The Zeitgeist at Ground Zero Gaudi and the World Trade Center
September 11, 2010
When I came to New York shortly after 9-11. I found out about a design that was submitted to the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition. As the big firms presented models in the Winter Garden one entry was absent from the competition. This architect was far better known and loved than any of the others. Why wasn’t his building on display?
For one thing, he’d been dead for 75 years. In 1908 the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi designed a skyscraper to be built on the site that is now Ground Zero. It was to be a grand hotel with trading floors for the seven continents of the world. It would be a true world trade center. Unfortunately, Gaudi was struck by a street car and died before he could further realize his idea. The land at the edge of Battery Park sat more or less vacant until Yamisaki decided to build the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center...
This is where the story takes on a Roarkian twist straight out of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Paul Laffoley was fresh out of architecture school when he arrived in New York City. He landed a job with a firm contracted out by Minoru Yamisaki to design the interiors of the World Trade Center. Laffoley spoke out and proposed to build bridges across each of the twin towers to add structural integrity. He was promptly fired. Yamisaki didn’t want anything to disturb “the prism purity” of the “vibrant visual space”.
If Laffoley’s ideas hadn’t been dismissed, the towers would’ve stayed up a lot longer after being hit. That possibly would have given the occupants more time to cross the bridges to safety.
“No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless its made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man.”
Afterwards, Laffoley became obsessed with structural integrity. He started designing physically alive architecture based on the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Primordial Plant House. Laffoley’s projects started to become more visionary in scope. At one point he theorized on how to build a time machine.
These ideas were incorporated into Laffoley’s reinterpretation of Gaudi’s “Grand Hotel for New York City”. He submitted his plan to the memorial competition and, while it received some attention from NPR and a conspiracy reader, it was largely ignored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
Laffoley wanted to essentially go back in time and erase the devastating events of recent history by implementing Gaudi’s posthumous drawings. The historical building would act as a band-aid over the site, while at the same time usher in a new era of architecture.
To those who don’t believe Gaudi isn’t American enough to foot the bill for the World Trade Center memorial, I’d like to reiterate that a Japanese architect designed the original twin towers. Not far away there is a statue out in the harbor sculpted by a Frenchman. The Statue of Liberty is probably the most American of icons. She is an anthem to a defining moment in our immigrant heritage. If Lady Liberty is a symbol that grew into our notion of the American Dream, then the September 11th memorial calls for a monument of equal scale.
Fables of the Reconstruction:
Can Antonio Gaudi's Grand Hotel replace the Twin Towers?
Artist/architect Paul Laffoley hopes so.
The following is an excerpt from his article, which appeared in the Mar/Apr 02 edition of JUXTAPOZ magazine.
IN 1908, THE GREAT CATALONIAN ARCHITECT Antonio Gaudi was retained to design a grand hotel for New York City. The location chosen was the site upon which the-twin-towered World Trade Center would eventually be built between 1962 and 1974. This American patron of Gaudi was an extremely affluent financier who actually owned the land bounded on the north by Vesey Street, on the south by Liberty Street, on the east by Church Street, and on the west by West Street (which later became connected with the West Side Highway). Of course, at the beginning of the 20th century, the financier's actual land holdings were not as sharply defined by streets as the World Trade Center would become. Then the lower west side of Manhattan was zoned for low residential and light commercial buildings, such as shops that sold parts for wireless telegraphy and crystal sets. How the landowner came to believe he could obtain a zoning variance that would allow him to build what would have been the first really tall skyscraper for New York City remains only one of the many mysteries surrounding this project. Perhaps the fact that the American architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) had just finished a modest-sized gothic skyscraper on West Street (1905-07), a trial run for the huge Woolworth Building (1911-13) built on Broadway near City Hall Park, that became the financier's impetus.
At first Gaudi was extremely enthusiastic to be part of the American Dream, to such an extent that he felt destined to design the hotel. He made some preliminary sketches of a structure reaching a height of 1016 feet, composed of clustered, catenary-formed parabolic towers of varying heights, grouped together like engaged columns around a central, soaring shaft. But somehow the sketch plans never progressed to the design-development stage. The only possible explanation for this situation is Gaudi's method of working, which he developed in Spain. From the simplest drawing, he would begin construction like a master sculptor, collaborating with other designers more skilled than he in working drawings and specifications. He acted like a conductor of an orchestra of architects and artists, as was the case with his ongoing masterpiece, the incredible expiatory church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Gaudi planned to travel to New York City to oversee the construction of the hotel with its huge halls, balconies, and the decorations he would improvise from debris discovered on New York City's streets. He was hoping to hire, as he did in Catalonia, an army of artists and architects, in this case from New York, to bring the interior and exterior detailing of his fantastic vision to fruition.
Another mystery was why Gaudi's journey to New York was cancelled abruptly and why the project stopped with no reason given. The site remained unchanged until the early 1960s. While the reasons for the abandonment of the project remain the ultimate enigma of this enterprise, it might be safe to surmise that this vision of Gaudi was ahead of its time.
What remains of the project today are a few sketches by Gaudi's own hand and more fully developed renderings by Juan Matamala y Flotats (1803-1968), the son of Lorenzo Matamala y Pinyol (1856-1927), Gaudi's prime sculptor and "right arm". Matamala, also one of Gaudi's sculptors, created his drawings from memory in the 1940's because, as he tells us, "Nothing is left now of Gaudi's studio: the studio, the castings, the archives, everything was burnt during the 1936 civil war." (This was the war that catapulted the fascist dictator Francisco Franco (1802-1975) to power in Spain.)
What Matamala had done was begin the process of improvisation with a very strong vision, a modus operandi very dear to Gaudi's medieval sensibilities. Gaudi always knew that real architecture requires a group effort to bring a building to successful completion. Personal involvement in a project by others is ensured more by an invitation to become co-creators, rather than proceeding in the normal way of doing things that is, having a dictator assign a multitude of mindless and mechanical tasks to a mass of underlings. This assessment of Gaudf's working method was first suggested by the contemporary architectural historian George R. Collins in a chapter he wrote about the American Hotel in a book entitled La Vision Artistique et Religieuse de Gaudi (1969) . Until his recent death, Juan Matamala was Gaudi's most active spokesman. It was he who, with passionate enthusiasm, convinced us of the exceptional importance of the American Hotel project. His fervent devotion to Gaudi's legacy enabled us to imagine the prodigious influence the artist exercised over the men who surrounded him. Thus, if uncertain of the plans for the American Hotel, the vision of Juan Matamala seems rather obvious, we can be assured that he remained faithful to Gaudi's creative spirit.
What Gaudi designed was a building that was eight feet less than the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in terms of its basic structure. But an observatory he called "The Sphere of All Space" added another 62 feet, making the entire height of the Grand Hotel 1,086 feet, 282 feet less in height than the World Trade Center.
Directly under the space tower, Gaudi planned an enormous exhibition hall of 375 feet of vertical space. It would have been as high as the towers of the Sagrada Familia. The space boasted a first and second circumferential gallery, both interior and exterior, and was to be lit by huge stained-glass windows. The hall was supposed to contain giant statues of all the presidents of the United States, with enough pedestals remaining to take America into the third millennium.
Below the hall was to be a monstrous theater and lecture room. 100 feet high, utilizing both amphitheater and proscenium staging. Immediately below that was to be a 30-foot-high room to display the intricacies of the structure of the building, which consisted of doublelayer reinforced concrete shells, steel columns, and compressive, catenary-generated forms. After that were to be a series of six dining rooms from 50 to 60 feet in height. They would be able to accommodate at least 400 people at once. While they dined they would have been able to hear the sounds of full symphony orchestras. With a capacity of 2,400 patrons, it is unlikely that anyone would have been denied seating. The ceilings were to have mythological themes representing the galaxies. If the hotel were built today, the ceilings of the dining rooms would undoubtedly be decorated with the spectacular imagery of the universe obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope. Five of the rooms were to have wall decor symbolizing the five continents of the earth: Asia, Africa, Oceania, Europe, and America.
On the entrance level, one would have experienced a lobby and reception rooms varied in height from 80 to 100 feet. The actual hotel rooms would have been confined to the smaller paraboloid structures nestling around the gigantic main shaft, like children around their mother.
The exterior of the building was to be sheathed primarily in alabaster, giving it a pearlescent luster, along with some of its forms being accented in different colored marbles and carved granite at the lobby level. Finally, the surface was to be bejeweled with bits of building debris, terra cotta sculptures, minerals, and fragments of glass and tiles. This very late style of continental gothic, the flamboyant, was to be illuminated at night, the way most New York City buildings are today.
Now that Ground Zero is but a gaping wound on the body of New York City and on the soul of America, many have speculated as to what to do with this violent laceration of our nation. I believe one thing is clear: anything that is placed there to begin the healing process cannot proceed from the same living-ego impulse that motivated Minoru Yamasaki(WTC architect). That is why I feel Gaudi's Grand Hotel would be the appropriate solution.
First, the hotel was planned there in 1908.
Second, Gaudi has been dead for 75 years.
Third, the hotel would function as a celebration of life for which New York City is famous.
Fourth, it could act as a permanent memorial for all those who lost their lives in the disaster.
And fifth, it would take the combined efforts of the entire artistic and architectural communities of New York City and other areas to bring the building into being.
Paul Laffoley has been a registered architect in Massachusetts since 1990. He holds architectural degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, and the Boston Architectural Center. Laffoley was a member of the original design group assigned to develop an interior scheme for the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.