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Reflections on September 11/Low-cost Housing and Preservation 

12-09-2015 17:35

The National Trust has asked me to say a word about the wound that has been inflicted upon us. It seems right to do so here because what happened on September 11 is so central to questions of preservation and of the experience of architecture and its meaning in human life. Especially the architecture of the city. From the days of Uruk and its king Gilgamesh, as described in the great Sumerian epic of that name, the city has been thought of in terms of human immortality. We build in it in relation to those who have lived before us and our buildings are a legacy to those who come after us. Therefore, in the city, human life is extended beyond its own individual span. So, after a long and fruitless quest, Gilgamesh decides at last that the only immortality he can hope for resides in the well-fired bricks he has built into the walls of his city`s temple, which will live on after he himself is gone.

Still, today, we expect that from buildings, that they will outlive us. From that point of view, the Modernist cult of impermanence and of contempt for the past was a betrayal of architecture`s major mission and of the city itself. It is because of the mass public reaction against precisely that point of view that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has grown so strong over the past 40 years. We now know that we have to protect the buildings that define our world. So much the more are we shaken in our lives, and in our hope of life, when our most important -- or perhaps only our most conspicuous -- buildings are cruelly destroyed by enemy action. The enemy knows this. "Here is America struck by God Almighty ... so that its greatest buildings are destroyed," he said. "Grace and gratitude to God. America has been filled with horror ... Thanks be to God."

But here the World Trade Center poses a special problem. Few architects and critics have ever liked the World Trade Towers very much. That is surely an understatement. They seemed too tall and too inarticulate, out of scale with the great old group of skyscrapers and casting doubt upon the relevance of the lively conversation they were carrying on with each other. Then Cesar Pelli in his World Financial Center buildings drew the towers into a pyramidal organization something like that of the old group, but at a new scale. And they became tolerable, but still lacking the figural life of the early skyscrapers.

Then the World Trade Towers were struck, and instantly their associations changed for us. They changed, charged with apocalyptic pain and transcendent human courage. Their inordinate height came to seem heroic, and the void they left in their fall wholly unbearable. It now seemed to us that they alone in New York had risen commandingly to the scale of the vast sky and into the world of the airplane, the space of the continent; and they became, in retrospect, the American Sublime, now irretrievably lost, leaving emptiness behind them.

And how do we feel about that? Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive who worked in a high-rise in Hartford, asked us just that in a poem he called "The American Sublime." It concludes:

But how does one feel?
One grows used to the weather,
The landscape and that,
And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,

The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.
What wine does one drink?
What bread does one eat?

But what would we feel today if the passengers on Flight 93 had not wrestled it to the ground? Wholly unprepared, and wanting to live, they beat the enemy in his own major strength which was his readiness to die. We can hope that they had a moment before the end to savor the ferocious joy of victory. Because they were victorious. If they had not been, there is every likelihood that the dome of the Capitol would have fallen. We remember how its base stood empty during all the early years of the Civil War until the new high dome finally rose complete in 1863 and the Statue of Freedom crowned its top and Grant came to guard it down below. Then we would have felt the wound, from which the airline passengers preserved us. Nevertheless, we would have begun to rebuild as rapidly as possible, to make it all look exactly as it had before.

But what do we do about the World Trade Center Towers? Here the answer is not so simple. There are many good reasons not to crowd thousands of people into skyscrapers any more. There are other ways to work and to communicate with each other and, terrorist attacks aside, the hazard of concentration in tall buildings is always present. So it would be logical to replace the towers with several lower buildings, as the lessee of the site suggests he would like to do. Or, if we look for a memorial, we might retain the void they left, now so movingly framed by Pelli`s buildings. "I built them as around a mountain," Pelli said, "and now the mountain is gone." But then what would we feel? Perhaps defeated: all that long century of aspiration gone, the remaining skyscrapers looking huddled, the American horizon, always challenged by us, now oppressive to us all. Reason may demand that we face just that, but it goes against the grain.

Still, no one knows what we may come to feel in the years to come, how we may grow, or what wisdom long and perhaps bitter experience may teach us. Surely, like all the great cities of the past, New York, so savagely mutilated, is for that very reason dearer to us than it was before. We still have all our cities to cherish and defend, their fabric to preserve, and their people as well.

New Haven, Conn., is the city I know best. It was laid out in 1638 as an ideal Congregational community, on a nine-square plan based on the reconstruction of 1604 by Villalpandus of the prophet Ezekiel`s new Jerusalem. That city of refuge for the exiles from the old, smitten city was described by Ezekiel as set by Jehovah under a mountain; here New Haven is set by East Rock, rising, glowing north of the harbor. And out of that relationship and its development over the centuries, along with the proposed expansion of New Haven during the City Beautiful period, and in response to the assault upon it by the coming of the Interstates and the redevelopment of the 1960s, came Duany Plater-Zyberk`s New Urbanism, which was fostered at Yale. Its design and planning approach can be seen at Seaside, Fla., begun in 1979, the first of many new towns and neighborhoods that the New Urbanism has since created for a more or less affluent middle class.

The New Urbanism`s fundamental intention is to build humane low-income housing in the center of our cities or where the dismal old projects of Modernist planning once stood. Toward the fulfillment of that aim, Robert A. M. Stern`s Subway Suburb, of 1976, was the first proposal of all, and it predated Seaside by three years. You all know how, on a site in the South Bronx, burnt out and unwanted but with its utilities in place, Stern proposed to build the kind of American town that most Americans of whatever economic level seem to want to live in, one shaped by a firm grid of streets with a town green in the center. Stern threw out the high-rise slabs of the old projects that had destroyed communities everywhere and have since been demolished all over the United States, and he based his houses more or less on the two- and three-family, frontal-gabled, vernacular type in New Haven that Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk had studied a few years before. HUD never carried out the scheme, but it did build a few single-family houses on the site, certainly of a less appropriate type, but they were all snapped up by eager buyers, even though they lacked the supporting town plan.

That was supplied by the New Urbanism in its infilling urban groups of the `90s, like the Central neighborhood in Cleveland, by DPZ, which remade a destroyed urban neighborhood near the city center. It was built in a local vernacular as lovingly detailed as that of Seaside, and was supported by HUD as one of its Nehemiah Neighborhoods, predecessors of the Hope VI program. The Hope VI program was conceived in the late 1980s but was largely funded between 1993 and 1995 under the direction of the great Henry Cisneros, who also uncompromisingly embraced the principles of the New Urbanism for the Hope VI designs. HUD`s program attempts to reestablish the urban structure in center city sites where it has been destroyed by projects like the Horner Houses in Chicago. In its place, Peter Calthorpe, who was at Yale`s school only during 1976-77, reweaves an urban pattern of streets and trees and squares, and the differences are at once obvious between pure disorienting hell and, if perhaps not as sensitive as DPZ might have been, still a good solid neighborhood, a firm, civilized place in highly urban Chicago. At a gentler scale, Ray Gindroz, who taught at Yale for many years, starts in Norfolk, Va., with this no-man`s land and transforms it into a lawn overlooked by porches. Or in Louisville, a barrack becomes a street of houses, the kind of place people can live in as individuals, citizens, and good neighbors.

In fact, the Hope VI program recalls and revives the most humane and effective federal intervention in low-income housing that American history can show. This was the Emergency Wartime Housing of World War I. The government itself built a whole series of neighborhoods in industrial centers up and down the east coast. Great care was taken to find out how the workers who were to live in them wanted to live. And it was stipulated that each group would be built in the vernacular of the region. So Henry Klutho in Jacksonville employed the wooden board and batten of the Stick Style and the Cracker Vernacular of Florida. Bridgeport, Conn., which was called the Essen of the United States at that time, had seven of these neighborhoods at different scales, all under the general direction of John Nolen, then the dean of American planners.

The most beautiful one was for the lowest paid workers of all and was called, touchingly, Seaside Park. It was by very good architects, R. Clipston Sturgis, Arthur Shurtleff, and Andrew H. Hepburn, who later went on to Williamsburg to work for Rockefeller. It was in the Georgian vernacular of New England, but being built in brick, it had a somewhat Southern air. It has the American neighborhood structure of lot, sidewalk, grass plot, trees, and street. And the image of the single-family house directs the design: although to keep costs low, buildings were subdivided into four apartments, as was being done in the English Garden Cities of the time. But each has a brave door and a fine bay window and a clear identity, and the town green is there as well.

Directly after the war, there was a congressional investigation which concluded that the whole program had been socialistic and un-American. And the architects of Seaside Park were especially reprimanded for "undue elegance in design." Then, directly across the street (Iranistan Boulevard), another housing group was built that scrupulously avoided those defects. It dates from just before World War II. Modernism has struck and the thing is now all flat-roofed barracks, abstractly disposed on a super block and floating in asphalt. It has had to be rebuilt more than once, and became for a long time the center of drug distribution for this section of Bridgeport. So much for those who claim that environment has no obvious effect on human behavior.

We saw that in New Haven, in the area north of Yale`s gymnasium, just beyond the Nine Squares and ghettoized in part by the obstruction of Grove Street Cemetery. It was then left bereft by the departure of the Winchester rifle factory and of all the other factories where most of its people were once employed. Its inhabitants, many of them now unemployed and disoriented -- for the grid of streets had been wholly destroyed -- became convinced by the way they had to live that they were a permanent underclass with little to lose. It was an unhappy and sometimes a dangerous place to be.

Now, though, we can walk up Ashmun Street and see a Hope VI neighborhood, designed by Bruce Heyl of Fletcher Thompson, of Bridgeport. And we can walk there. The feeling has changed. And why would it not? The density may be too low: 414 units instead of the old 800 or so, and a bit too suburban -- which puts a strain on Section 8 and other programs. But compared to what it was before it is a paradise now. The crummy high rises are gone and the last of the sullen low rises are all being torn down. And when the architecture of the poor is basically of the same type as that of the rich and is different from it not in kind but only in degree, it cannot help but encourage a kind of comradeship, a sense of community, that did not exist before. In the end it is human beings who are rehabilitated and preserved.

In New Haven the mayor is especially proud of the reestablishment of the grid of streets with the grass plots and the good masonry curb. Outmoded codes have been derailed. The streets are kept reasonably narrow; midcentury set-back regulations are ignored. The utilities are underground and the trees are being planted. A place has been made. It is a clear urban order worthy of the great town plan itself, and defined by the repetition of a simple architectural type like the strong and simple building types that once defined Yale`s Old Brick Row open to New Haven`s Green. That`s what makes a city: the type, the street, the trees.

It is worthy, too, of the intention of the city`s founders to shape a community where town and college, city and university, were to work together to make a better world. That`s what it is after all: God`s city under the mountain, Ezekiel`s Jerusalem restored, America itself, new haven of exiles, Heaven on earth for all mankind to see.

Publication Date: Winter 2002

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Author(s):Vincent Scully