“When the gods wish to punish us,” Oscar Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband, “they answer our prayers.” That seems to be true in architecture, whose modern history is replete with eagerly contested public commissions that have turned out to be quite the opposite of the triumphs their winners first imagined them to be. Rarely in the past century have the most memorable buildings resulted from competitions, no matter how promising their rosters of participants. The 1922 contest for a new Chicago Tribune headquarters is now best remembered for the losing entries of leading early modernist architects such as Walter Gropius, Eliel Saarinen, and Bruno Taut. Indeed, Adolf Loos’s iconic design for a tower in the form of a colossal Doric column is far more famous today than the tepid neo-Gothic pastiche by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells that was constructed.
More recently, the coveted commission for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which took thirteen years and a billion dollars to complete, has done little for the reputation of the once envied Richard Meier, whose limited powers of invention were exposed by a project of great magnitude, resources, and duration. The recent renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is another example of that phenomenon. After a widely publicized competition that included several stars of the present mid-career architectural generation—among them Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—the job went to a little-known museum specialist, Yoshio Taniguchi. A minimalist and a perfectionist, Taniguchi discovered, to his dismay, that in America, working on the mammoth scale of the new MoMA, he could not attain the lyrical delicacy of his smaller and more finely crafted buildings in Japan.
But in sheer volume of press coverage and heightened level of public expectations, no architectural commission has ever approached that of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York. Remarkably, the architects who were awarded the commissions for its focal components—Daniel Libeskind in 2003 for his “Memory Foundations” master site plan of prismatic high-rise buildings and angular plazas, and Michael Arad in 2004 for his minimalist “Reflecting Absence” memorial—have all but vanished from view.
Pictures in The New York Times wordlessly told the story of those disappearing acts. On the morning after his finish over a crowded field of more famous and prolific competitors, an exultant Libeskind appeared on the Times’s front page, beaming amid a sea of clamoring photographers and reporters. In a profession that lately has mimicked many aspects of celebrity culture, this image represented an extraordinary conferral of star status, like one of those unheralded Metropolitan Opera debuts the newspaper of record likes to put on page one every so often. But what had Libeskind actually won? The sponsoring body, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), had insisted from the first that it was conducting not a competition but an Innovative Design Study in which participants were to …
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