling and its subject, this show gives you, because of its circumstances, an accurate and raw snapshot of the state of architecture today (the best way to capture this point is to view this show on a Cram, kindly provided by the gallery in its press release kit).
Featured are architects of different generations, those of the 60's with there utopias, 70's conceptiualism and performance, 80's lions of culture wars bringing in the real or falls notion of postmodernism and through 90's to the new millennium with the post Frank Gerry digital organic forms and fascination with pure data. It is especially interesting to see how different active participants, shaping architectural discourse in last decades, evolved and played themselves out. There's important presence of artists crossing into architecture, and in opposite direction, architects crossing into fine arts. It is interesting to notice from where the firms architects and artists are. It gives you an idea where the power-centers for architecture lie. Apart from NYC and the usual mix of Germans, Austrians, Italians, Swiss, Japanese, Londoners, Amsterdam and a lonely Slovene, there's a strong presence of LA firms and architects. Vito Acconci, one of the most influential American and New York artists, has long extended his body performances in spaces, landscapes and electronic space of the video screen to creating hybrids between architecture, sculpture and performance. He collaborated with architects, most notably with Steven Holl. His entry is, at first glance, astonishingly a standard, corporate glass tower. But at closer look, and especially reading his statement that is integrated with the image of the tower as a compact sculpture, the spirit of his early work comes across in force. It captures the spirit of NYC in its most concentrated form. Puncturing the holes, since the holes have been already inflicted by murderer terrorists, as a marching order in the design? It has a sense of anarchic defiance. Few works expressed a sense of speechlessness at the scale of the tragedy, when only small gestures and few humane thoughts are appropriate at this moment in time, because only few months have passed and the bodies are still being excavated.
One of most touching is the work of Frei Otto in the form of a handwritten letter to Max Protetch. It's beautifully drafted with a watercolor sketch for a memorial park. The spots where the towers stood would be excavated and transformed into lakes. Human relics would be collected within a hill covered with earth from the victim's countries and on the map of the world, part of the park, the lights will mark the zones of ongoing conflicts and a counter will count the numbers of future war dead. Weiss Manfred, in his dark drawing, comes closer to silence representing today's downtown Manhattan skyline, with only the reflection of the towers in the water. There's nothing more to say. Surprisingly, Michael Graves presents a humble, beautiful object with a message of peace -- almost repenting for the sins of his past.
Theoretician and architect Michael Sorkin's work brings in the reference of the 70's earth art of Robert Smithson. Like an Indian burial mound, he encircles the preserved ruins of WTC. It's a work that, with its thoughtfulness, slowly works its way into wiener consciousness and stands close intellectually with venerable Paolo Soleri. Soleri's use of organic forms has a different genesis than new numerous (well represented in this show). Post Frank Grey digital High-Tec architects. Soleri's a humanistic utopian in the spirit of his time, back to natural organic technology. While on the totally opposite side, using digitally generated, synthetic, organic forms are hot, new firms like "OCEAN" north.
Their project is freakily eerie. It is as if it's pointing to a new, dark future of an absolutist, Technological New World order. It is, in a way, appropriate for this show because this newly declared permanent war can actually bring us this kind of future. The last 15 years we lived through fiction becoming reality, so seductive architectural imagery is ready for a doomsday, futuristic movie that may actually materialize a sort of Albert Speer fantasy. Asymptote works the same ground, but without "OCEAN" north Wagnerian pathos. Theirs is sleek, more in tune with existing corporate architecture. A slightly different project is from the firm NOX that refurbishes and propels Gaudi's organic forms into a new technological utopia.
Zaha Hadid updated her constractivists references into the digital age, where she exchanges steel lines with pure abstract data. She is performing a totally mental exsercise, it's final goal being the expulsion of human flesh. Winka Dubbeldam's presentation was in a form of a web artwork or corporate presentation. Navigating through economical and social data, an accurate reference to WTC and Wall street that was and is in the business of processing data, you create architecture, a good point. "Towers of Light" is the most successfully pop proposal. Pop in its almost perfect form, because of its media friendliness. The two beams of lights replacing WTC is probably the most published image dealing with the commemorating WTC. References of Hollywood star-lights or anti-aircraft lights of WWII and "Cathedrals of light" were transcended and provided a workable proposal for a temporary memorial and something that can lift the spirit of the city. The presentation was glossy, like a postcard.
Those most successfully reworking the language of modernist architecture are Morphosis and LOT/EK. Morphosis proposed elegance and luminosity of Seagram by Mies Van Der Rohe. At first, it seems to be out of place, but surpassingly it is not so. They bring back a sense of rationality into this chaos, a sort of sobering optimism and a utopia of estheticism. LOT/EK is rethinking the modernist language and fusing it with the sensibility of new technologies. The result is appealing, especially in the use of color.
Artist Marjetica Potrc brings to the mix an ecological angle and current discourse of anti-corporate and anti-globalization movements. Corporate raiding of energy resources, especially addiction to fossil fuel, that like an addict addicted to quick profits, is driving us (not unlike those crazed terrorists that piloted the planes into the WTC) to an ecological holocaust. She is an artist exploring the connections between the architecture of survival on the margins of this so-called "global economy". In her small, beautiful sketch, she is bringing into the heart of global commerce one of the possible solutions.
Venerable architects Raimund Abraham and Daniel Libeskind contributed a sense of history to Sept 11. In his great presentation drawings (he dazzled generations of architecture students with his drawings), he uses, as a backdrop for his signature, a deep-reddish brown drawing a black and white photograph of Arial view of the devastated site of WTC that connects to images of WWII, images of Stalingrad, Warsaw, Dresden, London, and Berlin. His reddish monolith is heavily mournful, not allowing escapism into some bright future, but instead it locks you in the present and past anguish. Daniel Libeskind iron with symbolically loaded towers don't let you forget either and bring in memory, and appropriately so, of the biggest slaughter of innocent civilians -- the Holocaust and Outwits. In the end, the gentle photograph by Baltazar Korab of the creator of WTC, architect Minoru Yamasaki, brings sadness. Sadness for a utopia ending in tragedy.
Sadness for all the victims, people we shared this wonderful city with, but also sadness for the loss of those two beautiful towers that I really loved, especially in that magical and gentle hour between 5 and 6 in the morning.