DAVIDSON Cynthia What’s in a Log ? (2003)

Log , Fall 2003, No. 1 (Fall 2003), pp. 5-8

Eight months ago, when Studio Daniel Libeskind and the THINK team were named the finalists in the “innovativedesign proposals” competition for the World Trade Center site, New York media coverage of the projects and their architects went into a pop-culture frenzy. The media recep- tion of the nine schemes presented by seven teams in December had been broad and loud; by January, however, the results of instant opinion polls based on public responses to architectural images (or was it to architects’ rhetoric?) had redirected coverage of the proposals in the same way coverage of political candidates seems to be based on name recognition. No real discussion of the ideas took place. No meaningful compare and contrast. No in-depth analysis. No gloves-off debate. It was politics, and media, as usual. Tell us about your cowboy boots, Mr. Libeskind. Tell us about your eyeglasses. Mr. Viñoly, you’re sporting two pair of eyewear! The cult of celebrity lurked on every front page, precluding any possibility for critical analyses of their proposals. Was this a design competition or an Oscar awards ceremony?

When Libeskind’s proposal was named the winner inlate February, there were still more detailed analyses of the man and his wife than of his WTC scheme. Who was thisgenius who once hailed from the Bronx? The real possibility of Libeskind’ s proposed Wedge of Light in a canyon of shad- ows was never questioned or verified until months later by an architect whose “intentions” in analyzing the proposal were then questioned. The design of the 1,776-foot-high tower? Neither its practicality nor its proposed symbolism was questioned. Ideololgy – of commerce and otherwise – went unexamined. When battles ensued over design, the edi- tor of Architectural Record preached good citizenship to Libeskind and tower architect David Childs in a letter print- ed on the magazine’s cover. Then, in early September, The New York Times “broke” the story that many observers now saw Libeskind’s evolving plan as beginning to resemble the early, rejected schemes proposed by Beyer Blinder Belle inJuly 2002. This only showed, however, that the unnamed critics could not see – or that the Times would not report – that the strong resemblance had been present during the competition phase. Hence it seems appropriate to ask, are we moving forward here, or backward?

From the cave to the log cabin, from the glass house to the titanium-clad museum, the image that architecture proj- ects has generally been perceived to be moving forward, to be making technological, if not always aesthetic, or social, progress. But today, as the Congress for New Urbanism sets up student chapters on college campuses, and the rigor that informed deconstruction devolves into what Anthony Vidier has called a license for expressionism, where is architecture – or is it more accurate to say, the image of architecture – moving? The grip of mass media would suggest it is moving more and more toward pure image. Within the discipline itself, recent projects such as Diller + Scofidio’s Blur building in Switzerland and Asymptote’s HydraPier in the Nether- lands – both of which feature water as a primary material – suggest that innovative architecture is moving in the direc- tion of the performative, with aspects that animate and alter one’s experience of space and enclosure. The primary func- tion of these pavilions is to entertain, however, and a suc- cessful entertainer must have a media beauty shot. As Diller + Scofidio’s exhibition last spring at the Whitney Museum of American Art showed, Blur was highly imagistic, appearing on everything from sugar packets to phone cards. Its success was not simply experiential; its success was the proliferation of its image. Likewise for Asymptote, whose HydraPier image received a double-page spread in Time magazine this fall, under the heading “Building Momentum.” Momentum. Movement. “Asymptote is out to prove,” the subhead said, “that architecture doesn’t have to stand still.” (This “news” about architecture, and efforts to make architecture move, inTime’s “Special Report” on “What’s Next.”)

Architecture and the city perform starring roles in thenew film Lost in Translation. The camera glides over the slip- pery surfaces of Tokyo high-rises at night, recording the rip- pling neon lights that enrapture the dazed and jet-lagged American protagonists, who are lost not only in a culture but also in space. Come morning, the camera peers over their shoulders to look through the plate -glass hotel windows and record high-rise views of a city that is always at a distance,an alien space that mirrors the characters’ own sense of alienation from the self. The images feel truthful, overpow- eringly so, more honest than the characters themselves, whose dialogue – whose text – is spoken in low tones and fragments, pale against the urban pan of the camera.In a culture dominated by the image – filmic and still – is it nostalgic to yearn for a text? For writing? Has the in-creasing pace of events – of wars, of celebrity, of the next”new new thing” – made the image and the sound byte -quick to take, quick to disseminate – the most efficient wayto communicate information and ideas? The best way for architecture to record an idea?

In 1922, the journalist and war correspondent WalterLippmann wrote, “Photographs have the kind of authorityover imagination today, which the printed word had yester-day, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterlyreal.”1 While he was writing about photographs of war, thequality of the real is precisely one that architecture covets,particularly in images of proposed designs. Virginia Woolf,on the other hand, wrote in the 1930s that photographs “arenot an argument” but a “crude statement of fact,” (whichare qualities architecture seeks to avoid, especially in photo-graphs of finished buildings). Throughout the decades sincethe world wars, the aura of the real and the fact have re-mained in the public understanding of the image, eventhough the photograph in the 21st century is no longer nec-essarily a true statement of fact. This is not due simply to themanipulations possible in the darkroom or the computer. Thewriter W. G. Sebald introduced found images into his novelsin a way that made the “truth” of both his text and the pho-tographs ambiguous. His work in effect substantiates SusanSontag’s argument that “Whether the photograph is under-stood as a naïve object or the work of an experienced artifi-cer, its meaning – and the viewer’s response – depends onhow the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words.”

This could account for the disjunction between the images Libeskind presented of his WTC proposal and thewords that accompanied them: Wedge of Light, Park of Heroes, Freedom Tower, a “heroic” slurry wall. To the untrained eye, the images looked real, looked (semi)truth- ful; Libeskind’s words, though, gave the pictures life, even meaning, and sealed the deal (proving Lippmann wrong). It was rather like The New Yorker magazine’s annual cartoon contest, which features a drawing in need of a caption. The importance of just the right words is never more keenly apparent than when writing a caption for a cartoon. The words Libeskind used to caption his WTC images were so well-tuned they could even be used as a sales pitch.

One could argue that little of this will matter, or even matters now, given the scope of world events. But degrees of importance are not always degrees of magnitude. The insatiable popular press has seized upon architecture in recent years – perhaps because of the photogenic facades of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – and the making and record- ing of architecture, both built and unbuilt, has not been the same since. The immediacy of images and on-the-scene reporting have in the United States displaced the distance necessary for informed observation and criticism, while celebrity and the ideologies of the politically and environ- mentally correct have taken the place of ideas.

When architecture moves, it moves slowly. The political pressures to rebuild the World Trade Center site have accel- erated a complex design process to a point where it literally defies the distance and time required for criticism. On rel- fection, what is needed is a distance from the immediacy of the image that has taken the place of critical time.

A log, by definition, is a way of recording observations of the present through writing in time. Seen against the backdrop of a culture of images and rhetoric, and in its dis- tance from both the academy and mass media, this Log offers the possibility of a critical context for writing about archi- tecture today – for observing its movement or lack thereof, its images, its texts, and its subtexts. In the complexity of these times, this writing, these observations, may begin to define not only where architecture is moving, but where we too, the observers, are headed.