Michael Bierut | Essays

(Over)explaining Design

The premature release (noted by Bill Drenttel below) of Michael Arad and Peter Walker's World Trade Center memorial design sans explanation, for one day at least, was refreshing. It's worthy to make design more understandable -- this site is dedicated, among other things, to doing just that -- but in the end it must speak for itself. At the WTC site, the amount of rationalization has been dizzying. Have we gotten too good at it?

Daniel Libeskind is a great architect but may be almost too great an explainer. Every aspect of his master plan for the World Trade Center site comes bundled with newly-minted brand names (Freedom Tower, Memory Foundations, The Wedge of Light) and each of those names carry their own built-in metaphors. At his Jewish Museum in Berlin, his design intentions are permanently displayed not only in the built work (which is stunning) but also in the interpretive panels that guide the visitors (which are oppressively intrusive).

In his terrific new book about the building of Rockefeller Center, Great Fortune, Daniel Okrent introduces us to Hartley Burr Alexander, a University of Nebraska teacher who enjoyed a vogue in the first part of the twentieth century as a "thematic engineer." Alexander was hired by architects to create metaphoric outlines for artists commissioned to create site-specific works, for instance the muralists at Radio City Music Hall.

Okrent quotes "an almost random selection" from Alexander's "Thematic Synopsis" for Rockefeller Center to give us a sense of what passed for a design brief in the early thirties:
These great symbols should be like silver crests rising above one another in a challenging sweep...the STEALING OF THE CORN MAIDENS lured away by the Flute Musician to the Cavern of Mist and Cloud, the entrance to which is a Rainbow arch. There they are concealed beneath the wings of flying birds until the Sun Hero dates his rays through the mists, discovers and frees them, to return dancing to the fields...

Okrent calls Alexander's work "both solemn and breathless," "lunatic" and "more Martian than human." I wonder, however, whether we're making a return to this sort of thing. For instance, I'm not that sure it's that far a walk from Alexander's "Cavern of Mist and Cloud" to Liebeskind's "Wedge of Light."

As a working designer, I know well how hard it can be to enlist enthusiastic support on the long road to realizing any design project. And in that regard I have to confess I was nearly awestruck by the ingenuity of making the WTC's Freedom Tower exactly 1776 feet tall, which effectively makes any modification a challenge not to design integrity but to patriotism itself.

I wonder, though, whether this facile manipulation of words and metaphors will in the end blunt authentic experience. God knows, the WTC site is hardly neutral: there was nothing abstract about what happened on September 11th, 2001. But what strikes me about Bill's juxtaposition of the WTC memorial space and James Turrell's Hover is not their formal similarity, but the freedom we have to understand a purely artistic space on our own terms, unburdened by overexplanation.

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good

Comments [6]

Perhaps being "unburdened by overexplanation" is more than we can ask for in the present. In the future, when we have heard from a few different voices, we may have simply an explanation or explanations.

I have tended to hold a romantic notion that there were works of art/architecture/design which were simply presented to the public and were expected to be judged on their own merits and were. (Stories like Bernhard's match poster being dug out of the trash comes to mind). But I suspect this has been more the exception than the rule. And some degree of the kind of showmanship and salesmanship of people like Liebeskind and Alexander has always been necessary to get things done. That is, the work alone is never enough no matter how solid.

Turrell persuades in a different way. He has his own schtick. He has a cowboy hat and a grey beard, speaks evenly, reasonably, flys an airplane. He has a down to earth, authentic, manner which he uses to sell really wacky and large scale projects. He has discovered the method of persuasion which works best to get the things he wants to make done.
trent williams

It is interesting (or ironic) that Libeskind's first major constructed work was an essay on the inability to represent the loss of jewish culture and intellectualism in the city of Berlin. The void of the Berlin Museum is incessant, obtrusive and silent. It is also a remarkable spatial experience.

That Libeskind has now resorted to 1776 foot high spires, Plazas of Light and an Avenue of Heroes is remarkable. But it is not really over-explanation as much as it is the construction of a fantasmagoria that does not exist except for the fact that is has been so named.

Functioning as a memorial (and not as a step in minimalism's exploration of light as existance) how might the public understand the true purpose behind this structure? Further room for interpretation allows more room for misconception. For something built for the sole purpose of remembering a day of loss (to some this site will represent a lost family member), is a full spectrum of interpretation necessary?

What would a blank tombstone mean to family of the buried?

I'm not saying that Liebeskind's interpretive panels are a great solution for representing the content (Freedom Tower? Memory Foundations? How can anyone take these names seriously). However, I'm just not sure a conceptual comparison between WTC site and Turrel's work shows fairness to either of their purposes.
JT Helms

Indeed, JT, there has been a lot of concern that, regardless of the rhetoric around the memorial process, the result would be too abstract, that people visiting the site years from now would have no way of knowing, for instance, that two very large buildings once stood there and that a lot of people died in their destruction.

The revisions that were made between the original submission by Arad and the revised design that was presented last week were meant to address this perceived shortcoming. This included the addition of artifacts and interpretive materials.

The merger of artistic experience and history lesson is a difficult one to pull off. At the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the biggest problem is not the printed panels that explain how the architect intends for you to react to the spaces. (You can always not read these and you'll be all the better for it.)

Rather it's the uneasy combination of Liebeskind's powerful abstract architecture and the material that provides the actual content of the museum -- a history of the Jewish people in Germany. The didactic literalism of the latter is irresolvably at odds with the abstraction of the former. It's telling that the museum opened empty, without any exhibitry at all, and those who saw it then found it a more moving experience.

By the way, a lengthy article in the New York Times gives a behind-the-scenes look at the judging process that began with 5,201 entries and ended with this one, and includes this quote: "Jurors with a historical bent fought with those more concerned with the memorial's emotional and tactile content." In the end, the memorial's success will be judged by how well it reconciles these twin concerns.
Michael Bierut

there has been a lot of concern that, regardless of the rhetoric around the memorial process, the result would be too abstract, that people visiting the site years from now would have no way of knowing, for instance, that two very large buildings once stood there and that a lot of people died in their destruction

Strangely enough this doesn't seem to be a problem a the Vietnam Memorial, despite the Park Services (and literally everyone else's) best efforts to aid in the 'learning' process.

My greatest fear, after seeing the excessively bathetic presentations, is that any WTC memorial will eventually be a Hollywood produced disaster movie version of the 'real' thing. History, culture, whatever you want to call the processes that pass for manufacturing memory these days have already constructed a memorial and memories for the site. Is up to the designers of the official memorial to not bury what already exists too deeply in the mire of manufactured emotion.

It should be noted that over-explanation landed the job for Leibeskind. All of the monikers for the design elements ("Circle of Heroes", "1776 foot tall Freedom Tower", "Wedge of Light" etc.) pressed hot buttons for even the most visually illiterate; politicians and tabloid journalists, who are verbal animals, loved it. (Shorn of its labels, the scheme hews closely to what developers want and when judged on its own is easily be mistaken for a mediocre mixed-use project in Bangkok or Sao Paolo. All of the public bickerings of architects and developer have basically been about decorative issues).

Leibeskind shamelessly pandered to the emotions of the moment, and the result is a white elephant on the order of Rome's obese and jingoistic monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II.
mark yoes

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