Building Glass Houses

A Plea For Architecture With a Human Face

Design elevation for Libeskind‘s Freedom Tower | Photo: Liebeskind

Design elevation for the new Vienna Central Station | Photo: wieninternational.at

Architecture has a physical effect on me. Like a garden in bloom or a hillside in the full blaze of autumn, the character of a cityscape shapes my mood.

Design elevation for Libeskind‘s Freedom Tower | Photo: City of New York

Which created a dilemma for me after September 11, 2001. Because it was only in the safest, most discrete company of close friends that I could admit that I had loathed the World Trade Center Towers, and that I wasn’t sorry they were gone.

To me those towers were ugly, mindless monoliths built to the mantra of efficiency. They bore no relationship to their setting; there was no echo of the motifs of lower Manhattan, no layers or terraces to translate the height to a human scale, nothing to stimulate the imagination nor to lift the spirit.

They were loveless blocks of glass and steel, built to maximise rentable square footage at the cost of all other values. Like franchised fast food and faceless shopping malls, these were true glass houses revealing the worst of America for all to see.

So I was delighted recently to discover that Vaclav Havel thinks so too. In an essay to be published this month in a collection of his writings, To the Castle and Back, the former Czech president said he “absolutely hated” the towers. This was architecture without ideas, he said, “a monument to the cult of profit.”

Writing in May, 2005, Havel went on to say he worried that, “for reasons of prestige,” the city would enter into “some absurd competition with the terrorists,” and now build something even taller, something he said “would spoil New York even more.”

Which is more or less what New Yorkers have been arguing about ever since.

Design elevation for the new Vienna Central Station | Photo: wieninternational.at

But such debates are hardly confined to New York, of course.

At the bus stop the other day, I found myself staring at an elevation drawing of the new Vienna Central Station, whose construction is planned to begin this fall. Sleek and shiny, the mock up shimmers with acres of glass panelled offices, space-age sweeps of silver elevated rail, backed with cut-out scoops of cubist white terminals, all dwarfing the streams of passengers passing beneath.

No brick or stone, no carving, detail or ornament. And not a leaf of green. It looks impersonal, cold and modern in the worst sense of the word – a victory for alienation. This is not a building to be added to the tourist guides.

Who thinks this is a good idea?

It’s not hard to guess: Vienna wants to change its image. And maybe some change is needed: Every once in a while, the photos of fiacres in front of Stephansdom do provoke someone to ask if we also have cars here.

So how better to say Vienna is not just the city of the Ringstrasse and the Kaffeehaus, than to build ports of entry out of glass and steel? How better to refute the claim that Vienna lives in the past than to build a new regional train station that shouts FUTURE! at the top of its lungs?

Well, fine. But what a shame that the chosen vocabulary is so tired and overused, just another experiment in stripped-down structural design, crude, block elements and soulless materials, and spaces with all humanity removed.  No danger of loiterers here. And God help the traveler who has to wait for a train.

In New York, the news is also discouraging. Now with the recent decision by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to withdraw his opposition to the proposed Freedom Tower, it appears Havel’s worst fears will be realised.  Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Freedom Tower at a symbolic 1776 feet (541 meters), is a literal piece de resistance in his otherwise tasteful, even elegant, design for the Ground Zero site of the former World Trade Center.

The problem with the Freedom Tower is that it is simply too big. If built, it will dwarf the rest of the New York skyline, in a piercing gesture of hubris and defiance that seems childish rather than brave.

“Buildings should be erected to enrich human settlements,” Havel wrote, “not to make them duller.” Because efficiency in a building has never been enough; a building must also be a place where the meaning in our lives can find a home.

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