While disagreeing with most of this New York Times editorial about the new World Trade Center plans, I realized something. Pessimists seem to be wrong more often than optimists.
Progress is not always perfect, but the very word itself implies that it is better than stasis. One of the things I love about cities, especially New York, is the accelerated chaos evident everywhere. Tiny narrow buildings squeezed between 40 story apartments, clusters of ethnic restaurants echoing past populations, rotting docks, movie theaters in old Synagogues, grocery stores in old theaters. Some places do result from grand plans, but those plans almost never align with one another and often contradict. The patchwork insanity of cities perfectly reflects the collision of individual dreams, social cooperation and a desperate grasping at immortality.
The editorial’s author, former architect now professor Witold Rybczynski, observes “Five teams proposed buildings taller than the original twin towers, in four cases taller than the 1,483-foot Petronas Towers in Malaysia, currently the world’s tallest,” but seems to cast that as a bad thing. To me, that is exactly what should be happening. Dreaming big. I started saying that two days after September 11th.
Rybczynski’s criticisms seem to focus on the need for a grand plan, which seems strange coming from an urban studies scholar. The whole idea of “Bright City” planning, epitomized by Robert Moses’ massive highways and grid-busting residential sub-cities, is generally regarded as a dismal misstep which almost killed American urban life. It’s only after more than half a century of urban reclamation and unplanned repurposing that those neighborhoods have recovered.
While his own work has focused on visionary dreamers like Frederick Law Olmsted, Rybczynski seems stuck between championing the spiritual importance of buildings (especially old ones) and arguing for practical restraint. He starts out with a celebration of Architecture then shrivels into reasons why the buildings should be shorter (60 stories would barely be visible behind the World Financial Center’s 51 and 53 story towers), finally ending with a bitter, groundless appeal to consequence. One gets the sense that no matter what gets built downtown, Rybczynski is ready to pan it in the Times or the Atlantic Monthly.