Sam Hall Kaplan

Conjuring Up Images of the Memorial

This week, I considered commenting on imaginative additions to two of our art and design schools, as well as a creative new campus Downtown for the Southern California Institute of Architecture. I also want to talk about a new exhibit exploring what's hot on the local architecture scene, mounted by MOCA and on display at the Geffen Downtown and the Pacific Design Center.

There is also the drama of Downtown development, the trials and tribulations of the efforts by the school district to build needed facilities; the search for design-conscious affordable housing; and the continuing threat to our fragile environment.

This is all grist for my mill, to which I eventually hope to add sugar and spice, and bake for your edification and enjoyment.

But every time I sit down these days to write about architecture and design, an effort that requires me to conjure up images in my artistic right brain as references for my literary left brain, my mind drifts to the scenes of the World Trade Center imploding. Having in the distant past watched the center rise as a native New Yorker, written about it as a critic and worked for a decade in its shadow, its destruction and the resulting deaths haunt me.

But in a provocative way, the memory of the twin towers also renews my belief in the importance of buildings, architecture and design to define communities and cities, and to lend them a sense of place, and lend us a sense of history. Be it New York or Los Angeles, most everywhere we tend to take our historic places and spaces for granted, until, of course, they are gone, and with them our communal connection to our past, present and future.

That is why landmark preservation should be the cornerstone of any city planning effort. We need those landmarks, be they buildings or beaches, rows of houses or rows of trees. They are the stuff that anchors us to a place and comforts us.

What happens when they are destroyed, as was the World Trade Center? The towers were the focal point of lower Manhattan, an icon of capitalism, overscaled and overbearing, just like its host city, but beloved. Now there is a void where they stood, a void that must be addressed if New York as a city, the United States as a nation, and we as its citizens, are to be healed and move on to better and brighter times. Reshaping the space as a respectfully landscaped park alone will not do it. Indeed, I fear, it might result in accenting the void, more a reminder of the enormity of the terrorist act than of the victims who were buried in the rubble.

There should, of course, be a tasteful memorial, but I feel it should be a centerpiece in an urbane plaza bustling with life, edged by a distinctive cluster of office buildings, replacing and improving the 10 million square feet of space lost.

And somehow emerging from the roofs of the scaled down structures I see light, delicate spires rising into the sky, curving and weaving together, to create a single, soaring luminous tower, taller and prouder than the original. To be sure, there most certainly will be thousands of proposals over the next several years, no doubt touching off a protracted, intense national debate, a debate that I expect that will be both healing and heroic.

Sam Hall Kaplan is an architectural critic working for Fox Television News and KCRW.

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