Designs for 2010

In 2002, Harper’s Magazine Editor Lewis H. Lapham, cautioned that the ‘American Idea’ needed to be reinvented. At a time of a military buildup in Iraq, he said in an address to the United Nations Association’s meeting, the challenge is whether the US will succeed as a “democratic republic” or become a “national security state.” Eight years later, 2009 saw a new administration led by President Obama triaging a broken economy, broken health care and education systems. Although drawing down the number of troops in Iraq as promised in his campaign, Obama at the same time has announced a plan to step up American presence in Afghanistan. Standing on the threshold of 2010, are we answering Lapham’s call for the new “American Idea?”

I recall a day in July, 2002, when more than 4500 participants at the Listening to the City Town Meeting pondered this very idea in a day-long dialogue at the Javits Center on “Recreating Lower Manhattan Through Artistic Public Dialogue”

What is artistic dialogue or what is more popularly referred to today as “design thinking?” Artists work with different mediums and technical skills, and they have a spatially different way of seeing the world. Painters, such as myself, compose within a two-dimensional pictorial frame, while sculptors deal with the idea of ‘kinetic volume,’ with implied space surrounding a three-dimensional form. Perhaps we are drawn each to our medium by the particular way in which we ‘see.’ Seeing is the beginning point of all thinking, and “seeing” in this context incorporates all the senses—hearing, taste, smell and touch. Thinking is conceptual, and we construct our reality into layers of meaning (Langer, 1953, 95)

The Javits Center participants pored over the six architectural design submissions and engaged in lively discussions on the designed space. I realized that it is the architect who, as Langer described, takes society’s parts, organizes them, and creates a cohesive, visible entity. Once made visible, its image is in the public realm. The outside world should and must be architecture’s sanctum as well, for it is its visible context, just as the horizon provides its frame. (Langer, 1953, 96) In the aftermath of 9/11, Michael Kimmelmann reported the way in which people sought out public spaces to come together–whether at spontaneous events such as candle lightings, constructing public memorials, or the public park, the space most reflective of a city’s cultural continuity to make sense out of daily life, particularly after such an horrific event as September 11. As New York Times’ writer Herbert Muschamp, writes on the metonymic meaning of Ground Zero: “Initially its meanings were almost strictly emotional: shock, anger, fear and pain but then expanded into more complex patterns of deliberate actions undertaken by individuals and groups around the world who wish to comprehend the deeper historical meaning of 9/11.” Yet for all the devastation at Ground Zero, Stephen Gould observed that it was also the focal point of “vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet.” Though Memorial Plaza was the design picked over the other five, the participants voted down all designs for failing to be bold in design, lacking innovative and quality design. The designs, it was unanimously felt, also missed the essence of what New York is —its monumentality. While preserving the Twin Tower footprints was essential, those present thought it was just as important that the buildings visually delineate the skyline, without walling off the neighborhood with buildings that would eliminate the street grid. The principals, the participants urged, should mount an international competition to solicit designs that would not only be bold, innovative but also restore a sense of community in Lower Manhattan. By day’s end the question in the balance was would a new design represent a new American ideal that would be sustainable? As Daniel Libeskind noted in his proposal: “the great slurry walls are the most dramatic elements which survived the attack, an engineering wonder constructed on bedrock foundations and designed to hold back the Hudson River. The foundations withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction and stand as eloquent as the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and value of individual life.” As 2009 comes to a close, let Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy’s triumphal last paragraph of his “The New Vision” represent a human centered perspective of the new American Ideal that is represented by “constant fluctuation, sideways and upward, radiant, all-sided, announcing to man that he has taken possession, in so far as his human capacities and present conceptions allow, of imponderable, invisible, and yet omnipresent space.”

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