Erectile dysfunction: World Trade Center fizzleNew York City missed an opportunity to acquire a landmark building by the firm that knows more about how to build one, and to make it work for a democratic society, than any other. Instead we get Danny Libeskind's eager-to-please, unworkable structure with its frantic gesture. And, if the jury selection of the 8 finalists in the memorial competition stands, it looks like we'll get a generic, airbrushed sort of mock cemetery to mock the grief of 9/11.
Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is an impressive small work. When we saw it and walked through it three years ago, it did not yet have anything on exhibit, and didn't even seem to offer good exhibit spaces, so the building itself was the exhibit. With its nowhere-leading staircase, it seemed a fitting commentary on the sadness and dead-endedness of the story of German Jewry in the 20th century. Libeskind has visual imagination. But he's never built anything as big as a skyscraper and, as his renderings of his assymetrical projected WTC tower demonstrate, he doesn't know how. Building it will be somebody else's headache, engineers especially.
Libeskind is all about conceptual design. A one-sided spire to mimic and wave back to the much smaller Statue of Liberty, though, is a silly concept, like making the tower exactly 1,776 feet tall (as though the Christian calendar could be equated to the English foot-pound system, or as though anybody could tell from the ground precisely how many feet it was). And then of course there was that spurious "shaft of light," a beam from the heavens that, it turns out, won't even fall where he said it would. These are empty gestures, saluting democratic tradition (and some vague, generic religious sensibility) without grappling with it, or thinking through how to revitalize democracy in the 21st century.
Norman Foster and his London firm do know how to build very large buildings that are both elegant and functional. Foster also, despite his feudal-sounding title ("Lord Foster"), understands much better than Libeskind the strains on democracy and some ways that 21st century technology can help renew it. His transformation of the old German Reichstag, not far from Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, is brilliant. The glass dome is a perpetual reminder of the original, which was an important icon in German history, but its transparency is not merely a symbol of the hoped-for transparency of modern German democracy, but also an opportunity for citizens (and visitors from abroad) to see how the new parliament works and to look over the whole of the reunited city. His London City Hall (which I haven't personally seen yet) is an engineering marvel, also celebrating democratic openness.
Maybe, though, empty gestures are just what the decision-makers these days want for us. Like a frantic wave toward Miss Liberty so nobody notices how they are ignoring her real message.
Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum, Berlin
Lord Norman Foster's Reichstag, New German Parliament
BBC coverage of Foster & Partners' London City Hall
WTC Memorial finalists
Libeskind, Foster, and other proposals for the WTC site (2002)
Pagan Pilgrimage: Berlin, Oktober 2000 by Geoffrey Fox (originally published in the now-defunct Themestream, October 2000.