12 May, 2009

Can English architects survive in New York?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Norman Foster and Richard Rogers are the first to suffer as redevelopment of Ground Zero hits hard times. Hardly surprising – they’re Limeys

No one should be surprised that the 79-storey and 71-storey skyscrapers designed by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers for New York’s Ground Zero have been pruned back to stumps. The site of the New York Port Authority’s World Trade Centre has always been a breathlessly commercial phenomenon, and now that times are hard, the site’s developers are cutting their architectural cloth. It might have been a nice transatlantic gesture to have two Limey architects on board, but now that push comes to shove, it’s time for a lower-budget, all-American development.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, emotions held sway. What was going to be built on the charred ruins of the Twin Towers was a Freedom Tower, 1,776-ft tall, calling to mind the year of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most stirring political documents of all time. Designed by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, the tower and the public artwork at its base would be a wildly imaginative and altruistic symbol of US-style liberty.

But, as President Calvin Coolidge reminded the world in 1925, “the business of the United States is business”. And it is business rather than sentimentality that has held sway in the development of Ground Zero. Because of this, foreign architects can expect short shrift. Even Daniel Libeskind, a US citizen, saw his role diminished as the mightily commercial New York and Chicago practice SOM replaced him as the architect of the Freedom Tower.

Foster himself is, in fact, one of the few foreign architects to have made headway in New York. To build in this great city, it’s a good idea to be an American. If Rogers and Foster, who studied for their master’s degrees at Yale, would only choose to settle in Manhattan and become US citizens, they might be building skyscrapers rather than stumps today.

Foster’s Hearst headquarters is an impressive and original addition to the Manhattan skyline, yet one of the few designed by foreign architects. You might hold up your hand and say, hey, what about the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe; Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum; the Pan-Am building by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus; and across the river, the charismatic TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen? Yes, but these Germans, Hungarians and Finns were all professionals who had left old Europe and become US citizens; while Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Centre, was a second-generation Japanese-American.

Of course, the New York monument that most symbolises US notions of freedom is the Statue of Liberty, designed not by an American, but by a cheese-eating French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who studied architecture in Paris, and lived and died there. But it’s significant that the statue was a gift to the people of the US: it was not commissioned by New York developers.

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