Sunday, October 02, 2005

Reading Lewis Mumford: Then and now

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by architecture critic Lewis Mumford – mostly his Sky Line articles for the New Yorker – and I came across his piece on Rockefeller Center in Midtown, written in mid-1931. In it, he bemoans the lost opportunity that was this massive planned development project, and while he doesn’t pan the project entirely, he does see it as a typical example of business interests superceding public good and architectural aesthetics.

At one point, Mumford writes: “Real-estate experts, salesmen, radio executives, and miscellaneous roxies dictated the number and kind and height of buildings that would be immediately profitable, according to their usual short-sighted and somewhat superstitious canons, in Radio City: there was nothing left for the architects and Mr. Rockefeller except the trimmings.”

Here was a great swath of land that came available during a building boom and Mumford – along with many others, I can imagine – saw it as a chance to break from the higgledy-piggledy creative process that created much of Midtown today and instead paint some broad stokes that would testify to the city as a public place, worthy of higher ideals.

It’s enlightening to find out about these early complaints, and how they compare to the debacle that is current planning at the World Trade Center site. The details are different, of course, but the basic idea – a large space on a crowded island, suddenly open to new development – is the same. For all the criticisms that might be laid at the feet of the various Rockefellers and their aspirations to reshape areas of New York, one can at least congratulate them for getting things done. Just as they were behind “Radio City,” they were also instrumental in conceiving of and getting the twin towers built in the first place. But this time around, their leadership – whether visionary or dictatorial – is absent. Instead we have a rabble of greater and lesser political, state, interstate, federal, commercial and what-have-you players fighting over the site.

And while Rockefeller Center may not have been the great urban-planning success that Mumford had hoped, its buildings and plazas are still attractive in a certain light and do draw crowds – both locals and tourists – and have become a valued part of New York life. So even as I read of an old critic disappointed, there is also hope in knowing that whatever will get built there at ground zero – whenever it all gets built – will eventually find its way into the hearts of the people who live here and those who don’t live here but love it all the same. Just as people finally became fond of those supposedly ugly towers long before September 2001, so too – I like to hope – we’ll eventually learn to live with what the many forces ultimately hew from the ruins.

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