When Mohammed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center five years ago, he was not only a terrorist striking a blow against America. He was a former architecture student striking a blow against modernism, the mid-20th-century style often characterized by geometric shapes, cold glass and steel, Louis Sullivan’s minimalist principle that “form follows function,” and Adolf Loos’ more puritanical rule that “ornament is crime.”
We’ll never know if such a thought crossed Atta’s mind in his final moments, but it wouldn’t have been the first time terrorists saw modernist architecture as a weird imperialist imposition. In 1997 Basque separatists threatened to blow up Frank Gehry’s Spanish branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, which looks something like a giant titanium cabbage. A variety of traditionalists and leftists have criticized ostentatious, gaudy-modern sites like the Planet Hollywood restaurant bombed by Muslim terrorists in Capetown, South Africa, in 1998. Not all the critics are insane.
Now would be the perfect time to relearn some of the lessons lost when modernism explicitly rejected the past, so that something can be built at Ground Zero that is elegant in the most timeless sense of the word, elegant in the way that the Woolworth Building, mere blocks from the Trade Center site, is. Elegant the way many buildings from the first, all too brief generation of skyscrapers were a century ago, before modernism declared ornament, decoration, gentle curves, and playful details to be frivolous.
Tom Wolfe summed up the case against modernist architecture in his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, explaining how the European modernists of the early 20th century consciously cast tradition aside, believing they could create not just buildings but aesthetics and cities according to simple rational principles. The results were cold, ugly, inhuman, and impractical. (Modernist buildings, with their flat roofs and massive facades, were often leakier and draftier than expected.)
The arch-modernist Le Corbusier wrote maniacal diatribes against traditional aesthetics, calling old, organically developed towns “things that have merely happened” rather than being planned, fit only for meandering “pack donkeys.” He dreamed of razing all of Paris’ old buildings in order to replace them with his now all-too-familiar trademark concrete public housing blocks. When an early critic of Le Corbusier called him boring, he dismissively denounced the doctrine of “life with its many facets and unending variety; life, two-faced or four-faced, putrescent or healthy, limpid or muddy; the exact and the arbitrary, logic and illogicality, the good God and the good Devil; everything in confusion; pour it all in, stir well and serve hot and label the pot ‘Life.’ That should be enough to make any living being a many-sided character of infinite variety.” This, I must stress, was Le Corbusier’s description of evil.
The dehumanizing results still surround us. Take the odd little planned community called Roosevelt Island off Manhattan’s eastern shore, peopled by an odd mix of U.N. employees, hospital staffers, and (by explicit demographic design) a certain number of low-income residents. Combining the dreariness of Le Corbusier with the hopelessness of Asbury Park, New Jersey, the island’s Main Street is a narrow, modernist canyon with Pompidou Center–like orange ducts at one end. Styleless red signs line Main Street, with sterile, artless names all rendered—by law—in the exact same font: Thrift Shop, Community Library, Fish Store, Cocktail Lounge, General Store, Travel Agency/Bakery, Public Safety Dept., Parish Chapel, Island Management Office. One former Roosevelt Island resident tells me the place reminds her of living in Romania as a child: “During the Ceausescu regime, they demolished certain cultural and religious buildings, and they were building a huge number of buildings that were all modernist—no uniqueness, just very sterile—to house the workers in the big factories.”
The sad truth is that the World TradeCenter, while ostensibly an icon of a hectic and diverse world of ever-changing commerce, was also a bland modernist structure—though it certainly didn’t deserve its horrible fate.
Anyone who has watched people hesitate when faced with an unadorned glass door placed in the middle of an unadorned glass wall will understand that there is something blank and inhuman about modernism. Cornices, wainscoting, door frames, decorations, and other traditional, psychologically comforting cues were useful for guiding living, breathing human beings through what might otherwise be a geometer’s bland maze. Some architects anticipated and embraced criticisms like Wolfe’s, among them Robert Venturi, whose 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas was one of the first signs of a postmodernist movement, intended to revive a spirit of playfulness and warmth in building.
The postmodernists did not want to deny history; they wanted to resurrect it in bits and pieces, borrowing Roman columns here (as architect Ricardo Bofill has) or Art Nouveau decorative flourishes there (as seen on Thomas Beeby’s wacky and eclectic Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago). The postmodern architect Robert A. M. Stern has explicitly described the method as a partial return to traditionalism. André Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have won acclaim for applying postmodernism’s insights to urban planning, encouraging simpler, more flexible building codes in an effort to move away from homogeneity while still retaining a certain thematic consistency similar to the organic towns of old. The resulting complexes are a pleasant cross between modern Miami and Victorian New England.
True, postmodernism can sometimes be as garish as modernism is bland. Researching Venturi, I talked to some disgruntled New Haven firefighters who work in an oddly shaped firehouse the premier postmodernist designed. “We’re rebuilding the whole thing, and we’re not telling any architects about it, so we can get it right,” says Chief Martin O’Connor. Lt. John King adds, “I think the gentleman’s smart never to show up here in person.”
Still, postmodernism’s exuberance was a welcome change after modernism. Can we learn from that tension as we build something at Ground Zero, after five years of public-private, bipartisan, bureaucratic inactivity? The current plan, which may or may not actually come to fruition, appears to be little more than warmed-over modernism, a shiny-white futurist complex that looks like it may have come from Krypton, topped by a 1,776-foot spire meant to represent the American Founding, though you’d never know it. (Jeffersonian neoclassicism would do more to evoke the Founding era, but there’s little chance of anything emerging from the current squabbling that looks as good as Monticello.)
It would be nice if the planners of Ground Zero’s reconstruction adopted an attitude that has become more common among architects in recent years: humbly pick the style that’s “right for the job,” then adhere to it with some deference to that style’s internal, traditional rules. As the Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman says, we want buildings to please their users, not help architects make a philosophical point—a self-indulgent tendency in 20th-century architecture that reached its reductio ad absurdum with the “deconstructionist” architects, who deliberately designed buildings that no one would want to live in. (One such architect suggested a replacement design for the World Trade Center that would have looked like the original complex in mid-collapse.) “This is a pluralistic time,” says Tigerman, “a pluralistic society, and instead of saying, ‘What will buildings be like?,’ I will do my best to cause Humpty Dumpty to be put back together again, which is denying deconstruction.”
Another architect, David R. Hall of Washington state, reports that “we’re really going through a renaissance of modernism now, but a more humanized modernism.” Among other things, that means accepting the use of ornament where necessary, thinking about what colors will look warm and inviting instead of machine-like, and taking greater account of customer preferences for light and space. The biggest change in attitude, though, is the idea that you should employ past styles as a palette rather than ignoring them, referencing them ironically, or rigidly replicating them. In any case, precisely imitating the past isn’t so easy.
Is there some relatively recent and recoverable style, natural and organic for New York City, that would simultaneously be rooted in the city’s past and boldly evoke an optimism about the future? Chicago managed to forge a distinctive style—and invent the skyscraper in the process—when it rebuilt after a devastating fire in the late 19th century, creating buildings that are fancy and ornate in an old-fashioned way while being intensely vertical engineering marvels at the same time.
As a New Yorker, I wouldn’t mind seeing something rise at Ground Zero that looked less like Krypton and a good deal more like Art Deco, the style that gave New York City three of its other most spectacular building sites: the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and, perhaps most beautiful, the Chrysler Building, with its gargoyle-sized Chrysler hood ornaments that link the grandeur of gothic cathedrals to the future of American manufacturing without irony or apology. Art Deco, with its chrome, spires, lightning bolts, and Fred Astaire–era class, manages to respect traditional notions of beauty while making you want to leap into the future with the confidence of Flash Gordon—a future that flowed gracefully from the past instead of being a brutal break. Art Deco was the product of a civilization that was prosperous, proud, eclectic, and fun, not so worried about giving offense or invoking the wrong tradition that it would rather make heartless boxes.
Maybe it would be naive to try to go back to Art Deco. But something like it would tell the world, all in one go, that we’re still New York, still Western civilization, still dynamic, and still building—not merely recovering.
Todd Seavey is a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow and the editor of HealthFactsAndFears.com.