Monday, March 25, 2002

If You Build It, They Will Criticize It

How does writing like this get on to the op-ed page of the New York Times? I'm as happy as anyone to brand the NYT creaky and increasingly irrelevant, but usually they at least have some passable writing. Today's op-ed on what should be done with the World Trade Center site went sadly wrong. The author, Prof. Witold Rybczynski, argues that the city needs to decide as soon as possible what should be done, since infrastructure repairs will quickly narrow the range of possible uses for the 16-acre "superblock." OK, fine argument. But then he goes on to answer the inevitable response to his get-on-with-it advice: Doesn't planning something like the rebuilding of the WTC site take a really long time?

Prof. Rybczynski writes:
"But doesn't planning take time? Not as much as many people believe. Urban design is not rocket science. People have been building cities for thousands of years, and while technologies have evolved and changed, the principles of good city building are remarkably durable. We got it right a long time ago, which is why an old city, like London, Rome or Istanbul, often remains a delight."

What the hell does any of this have to do with New York City and the WTC site? Yes, human beings have been building cities for thousands of years. What has not happened in the last 8,000 years, however, is the need to rebuild a large section of downtown New York City. Yes, Professor, it is different than London or Rome. There are countless interests there who want everything from an untouchable public park-type memorial to a hyper-capitalist replacement for the Twin Towers, only bigger. Prof. WR wants to rush through the process of the most important construction project since the Empire State Building because he's afraid the new plumbing won't be conducive to certain floor plans? Also, I wonder what it means that a Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania (as WR is) can't say anything more complimentary of the vocation of urban planning that it "is not rocket science." Well, few things beside rocket science are. Casually dismissing of the idea that it would actually take some specialized knowledge to redesign a large chunk of Manhattan, however, seems at least a little odd.

And then there's the last sentence of the paragraph; to paraphrase: Istanbul is really old, and it's still a delight, so how hard could rebuilding lower Manhattan really be?

Huh? I'm afraid I'd flunk out of any of Prof. WR's U-Penn classes, because I have no idea what the two are supposed to have to do with each other. Yes, I'm sure Istanbul is a delight to visit, but I wouldn't want my portfolio managed there. There are also lots of old, delightful cities in the world - Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Mohenjo Daro - that nevertheless are no longer flourishing today. Professor - let people take their time with this. If they come up with a plan that requires a little utility retro-fitting, then that's just what they'll have to do. And as a fellow professor, I wish you the best of luck with your next op-ed.

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