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The Fortress Versus the Free Society

ARCHITECTURE / NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

October 21, 2001|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

Even as we mourn those who died, we struggle to understand the new world we are living in.

Architecture, too, is undergoing a reality check. And the impact will likely reach far beyond the site of the World Trade Center. At the very least, architects will go about their work with a sense that each line they draw now carries more weight.

But the real shift in the architectural landscape will probably have little to do with formal arguments. We already are looking at buildings differently--as potential targets, expressions of a national mood or even symbols of hope. At the time of the terrorist attacks, architecture was on a wild, exuberant ride. Since Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, first captured the public's imagination in 1997, cities all over the world have been rebuilding urban cores, creating new cultural monuments and vast commercial centers. Much of this architecture has been splendid; some has been highly superficial--a theme park architecture for mass consumption.

Now the wild ride may be over. Architects and their clients, like the public in general, will have to adjust to a new global climate. The result could be a clamping down on creative thought, a retreat to conservative classicism, or worse. But the shift could also be to something more inspired: a culture of greater depth, one with little tolerance for the trivial.

The past century is riddled with moments of unspeakable violence and destruction, and all have left an indelible mark on architectural history. The Utopian dreams of the great Modernists, for instance, came directly out of the experiences of World War I. For those architects, the devastation of Europe's cities was a blessing, one that allowed them to wipe away the clutter of the 19th century city with its dark, labyrinthine alleyways and suffocating living quarters.

These visionaries were interested in reaching beyond the creation of new aesthetic formulas. They were intent on building a new society. The lightness of steel and glass, stripped of unnecessary ornamentation, would foster physical and psychological health and form the foundation for a new machine-age metropolis that would function with the smooth efficiency of an assembly line.

The result was one of the most fertile periods in 20th century architecture. Post-Revolutionary Russia alone produced a remarkable range of architectural models, from the pure, abstract geometries of Ivan Leonidov's Lenin Library to the dynamic forms of Konstantin Melnikov's workers' clubs.

But it was only after the Second World War that those visions were applied on a massive urban scale, sometimes with remarkable brutality. In America, the Allied victory and the emergence of a new military industrial complex spurred one of the largest building booms in history, and entire segments of the inner city were torn out and rebuilt. In a sense, the construction of the World Trade Center towers was the culmination of that postwar mentality, a massive vertical metropolis that erased 15 city blocks.

On a national level, it is hard to say how deep the cultural tremors will be from the destruction of the two towers. At the very least, our sense of optimism has been shaken. The effects may be closer to those felt in the aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy--events that deeply altered the country's national mood, but did not lead to a major reworking of its physical infrastructure.

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AMERICA HAS BEEN A COUNTRY BRIMMING WITH SELF-confidence--a self-assuredness that has often bordered on denial. This has been good, and bad, for architecture. Intent on raising their cultural status, almost every major American city has hired big-name architects. Gehry and Rem Koolhaas in Seattle, Zaha Hadid in Cincinnati, Santiago Calatrava in Milwaukee and others have radically reshaped the nation's civic landscape.

Many of their designs have a formal energy not seen since the early days of the Soviets. The colorful forms of Gehry's Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, for example, with an exterior that resembles a huge crumpled blanket, embody a kind of hopefulness that late Modernism sorely lacked.

What makes these visions so compelling is their range. In Seattle the wild forms of Gehry's museum will soon be joined by the cooler conceptual language of Koolhaas' public library--a structure sliced into a series of enormous horizontal concrete slabs of various widths encased inside a taut wire-mesh skin. Similarly, in Los Angeles, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall is rising a mere quarter-mile from Jose Rafael Moneo's cathedral, a massive structure with tough geometric forms that evoke a more somber view of Modernist history.

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