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Culture and Construction

by Jonathan Mandell, Apr 26, 2005
 
Earlier this month, a sharp-eyed reporter for the New York Times noticed that the performing arts center planned for Ground Zero will be excluded from the $500 million fundraising campaign for the World Trade Center site memorial. Instead, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation told Robin Pogrebin of the Times that fundraising for the center will be part of a “second phase.” To architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, it is clear what this “second phase” really means -- the performing arts center will probably never be built.

And thus, Huxtable wrote with obvious fury two weeks later in the Wall Street Journal, the news of the center’s exclusion was “the final betrayal” in what has been a continuing “downgrading and evisceration of the cultural components” of Daniel Libeskind’s original plan -- thanks to those who lack “the courage, or conviction, to demand that the arts be restored to their proper place as one of the city’s greatest strengths and a source of its spiritual continuity.”

Time will tell whether or not Huxtable overreacted, whether the performing arts center winds up being built at Ground Zero to house the Joyce Theater, for 23 years a staple of dance in New York, and the Signature Theater Company, which for 14 years has presented the works of a different playwright each season. But Huxtable’s suspicions are hardly novel. In New York City, there long has been a complicated relationship between the arts and urban development …between culture and construction.

“Boozy:” The Art Of Robert Moses

To say that arts institutions in the city are obsessed with real estate is only to state that they are New Yorkers. This may explain, for example, the theme of this spring’s fundraising dinner for ART/New York, the alliance of some 400 non-profit theaters in New York, which is selling tables for its “Party with A View” gala in June that are labeled “high rise” (for tables selling for $10,000), “skyscraper” ($15,000) and, the highest designation, “landmark” ($25,000).

But a precocious downtown theater company called Les Freres Corbusier goes even further, taking the construction of big projects in the city more or less as the subject of its anarchic new play, “Boozy.” More or less, because the audience has to get through a lot of silly stuff -- videos of rabbits dressed up as Mussolini and FDR; weird jokes about croissants and weirder conspiracy theories; shenanigans involving the Shah of Iran and Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels -- in order to get to the point of the play’s subtitle: “The Life, Death and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses.”

The play works best for an audience that is already well-versed in architecture and urban planning. “Boozy” is a (silly) nickname for Le Corbusier, the influential Swiss architect and city planner (real name: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris) who came up with the concept of what he called “the radiant city,” high-rise towers in park-like settings. The design was most familiarly used in many American public housing projects, which are now largely viewed as complete failures. Robert Moses was New York’s master builder, who for half a century was responsible for the construction of nearly everything in the city, its parks and its apartments, its bridges and its beaches, its most famous monuments, such as the United Nations and Shea Stadium, and its most hated highways, such as the Cross Bronx Expressway. After the publication of Robert Caro’s biography of Moses, “The Power Broker,” in 1974, Moses has been seen mostly in a negative light, as the man who bulldozed the neighborhoods of New York.

It would not be precisely accurate to say that the play aims to resurrect the reputations of these two men -- the clowning-around creates too much of a muddle for that -- but there are several exchanges that get at the ongoing debates in urban planning. One example:

“If we concede that great works must be built,” one character asks, “doesn’t it make sense that [they] spring from a single vision so that none are at cross-purposes?”

“If a Great Planner is guiding every decision,” replies Jane Jacobs (a character named after one-time Moses adversary and author of “The Death and Life of American Cities”), “then what is to prevent him – or a cabal of urban planners -- from using their money and power to further their own interests?”

“Corruption is a risk we take, but what is the alternative?” the first character counters. “Ideas by committee and the tyranny of an uneducated majority destroying every innovative idea because it is new and different?”

“This is a democracy,” Jane Jacobs responds. “People like Mr. Moses should listen to the voices of the people.”

It is a debate that animates the reconstruction of Ground Zero, but has other vivid examples as well, such as the case of Tilted Arc, a sculpture by Richard Serra. The curved wall of raw steel was installed in 1981 at Federal Plaza, near City Hall, and then removed in 1989 after area workers complained about it. In a democracy, which value was more important, the right of the artist to express himself freely, or the right of the workers to have the plaza they preferred?

“Boozy” fails to mention the effect of urban planning on the arts themselves, omitting the two arts-related incidents for which Robert Moses is best known. Moses fought to exclude Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare Festival from Central Park, one of the first fights he lost. Moses was also the person most responsible for creating Lincoln Center. He did so, not as a way to improve the arts, but as a way to revitalize a run-down neighborhood. The neighborhood, once the true-life setting for the musical “West Side Story,” certainly changed. What is less clear to many critics is what Lincoln Center has done for the arts itself – whether “the idea of a cultural campus set apart from the city” ever did much for the art housed there.

Lincoln Center was the first such campus to demonstrate the power of culture as urban renewal, and it has been imitated by cities across the nation, to varying effect. But cultural critics are quick to point out that the most successful such projects are those that have put existing older buildings to use as galleries, museums and performance spaces, allowing the community (artists, patrons, businesses, residents) to help shape the results.

Whether or not Les Freres Corbusier would argue for the greater benefits of Lincoln Center’s kind of “top-down” planning, their own example is instructive: After a successful run in the smaller Ohio Theater, “Boozy” is reopening May 1st at The 45 Bleecker Theater, a 199-seat theater that, as its proprietors (The Culture Project) proudly point out, was converted from a lumberyard less than a decade ago -- one of many such vibrant makeshift art spaces in the city.

Fresh Kills And High Line At MOMA: Construction As Reconstruction

Coincidentally or not, there are two separate exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art both describing ambitious construction projects in New York City that share some unusual traits; neither are likely to have interested Robert Moses.

On the third floor of the museum, there is an exhibition of the proposed design for the High Line, the long-defunct elevated railroad that runs for 22 blocks along the West Side of Manhattan from Greenwich Village to 34th Street. Included are sketches and models of what the designers have in mind for the site, a series of gardens and walkways that the curator has given such irritating names as “vegetal balcony.”

On the sixth floor, there is an exhibition on the redesign of the Fresh Kills landfill, 2,200 acres that for more than half a century was the primary garbage dump for New York City. The designer, James Corner of a company called Field Operations (who is also involved in the redesign of the High Line), renames the dump "Fresh Kills lifescape" and envisions a park that will (if it successfully passes through the approval process) begin construction in 2007 and unfold in four stages over 30 years. It needs that much time to adjust to the decomposition of the garbage. One notable feature in the new park will be a memorial for the World Trade Center in the shape of two mounds that are the same size as the Twin Towers laid on the ground. This exhibition is also available in a version online (To get to it, click on the appropriate place on the map.) The project is one of several throughout the world presented as part of an exhibition entitled “Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape.” Curator Peter Reed sees the various projects as “a measure of artistic creativity and of our changing attitudes toward natural and man-made environments… Because of the role public space plays as a catalyst for urban development and in the quality of civic life, how these spaces are treated is ultimately a reflection of our culture.”

 


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