Art Deco, Ground Zero

Five years later, how about a design actual human beings might like?


When Mohammed Atta flew the first plane into the World Trade Center five years ago, he was not only a terrorist striking a blow against America but a former architecture student striking a blow against the mid-twentieth-century building style called modernism.

We'll never know if that thought crossed his mind in his final moments, but it wouldn't have been the first time terrorists saw modernist architecture as a weird imperialist imposition—one often characterized by geometric shapes, cold glass and steel, Louis Sullivan's minimalist principle that "form follows function," and early modernist Adolf Loos' more puritanical rule that "Ornament is crime." In 1997, Basque separatists expressed a special hatred for Frank Gehry's Spanish branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, which looks something like a giant titanium cabbage, by threatening to blow it up. Ostentatious, gaudy-modern sites indicative of creeping modernity—such as a Planet Hollywood restaurant bombed by Muslim terrorists in Capetown, South Africa in 1998—have been criticized from a variety of traditionalist and leftist perspectives for running roughshod over local customs and aesthetics. And not all the critics are insane.

When the World Trade Center was completed in 1973, it was part of the late phase of an architectural revolution, and not an altogether pretty one. Modernism explicitly rejected the past, but now would be the perfect time to relearn some of the lessons that were lost in the process, 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—and in the way that 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 book From Bauhaus to Our House, explaining how the European modernists of the early twentieth century consciously cast tradition aside, believing they could create not just buildings but aesthetics and cities themselves according to simple rational principles—with the results often being cold, ugly, inhuman, and even impractical. (Modernist buildings, with their flat roofs and massive facades, were often leakier and windier than expected.)

Archmodernist 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 responded: "that doctrine [that my critics follow] 'Life'; 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.

We still live every day surrounded by the dehumanizing results of the philosophy of Le Corbusier and his ilk. 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 and the hopelessness of Asbury Park, NJ, 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 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 I spoke to told me that Roosevelt Island 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."

Across the river, on the eastern shore of Manhattan, two other apartment complexes, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, built in the mid-twentieth century, are also homogeneous in a typically modernist way. "From the outside, it just looks like a big block of buildings that all look the same," one long-time Stuyvesant resident told me. "It never occurred to me that it looked ugly or not ugly. It just was there." As one Peter Cooper resident said, "They're purely functional… If you want a building with personality, that should also mean you have a building where your door closes differently than your neighbor's and there are little quirks in the individual apartments, and there really aren't here."

And the sad truth is that the World Trade Center, 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. It was the sort of mass-produced-looking artifact that convinced countless leftists in mid-century that capitalist society was all about conformity and rigidity, when in truth it was anything but.


Before modernism, buildings had a richer, more ornate, and more varied look.

Anyone who has watched people hesitate when faced with an unadorned glass door placed in the middle of an unadorned glass wall—as Boston architect David Whitney did one day on a visit to the New York City Guggenheim Museum—will understand that there is something blank and inhuman about modernism. Cornices, wainscoting, door frames, decorations, and other psychologically comforting, traditional cues were useful for guiding living, breathing human beings through what might otherwise be a geometer's bland maze. Whitney explained to me that some architects eventually embraced criticisms such as Tom Wolfe's—architects such as Robert Venturi, whose laudatory book Learning from Las Vegas was one of the first signs of a post-modernist movement, intended to revive a spirit of playfulness and warmth in building.

The postmodernists of the late twentieth century did not want to deny history but instead 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). Postmodern architect Robert A.M. Stern explicitly described the method as a partial return to traditionalism. Postmodern planners Andre 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, resulting in complexes that look a bit like a pleasant cross between sleek late-twentieth-century Miami and Victorian New England.

Of course, postmodernism can sometimes be as garish as modernism is bland. While researching some of Venturi's works, I talked to some disgruntled New Haven firefighters who work in an oddly-shaped firehouse that 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," Chief Martin O'Connor told me. Lt. John King added, "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 and build something at Ground Zero in southern Manhattan—after five years of public-private, bipartisan, bureaucratic inactivity—that avoids both modernist drabness and postmodern frivolity? The current plan—if this one actually comes to fruition—appears to be little more than warmed-over modernism, a sort of shiny-white futurist complex that looks as though 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 might 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 the attitude that has become more common among architects in recent years: humbly pick the style that's "right for the job" and then adhere to its rules with some deference to that style's internal, traditional rules. As Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman says, we want buildings to please their users, not help architects make a philosophical point—a self-indulgent tendency in twentieth-century architecture that reached its reductio ad absurdum with the so-called deconstructionist architects, who deliberately designed buildings that no one would want to live in. (One such architect suggested a replacement design for the 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."

Architect David R. Hall of Mt. Vernon, WA, says, "We're really going through a renaissance of modernism now, but a more humanized modernism." That means, among other things, 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. Ultimately, the biggest change in attitude among architects in recent years, though, is the view that one should employ past styles as a sort of palette rather than ignoring them, referencing them ironically, or rigidly replicating them. In any case, precisely imitating the past isn't so easy. Interior designer Julia Busby, of the architecture firm Jova, Daniels & Busby, in addition to describing various successful designs from her firm, pointed out to me how her co-workers didn't quite match the look of Atlanta's old city hall when they built the new addition. "I think the intention was let's pick a color that will fade and age with the city hall, but again, city hall was stone and new city hall is stucco. It blends, but I think the glass got a little too green."

Is there, though, 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 evocative of 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 nineteenth century, creating buildings that are fancy and ornate in an old-fashioned way while being intensely vertical engineering marvels at the same time. Is there a style that can do for New York what Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham did for Chicago when they raised it from the ashes?

The past century of architectural history is enough to make one cautious about grand pronouncements and city-sized planning, but as a New Yorker, I must say 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 beautifully of all, 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 one 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 with the past. Art Deco was the product of a civilization that was prosperous, proud, eclectic, and fun—not one so worried about giving offense or invoking the wrong tradition that it would rather make heartless boxes.

Maybe it would be naïve to try going 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.