Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Freedom Towers and Political Fear

David Childs presenting his "Freedom Tower" design (2006); Occupy Wall Street protester being bodily removed (2011)

Recently I was asked to contribute a piece for a group show in Hong Kong about the "ways objects produce space." Rather than contribute a sculpture and hope for some sort of latter-day phenomenological experience between ‘object’ and ‘subject’ however, I decided to revisit an urban design project that I had not worked on for over a decade. In addition to recreations of three architectural counter-proposals I originally showed in March of 2001, I added a fourth that has been gestating for almost a decade, but has suddenly taken on new relevance. I proposed building nine “Freedom Towers” arranged in a tight grid formation and completely occupying the available open space of Tiananmen Square. I wrote a post for Rhizome about the entire project, but in review my thoughts I returned to a video of talk I attended by David Childs, the Chief Architect of SOM's "Freedom Tower." Child's 2007 talk was called "Building and Fear", and while the fear he was addressing in his talk was the fear of terrorism  - a fear he calls "anti-urban" - it is interesting to note that he reports that the push to close of the streets surrounding the New York Stock Exchange began before 9/11. My project is concerned with an older fear that has been shaping of cities, the fear of political protest. A fear I might call anti-civil. Modernity is city life. Civilization and civility both draw their meaning from the same place, the ways we have learned to behave by living together in cities. 

Because of the War on Terror police departments all around the country have benefited from a bounty of Federal grants. One has to wonder if ten years ago Stanford had riot gear and pepper spray to deploy against co-eds. What Childs discussed in his talk were the aesthetics of what the Occupy movement has to contend with. The "peace dividend" of the War on Terror is the weoponizing of civilian space. Childs is a thoughtful and insightful architect. The post-9/11 fear mongering that he discussed was, however, political opportunism. The Bush security state was a land grab, but the eating away of civil space - had been a slow but relentless development dating back to the civil unrest of the 1960s. So while Childs is concerned with the spike of activity after 9/11, his observations tell us a lot about the deeper fear that drove authorities: the fear of challenge from below. Those who fear this challenge would like to paint it as incivility, they insist that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are misbehaving, but civil disobedience is still civil. Anyone who has ever riden a subway knows city life in the city can be trying, but it isn't about making others obey or shut up.
David Childs presenting his "Freedom Tower" design (2006); Occupy Wall Street facing 64 cops (2012)

“Architecture is a social act and we must keep in our thoughts at all times is that, people want to be together they want to be close, and with the scale of the threats that are perceived to be out there today it is really anti urban and anti that very social nature.” David Childs, Building and Fear 02:15

“Right after 9/11 there was a great movement to try and make all buildings safe from airplanes… It didn’t take, even those who were ready to over react, long to realize that the place to do this is at its source, to go to the airports to solve this problem… The source probably we should be worrying about democracy and diplomacy rather than wars or things like that… but people come back to the safety of buildings and walking on the streets, and in fact they give up the freedoms so readily.” David Childs, Building and Fear, 04:16
Palmanova (wall city cited by Childs in his talk): Pentagon (2001)

“What happened at 9/11 of course changed the scale of all this. This was so great the devastation was so enormous, that you couldn’t solve the problem by just making the walls thicker. It became an issue about fear, and our horror at looking, as I did, out of our windows onto the buildings that were burning. The horror we had in our hearts from this, allowed us--many others more than probably the people in this room--to give up basic freedoms. I not just talking about the ones the papers talk about all the time, our democratic and constitutional rights, but in the way we live, the way we block our streets.” David Childs, Building and Fear, 08:20

“I was working at many projects at the time of 9/11 but one of the them was right across the street from our office: the New York Stock Exchange… the client wanted to close all the Downtown streets and we said, “Look, you shouldn’t do it, and your never going to get the approval to do it.” But, by gum, right after 9/11 the community boards, everyone, couldn’t wait to agree to it then, and to close up all of these streets, streets from traffic but also from people. The people were pushed immediately to the side. It is interesting to note many of these protected places, the security guards and the owners or the head people of the Sock Exchange immediately used it as parking lots. People were shoved to the edge.” David Childs, Building and Fear, 10:00
Wall Street, Then (1914) and Now (2012)
“How can we regain our streets, back for the kinds of activities that we as social animals demand?” David Childs, Building and Fear, 11:28

“As Chairmen of the Commission of Fine Arts [in DC] I was very much worried about what was happening to our image of democracy.” David Childs, Building and Fear 11:45

“Having worked for Pat Moynihan, I talking with him about this matter as Washington was beginning to get closed up, he said ‘democracy requires bravery.’” David Childs, Building and Fear 12:06

“Many of them wanted to see it, was a status symbol. If your agency of this kind of junk out in front of it you were obviously more important. They didn’t want to do that, they really thought you should see it. And this is an attitude that many of the people deal with security in cities have.” David Childs, Building and Fear 14:04

“Many of the consultants that we deal with who are worried about security are more than reasonable, but many also are fear mongers. They say that we have to do this kind of closing down to make it safe; and that in order to make it safe it must look safe. So it is not a question of hiding things, at probably more expense, but showing the kinds of structures that you put out front to block car bombs and other things, aught to look menacing in themselves.” David Childs, Building and Fear, 14:27
Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building, with vault designed by Henry Dreyfuss

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