Debates and soul-searching within the architecture profession as a result of 9/11 : LUSENET : Unk's Troll-free Private Saloon : One Thread

LA Times December 21, 2001



Architects Ask, 'What Did I Do to Cause This?' Design: Since Sept. 11, the profession is in ferment. One forecast: "New buildings will hold memories of these acts."

By REED JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer

In the restless weeks since Sept. 11, a host of conflicting emotions has stirred the imaginations of architects: Anger. Defiance. Hope. Melancholy. And, perhaps especially, guilt.

For building designers, the destruction of the World Trade Center was a nightmare come true, a slo-mo implosion of steel and glass that turned an icon of American supremacy into a smoldering ruin. Not only did the terrorist attacks claim thousands of lives, they also destroyed a monumental symbol of Western architecture in all its technical know-how and bravura optimism. Now, as they sort through the aftermath, many architects admit to a vague, troubling sense of culpability in the twin towers' fiery destruction. As they wrestle with September's legacy, some wonder if big, attention-seeking buildings might somehow have contributed to the anti-American rage unleashed on New York.

"All of us are thinking, 'What did I do to cause this?' " said Michael Rotondi, former director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, who sees "hubris" reflected in recent high-profile buildings. "Perhaps what put those buildings up is what took them down. Whether architects have the privilege of expressing their egos publicly as we've been doing for the past 10 years is really an open question."

This soul-searching has come to embrace many facets of design. In e-mail chats and public forums, architects are passionately debating how to make buildings secure without compromising creativity or the values of an open, pluralistic society. They're considering emerging technologies to cope with new dangers and challenges. And in quiet voices, some are speculating that an era defined by high-priced corporate trophy buildings and jet-setting superstar designers is on its way out.

"We've just added a whole list of demands on architecture that didn't exist before. Every architect will be affected by [the attacks] and have to reevaluate what's important," said Alexander M. Ward, director of design for the Leo A Daly firm, which is working on Los Angeles' new cathedral and renovating the international terminal at LAX.

While much attention has focused on rebuilding lower Manhattan, the aftershocks of the attacks are being felt thousands of miles away. "The effect is global," said architect Daniel Libeskind of Berlin. "New buildings will hold memories of these acts, whether it is the position of a window or how a building is sited."

One immediate reaction has been to fortify buildings and erect barriers. Libeskind has been asked to add a two-meter-high fence around his best-known work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The proposal is still under review.

"I fought for a decade to keep that fence out," Libeskind said. "That is a direct outcome of these attacks."

But along with these superficial reactions, a deeper, more nuanced dialogue about architecture's future is also taking shape. Even before the World Trade Center fell, architecture seemed to be at a creative crossroads, split between a corporate-driven, conservative aesthetic and a more radical vision epitomized by the work of such designers as Libeskind and Santa Monica's Frank Gehry, whose buildings are marked by jarring, asymmetrical forms.

Although developers still bank on mega-skyscrapers such as the 1,483-foot-high Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, many cities have been jockeying to construct their own versions of Gehry's wildly popular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Now, a consensus is forming that architecture may be headed for a period of retrenchment, of buildings with smaller budgets and lower profiles.

"I think people will shy away from this attempt to be in the Guinness Book of World Records of architecture," said Edward P. Bass, a member of the billionaire Bass clan, who has led a revival of downtown Fort Worth. "I don't think anyone's going to be attracted to creating the unique, high-profile type of project that distinguishes itself to the point of becoming potentially a target."

From Egypt's ancient pyramids to the Bauhaus and beyond, architecture has testified to a civilization's staying power, its worldview, its faith in a collective future. Yet social upheaval and political uncertainty have inspired leaps in building design. The Great Wall of China and Florence's magnificent Duomo, a cathedral that was built to withstand the new threat of gunpowder, are examples of landmarks that arose from trying times.

Once in a great while, a cataclysmic event will even propel architecture to adopt a sweeping new aesthetic. In Europe after World War I, the collapse of the old imperial order accelerated the Modernist movement, conceived as a revolt against all that was decadent and oppressive. With its memorable adage of "form follows function," Modernism stripped away the ornamentation and pomp of Victorian architecture, re-imagining buildings as the pristine glass boxes that would eventually redefine the look of Western cities.

Could architecture be in for a significant shake-up after Sept. 11? Culver City architect Eric Owen Moss believes that new buildings will need to show greater humility and circumspection, be more socially conscious and less overreaching and egotistical. "A lot of the glitz, the commissions, the sort of imperious globalization über alles is gone, and that's a good thing," he said.

Above all, architects say their profession must look beyond knee-jerk responses, toward creating environments that are not only secure but also challenging and humane.

"We're not emergency-response technicians, we're not firemen, we're not paramedics," said architect Michael Maltzan of Silver Lake, whose current projects include the new Kidspace children's museum in Pasadena and a temporary home for the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, New York.

"Architecture represents our aspirations, our goals, our fears," he said. "The first response to 9/11 is going to be to call architects and say, 'We need more barriers, we need more walls, we need more bollards.' It's architecture's role to understand those needs, but not necessarily to acquiesce."

In Oklahoma, Change Is Underway

For building designers, many of these issues were foreshadowed on April 19, 1995, when a bomb planted in a parked rental truck blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The tragedy served notice that public buildings needed to be made less vulnerable without sacrificing accessibility or aesthetic daring, said Edward A. Feiner, chief architect of the General Services Administration, the government's principal civilian landlord.

"Oklahoma City was our baptism of fire," Feiner said. "Sept. 11 was a horrible tragedy, but we had a lot of, let's say, prep work, because we experienced a lot in the Murrah building."

Today, Oklahoma City is putting that prep work into practice, in a way that could serve as a template for new civic architecture after Sept. 11.

Giving high priority to curb appeal, the GSA plans to replace the Murrah building with an elegant $40-million low-rise structure designed by Carol Ross Barney, a principal with the Chicago firm of Ross Barney & Jankowski.

Located across from the Murrah lot, the new structure, at a maximum of four stories, will be less than half the height of its predecessor. It also will be set back at least 50 feet from the curb, as a precaution against car bombings.

But it will include lots of glass--safety glass--intended to convey a sense of openness and transparency, effects that are enhanced by an interior courtyard and an adjacent park. In four years of planning, advice was solicited from survivors of the attack, a number of whom will be working in the new structure.

The complex, scheduled to open within two years, is meant to demonstrate that public buildings can be well-defended without being fortress-like, stylish without being extravagant. "We can't make bad architecture the answer to the phenomenon of what happened Sept. 11," Feiner said.

Those words may sound dubious to Americans who envision soulless civic plazas and wretched high-rise housing projects when they think of government architecture. Feiner himself maintains a "Wall of Horrors" in his Washington office, lined with photos of the banal concrete piles thrown up during the Great Society building spree.

But two decades ago the GSA launched an innovative building program, "Design Excellence," one of the largest such federal initiatives since the New Deal. Feiner has recruited some of America's leading architects to design courthouses, border stations, national laboratories and other federal buildings.

Though not without critics of its modernist tastes, the program has yielded such highly praised works as the monumental Richard Meier-designed federal courthouse on Long Island. Another courthouse in Miami, to open in 2003, will be buffered by earth sculptures commissioned from Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Ultimately, Ross Barney said, the best way to make buildings secure is to make them appealing to the people who use them, live near them and serve as their de facto custodians. She and others invoked the argument urban theorist Jane Jacobs made long ago in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"--that safe and civil cities require "eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street."

"You can put all the armor you want on," Ross Barney said, "but the buildings can't hide, and they have to be welcoming."

Just a few months ago, Paul Doherty's vision of American architecture might have seemed like the wild speculations of a guy who admits he got some of his best ideas from the Space Age cartoon show "The Jetsons." But lately, Doherty's notions about computer-driven "smart buildings' have been winning converts at blue-chip architecture firms and Fortune 500 companies. They may even be coming soon to a shopping mall or office block near you.

While many in his profession are having gloomy thoughts, Doherty is busy preaching an upbeat gospel about how security, wedded to new information technologies, can be an "invisible" component of enlightened design. Dismissing metal detectors, concrete berms and surveillance cameras as "like, so 1980," the Memphis-based consultant conjures a not-too-distant future in which airports and office complexes will use sophisticated scanners to filter out miscreants and computerized commands will guide office workers to safety in high-rise fires and other emergencies.

"We have technology now that we can integrate in lobbies that can digitally recognize everyone that passes through and monitor exactly where they are going," Doherty recently told a receptive audience of federal architects and engineers at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. "It's no longer, 'Wouldn't that be cool?' It's real."

As a tool for making buildings more secure, information technology offers both promise and threat. Some see it as a potential affront to a free society and architecture's humanist traditions, while others deem it preferable to bomb-sniffing dogs and Uzi-toting guards.

Other forms of information technology already are transforming how buildings are made and used.

In recent decades, modern architecture has converged with industrial design, systems management, behavioral science and structural engineering to create "intelligent" buildings that are more "flexible" and responsive to their occupants' changing daily needs, said Patrick Mays, principal and chief information officer for Seattle-based architectural giant NBBJ. One consequence is that the romantic image of a solitary genius like Frank Lloyd Wright, slaving away over his blueprints, has given way to a more specialized, collaborative architectural culture in which different building scenarios can be tested with speed and efficiency, Mays said.

Like car designers, architects increasingly rely on "rapid prototyping," letting clients test multiple simulations of buildings before ground is broken. That's an advantage for designers responding quickly to a crisis like that of Sept. 11, Mays said.

Information technology also will allow sophisticated building components to fill some roles previously performed by humans. Just as bank customers gradually have come to prefer ATMs to human tellers, technology-driven security and convenience will supersede human contact in some 21st century environments. That could mean whisking through a thumbprint scanner at the airport or being greeted at your favorite restaurant by a hologram host.

Bill Gates' automated palatial home in suburban Seattle used to be derided as a control freak's folly. But now some of its features, such as walls that double as digital projection screens, creating virtual environments, are being copied on a modest scale in upscale restaurants and stores.

Building "smart" also can mean building to save wear and tear on the planet. The attacks on the trade center and the Pentagon, coupled with upheaval in the Middle East, will probably intensify the push for eco-friendly technologies such as natural ventilation systems, solar panels and recycled "gray water."

"Intelligent" architecture needn't be ominous or impersonal. It needn't even be high-tech. Last month during a tour of Crossroads School, a progressive Santa Monica private school, architect Joe Pica pointed with pride to one of the elementary campus' principal safety features--not security cameras or metal detectors, but a bright-blue metal fence sculpted in nursery-rhyme motifs.

"If you feel like you're in a fortress, you'll probably begin to act differently," Pica said. "If you feel you're in a place that has a little more levity to it, as long as it's secure, you'll probably have a little different attitude. That's true for the people inside and the people outside."

Since the attacks, two types of buildings have been recognized as particularly vulnerable to new circumstances: the mega-sky scraper and the big-ticket cultural temples that have proliferated in recent years. Within hours after the disaster, some commentators had singled out the modern high-rise as a scapegoat. It was the twin towers' operatic dimensions, they argued, that put them in Al Qaeda's cross hairs. Furthermore, the towers' extreme height had impeded rescue efforts.

Those obituaries now appear premature. Donald Trump's plans to build a high-rise in downtown Chicago are going forward, although its planned height has been reduced from 100 or more stories to 78. Also pushing ahead is the 94-story World Financial Center in Shanghai, which a Japanese consortium hopes to complete before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Though the skyscraper's allure has waned in much of the Western world, it's still a prized commodity in upwardly mobile countries. Just a few weeks after the attacks, Altoon & Porter Architects threw a penthouse cocktail party to celebrate its relocation to a downtown Los Angeles high-rise. Among the guests was King M. Huang, the Chinese-born president of a Pasadena engineering firm that is working on a 68-story office project in Tianjin, China, to be named, of all things, the World Trade Center.

"They called me [after Sept. 11] and asked me, 'What do we do now?' I said, 'Don't worry about it,' " Huang said.

Most Asian cities really don't need to build super high-rises, he said. Only a few metropolises such as New York and Hong Kong have nowhere to build but up. But developers want them anyway. "It's a demonstration of power, success, a trademark for the company," he said.

In many European and North American cities, today's architectural status symbols aren't soaring corporate monoliths like the twin towers. They're provocative new art museums, concert halls and other cultural edifices that are often regarded as economic catalysts for fraying postindustrial urban centers.

Beginning in the late 1980s, a small but influential group of designers shook up the status quo. Their ranks included Libeskind; Gehry, whose Walt Disney Concert Hall is rising in downtown Los Angeles; Zaha Hadid, born in Iraq and now working in London; and Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, whose spectacular redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was unveiled this month.

Envelope-pushing buildings such as Libeskind's unnerving Jewish Museum and Gehry's sensuous, surrealistic Guggenheim Museum have dazzled the public, though some critics complain that they upstage the artworks they hold. Many of these designers were formerly identified with so-called deconstructivist architecture, a term that fuses "deconstruction," a genre of postwar French literary theory, with the "constructivist" movement of early Soviet Russia.

Subversively witty and often startlingly beautiful, these buildings embrace modern life's psychological and social conflicts and the vagaries of spatial perception. They helped turn a handful of architects into global superstars on a par with fashion designers.

With images of destruction so raw, some think deep-pocketed clients and a skittish public will be put off by an architecture that connotes visual dissonance.

"The public as a whole may have a reaction to projects that are fragmented or 'deconstructed,' " said Ward, of the Leo A Daly firm. "People like their buildings to be orderly, to help counteract the chaos of the world."

Gehry, on the other hand, asserts that some developers and clients are using Sept. 11 as "a convenient excuse" to retreat from daring projects on economic grounds. "The tendency is to pull in your horns and to get conservative. So maybe we're in for some of that," said the architect, two of whose New York commissions, the Astor Place hotel and a proposed new Guggenheim museum, have been postponed.

Other leading designers contend that architecture urgently needs to maintain a bold, generous vocabulary of forms to engage a precarious new world. "There was beginning to be an acceptance of new ideas after struggling for 20 years to push the culture forward," Hadid said. "To go back to those conservative values would be terrible."

A 'Brutal' Challenge to American Optimism

A few weeks ago, on a crystalline morning, Eric Owen Moss showed a reporter around a complex of buildings he has designed near his Culver City studio.

It's a startling, virtuoso group: the "Beehive," a spiraling, see-through office building, flanked by sculptural earth mounds that act as subtle security buffers; "The Umbrella," a composition of steel pipes and cascading glass panels; and, most imposing of the lot, "The Stealth," a black, cantilevered office structure nicknamed after the bomber jet, which looks as if it might take off any minute and go screaming down National Boulevard.

Reflecting on architecture after Sept. 11, Moss said he has been reminded of a line from philosopher Immanuel Kant: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." The attacks, Moss said, were a "brutal" challenge to Americans' perpetual optimism and faith in material progress.

As he paused on a rooftop overlooking the jagged urban expanse, Moss said that architects mustn't allow Sept. 11 to muffle their creative impulses. In fact, he said, just as buildings require a certain degree of tension to stay up, architecture, if it is to remain vital, demands the thrust and counter-thrust of argument, the push and pull of contesting views.

Those tensions seem likely to get sharper in architecture's latest age of anxiety.

"If you go to a Wilshire Boulevard psychologist," Moss said, "he'll tell you to get rid of the stress, go to yoga. But I think within the human condition, within oneself, or between oneself and others, the fact that a society can tolerate those stresses makes for a wonderfully strong society."

_ _ _

Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff in Los Angeles, staff writer Marissa Schultz in Washington and correspondent Lauren Sandler in New York contributed to this report.

This is one in a series of stories that will appear from time to time exploring the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on various aspects of American society.

-- (, December 21, 2001


Gugenheim Museum, Bilbao Spain, Frank Gehry

-- (, December 21, 2001.

I suggest they build all the walls and floors out of carbon-fiber graphite composite or styrofoam, so they won't crush the floors below them. The chairs should be nothing but inflatable air cushions and the desks should be made of balsa wood. They should also have a rule that you are not allowed to put anything in your office that would be heavier than you would be willing to have fall on your head if you were on the next floor down. No regular computer monitors on the upper floors, only the thin flat-screen type.

-- Isaac Newton (beware @ of. gravity), December 21, 2001.

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