Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 2

The 2002 World Trade Center competition entry by the team of architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl is shown in its finished form at left, and in an earlier study by Holl, at right. The images are juxtaposed as they appear in Holl’s book, Urbanisms. The finished scheme has the regimentation of Upper Manhattan’s street grid while the study suggests Lower Manhattan’s off-kilter intersections. (One legend has it that the slang meaning of “square” comes from Greenwich Village’s bohemian heyday, when free thinkers lived on its unaligned streets and conformists on uptown’s rectangular blocks.) Holl asserts that the distinction mattered to him, in his book Architecture Spoken:

I had been working on a vision called Parallax Towers years before, in which I envisioned horizontal linkage of vertical thin towers. The notion of these as hybrid buildings, meaning they had offices, living, commercial aspects and they were linked in section, orchestrating what is normally known as a vertical typology into a horizontal one. The flexibility of that idea would work for the program we were given for this new project. Peter Eisenman and I fought until the end on how the horizontals should meet the verticals. I always wanted them to move, as in my original project from the early nineties, but he wanted them straight. The compromise was to keep them straight.

Despite this lost battle, Holl would speak proudly of the end result in a lecture at SCI-Arc on September 11, 2003, and bitterly reject architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s description of its “icy rationality.” Nonetheless, his earlier resistance to the squared-off default, in what he calls “endless and enormously confrontational meetings,” is telling.   


Like his World Trade Center proposal, Steven Holl’s Parallax Towers, envisioned to rise from the Hudson off the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are distinguished by sloped bridges. In describing their varied pitches as movement, Holl underscores the way they express human volition and motility. The unsolicited project is one of several created by Holl before his time was commandeered by real commissions. When these visions were collected in an exhibition called Edge of a City, the architect Stan Allen wrote:

They belong to a tradition of utopian realism like that of Superstudio and Yona Friedman in the sixties and the Japanese Metabolists in the fifties; they recall Raymond Hood’s Residential Bridges and Le Corbusier’s urban proposals of the twenties and thirties. As with other architects working in this tradition, there is something seemingly arrogant in Holl’s assuming the power to remake the image of the city. Yet this is the territory in which these projects operate most effectively: not as concrete proposals, but as infiltrations of the collective imagination, producing an idea of what the city could be.

Allen’s reference to popular suggestion and the collective imagination relates this territory to myth, and its expression of shared human fears and desires.   


An image from Superstudio’s 1969 Continuous Monument is shown above Steven Holl’s 1977 Gymnasium Bridge project. They share a visionary tradition and have formal similarities. Both projects substitute a multi-purpose blocky framework for individual buildings. In Superstudio’s hands, this form taps fears of oppressive “scientific methods for perpetuating standard models worldwide,” while Holl makes it a utopian bridge to social re-engagement in a mixed-use – “hybrid” is his constant word – building that hints at the idea of a floating horizontal skyscraper and weightless architecture. For decades, Holl would build on the Gymnasium Bridge in other visions and, notably, major commissions for real buildings.   



The building section of Steven Holl’s 1992-2002 Simmons Hall at MIT is shown below a 1990 Berlin Free Zone image by his friend Lebbeus Woods. Rebellion against cubic space is seen in both. Holl is about creating the experience of spatial porosity found in cities like Naples; Woods is about myth-like narratives - and political provocations - of transformation. Neither aim is catnip to businesslike clients. Holl is known for turning away commissions that would deny his vision; Woods was a full-fledged rebel angel, refusing to serve clients at all, the better to create uncompromised new worlds.   



The body’s interaction with the physical world, its movement through space and time, and its experience of changing perspectives are architecture’s starting point for Steven Holl, reflecting his interest in the phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In this photo of his Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, static Cartesian space and the vanishing points of its diminishing perspective grid are assiduously avoided; subjective experience is prioritized, and the body’s fundamental nature as a sensate, moving entity is engaged and celebrated. The man who designed this space must indeed have regretted seeing his World Trade Center vision regress into the square world’s frozen grid, for its experiential lockstep if not its association with domineering, externally applied reason.



In what might be a belly-of-the-beast view inside Superstudio’s Continuous Monument, New York’s 1960 Union Carbide Building lends grim new meaning to “vanishing point.” Its static cage of X, Y and Z-axes captures a work atmosphere on the verge of precipitating into a half-century hail of Cartesian cubicles. Union Carbide was designed by SOM, the firm responsible for the One World Trade Center tower we will have. SOM’s own more poetic, torqued and asymmetrical early versions of the tower ultimately succumbed to the old default of geometric simplicity, a lifeless twist on the original Twin Tower boxes that Lewis Mumford called “just glass-and-metal filing cabinets.” The genius of Mumford’s characterization is its underlying indictment of such architecture’s failure to inspire, its complicity in the modern world’s debasement of human lives. The Union Carbide interior photo could illustrate Joseph Campbell’s words in The Power of Myth:

When you think about what people are actually undergoing in our civilization, you realize it’s a very grim thing to be a modern human being. The drudgery of the lives of most of the people who have to support families – well, it’s a life-extinguishing affair…. an imposed system is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it?… The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being…. By holding to your own ideals for yourself and … rejecting the system’s impersonal claims upon you.

Flattening – and flat-surfaced – architecture reflects both the tyranny of powers which have the wherewithal to build, and that of the intellect over emotion and nature. This architecture is so pervasive and accepted as to be invisible, leaving its source and merits rarely examined. David Pye is an exception, in his book The Nature and Aesthetics of Design:

A flat surface will touch any other flat surface at all points…. Thus a mason building a wall need not fit each stone he lays to the stone below it. Having cut all his stones to flat surfaces first, he knows that any stone will bed steadily on any other without having to be fitted to it individually.

The versatility of flat surfaces is not commonly seen in nature. Stones which cleave under frost exhibit it; but the breadth of its application was a discovery of man’s, and one of his most valuable, for it enabled him to reduce the cost of construction in all materials very considerably. An extension of the discovery was that if the components of a structure were ‘squared’, i.e. were given two flat surfaces at right angles, then they would not only touch each other at all points of the adjacent surfaces, but would also do the same to a third component.

We take all this very much for granted. Any house and its contents, and the toy bricks on the nursery floor, showed us this before we could talk. The extraordinary rigmarole which I have had to use in writing about it is perhaps evidence that we take it as part of the natural order of things, which it is not….

Only those parts of a component which touch others need be squared. The sides and under surface of a beam need not be squared for the sake of economy, yet from the earliest times we see that this was done, exhibiting the tendency to standardization which appears in all constructional design…. Standardized pieces of material provide the designer with convenient limitations on shape from the start of his job, of the sort which are always welcome, and perhaps necessary, to the designer.

As Pye notes, we take this unnatural flatness for granted from infancy, impose more of it on ourselves than necessary, and have even become dependent on it. That it has infected our brains is proven by the cortical push-back we feel while walking between the tilted walls of Richard Serra’s sculptures, and in the Muller-Lyer optical illusion, which tricks only eyes brought up in orthogonal space. All this matters to the extent that squaring disguises limits placed on us both by others and ourselves. Lebbeus Woods wrote in his book Radical Reconstructions:

Architects usually design rectilinear volumes of space following Cartesian rules of geometry, and such spaces are no better suited to being used for office work than as a bedroom or a butcher shop…. While architects speak of designing space that satisfies human needs, human needs are actually being shaped to satisfy designed space, and the abstract systems of thought and organization on which design is based…. Design can be a means of controlling human behavior, and of maintaining this control into the future.

If this sounds Orwellian, think of the mason’s pre-squared stone, which saves him hunting for one that fits naturally but compels him to build straight walls, and compare what Orwell said about clichés in his essay Politics and the English Language:

If you use readymade phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious…. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thought for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear…. Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

The worst aspect of this control may be that it comes from what Woods calls “abstract systems of thought.” Ever since Superstudio contrasted the orthogonal orthodoxy of its white, gridded, rectilinear Continuous Monument with soft green nature, Cartesian architecture has stood for our bloodless intellect – Goldberger’s “icy rationality” – in mortal combat with our true nature. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell illustrates this dialectic with an example from Wagner’s Ring:

When Siegfried has killed the dragon and tasted the blood, he hears the song of nature. He has transcended his humanity and reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, and from which our minds remove us.

You see, consciousness thinks it’s running the shop. But it’s a secondary organ of the total human being, and it must not put itself in control. It must submit and serve the humanity of the body….

If [a] person insists on a certain program, and doesn’t listen to the demands of his own heart, he’s going to risk a schizophrenic crackup. Such a person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a program for life, and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.

If Campbell’s reference to what “the body’s interested in” merges nicely with Steven Holl’s focus on bodily engagement with architecture, his use of myth and emphasis on self-determination all but define Lebbeus Woods, author of such titles as Anarchitecture and Radical Reconstructions. In the latter, Woods wrote: “The mythless man stands eternally hungry, surrounded by past ages, and digs and grubs for roots.”


Woods’ image Lower Manhattan has the psychological resonance of myth. Water of course represents the unconscious. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the well in Grimm’s Tale, “The Frog King,” as “that unconscious deep (‘so deep that the bottom cannot be seen’) wherein are hoarded all of the rejected, unadmitted, unrecognized, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws, and elements of existence.” As if to convey this, Woods replaced the drained harbor’s smooth bed with plummeting cliff faces rendered in jagged lines, the non-linear complement to the establishment laws that rule above the surface. The unconscious is further invoked by Woods’ description of “peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is.” As Joseph Campbell noted, humans are the consciousness of the earth. For all its skyscraping, the Lower Manhattan of Woods’ vision is just a veneer of civilization, “relatively small human scratchings on the surface” of a deeper realm that dwarfs it and puts it in perspective. Woods seemed to suggest the possibility of living in accord with this deeper reality, saying: “The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed, and, in the drawing, there are suggestions of inhabitation in that lower region.” His own analysis is otherwise limited to observations on scale and density. In text accompanying the image’s publication in a 1999 issue of Arbitare he wrote:

Manhattan is not Big, but Too Small, which accounts for its congestion, its unique cultural intensity. Lille and Shanghai cannot becomes cultures of congestion, no matter how big they are or become. At issue is the matter of scale, not of size. Scale is something more subtle than size, having to do with precise relationships.

In exaggerating Manhattan’s containment, Woods’ image both emphasizes its intensity and makes it read as a single structure housing all the activities of the city. It may be his response to the statement by Le Corbusier to the American press, which Woods quotes, that “your skyscrapers are too small.” But by then, Corb was already infiltrating the collective imagination with visions of multi-use mega-blocks, which would come to bastardized and damning fruition in New York’s housing projects.

To be continued . . .

Leave a Reply