The Stimulus Blues

Rendering of Santiago Calatrava’s PATH Station at the World Trade Center.
Courtesy LMDC

Obama’s jobs speech was music to the ears, but for architects the music is still playing in another room.

Perhaps you sat up at the president’s call for a “world class transportation system” competitive with China’s, and salivated at the prospect of “modernizing” 35,000 schools (although Obama quickly established the modest scale of renovation at fixing roofs and caulking windows and “installing science labs”.) Rebuilding schools still comes closer to design work than filling potholes. It was slightly dispiriting to hear Obama quickly—in the next breathe, actually—go from talk of re-establishing our status as an “economic superpower” through rebuilding to citing a trucking bridge in Ohio in need of a fix. (Sounds like the powerful U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lobby is still calling the shots.)

Obama did not once utter the word “infrastructure” in his speech although some tealeaf readers found implied support for the Infrastructure Bank that architects once thought was going to be the ticket to the kind of ambitious capital investments in which they long to participate—housing, courthouses, libraries, and multi-modal transportation hubs. Many more architects seemed resigned to the fact that the second stimulus, like the first, is going to pass architects by, because the work of making architecture—that’s vertical construction in job-friendly speak—with all the advance prep work from site analysis to public review, takes too long at a time when the economy needs immediate help.

But could it also be that the president believes the American public is wary of Grand Projects, and therefore of capital-A architecture? Two New York projects could easily fuel that impression: One is “New York by Gehry.”

The problem is not that Frank Gehry’s shimmery supertower doesn’t add some glamorous swag to the skyline: it most certainly does. The sorry part is the awful brick box that Gehry designed for the public school at the base. For the rental tower, he was working with $875 million. Surely he could have insisted on spreading some of the joy to the public school. He had the chance to show the world that superstar though he be, he can still do the amazing with a small budget. As it happened, Swanke Hayden Connell did their best with $65 million to fit out more than decent interiors for which they are getting zero credit. At the first day of school, it was Bloomberg and Gehry welcoming the kids. In other words, it was the usual architecture as marketing.

More worrisome still is the World Trade Center transit hub by Santiago Calatrava. If Obama never said infrastructure, he did say transportation, several times. Now under construction, most would agree that Calatrava’s hub will be world class, some ten long years after breaking ground. But as far as stimulus, this winged white elephant is an egregious overproduction. And as soon as the political group hug—also known as the tenth anniversary of 9/11—is a few weeks behind us, someone is going to start wondering why this station serving 80,000 PATH commuters—originally budgeted for $1.9 billion with expected completion by 2006—is now costing $3.44 billion (the memorial and museum cost $925 million). Charles Bagli of The New York Times—the first canary in the coal mine?—notes that Penn Station serves seven times as many people. There is a real danger of this project becoming a Red Letter A for architectural extravagance, and precisely the kind of fancy work that the country cannot afford. And that’s a real pity because the disappointing Spruce Street School cereal box and the bloated transit-osaur do not represent the highly engaged and smart long-term planning that most architects we write about today are working towards. I wish Obama had had some words of encouragement for the important work they are already doing, stimulus or not.

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