Richard Swett, former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, responds to comments made by one of the architects selected to participate in the design study phase of the World Trade Center rebuild.

I recently read an interview with Steven Holl, one of the architects selected to participate in the design study phase of the World Trade Center rebuild. I cannot help but respond to his comments, as these remarks offer a clear view of the chronic problems that presently afflict some members of the profession.

On Jan. 31, the Gotham Gazette held an online chat with architect Steven Holl, who along with Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and Charles Gwathmey created the Memorial Square plan for the World Trade Center site. In that interview he says:

“I believe this process was not run with the sophistication that, for example, a European architectural competition would be run. Normally a competition has a stated jury with at least a few respected architects among the decision makers. The outcome of such processes in Europe and elsewhere have produced exemplary architecture.”

He continues:

“Respected architects should have been among the final decision makers. Architecture is a very complicated and very fragile art, it should be studied and deeply understood before making a choice on a scheme or a concept.”

It is important to point out that the original teams chosen to participate were selected based on submissions of qualifications, not a portfolio of designs. They were diverse teams of building and landscape architects, planners, artists and engineers working cooperatively to create a new vision for the 16-acre World Trade Center site. This was not a design competition. It was an invitation to participate in a design study, and as the only architect to serve in Congress throughout the 20th century, I remain struck by how little the profession understands that good architecture is much more than a designed object. It is a process of creative discovery that engages the community it ultimately serves.

Here is a project, the result of a catastrophic attack on one of the world’s most important cities, which must accommodate the grief of a nation, include the diverse cultural communities of urban Lower Manhattan, replace a static and, except for its height, an undistinguished monument to capitalism that barely made money in its 30-year existence, and rebuild a mass transit hub that serves the metropolitan region. And, all this must be accomplished under the pressure of exhausting urgency that plagues contemporary life in New York City.

This was not an academic competition, although the unfortunate truth is that most could only relate to the program as if it were exactly that. This was an invitation to participate in a hands-on “design study,” and that is quite a different process. It should have resulted in a much higher degree of coordination and input from the affected communities, not unlike the town meeting that was conducted at the Jacob Javits Center in July 2002. The end products could have—perhaps should have been—much looser representations of the design elements to be considered in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site.

Instead of the expensive, elaborately executed and quite final-looking building models that have been presented, a set of comprehensive presentations based upon the integration of physical design, political and economic realities, and the cultural and civic ideals of the lower Manhattan community should have been considered the primary objective of the selected architects.

The predictability of the subsequent marketing efforts and PR campaigns mounted to snare this “job” by some of the participating architects also displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole task.

This was an important opportunity for the design community to be the leader in finding the best solution to heal a bereft nation. Unfortunately, some of the architects were not only not up to the task, they did not fully comprehend its nature and could not provide the leadership necessary to generate appropriate solutions. But, to the credit of the “client’s” judgment, the two schemes selected to continue are, of the nine submitted, the most sensitive and visionary.

Additionally, Holl does not think the jury of the design study selection process in which he participated—and won—was sufficiently qualified. Perhaps, when he used the adjective “respected,” he really meant to say “famous.”

Holl and his colleagues deserve commendation for their contribution to this design study, but he should be taken to task for his remarks. Why? Because they exemplify a sector of the profession which is not in touch with the client and/or communities he supposedly serves.

Holl delivers his complaints with the same tired agenda in play since the 19th century “beaux arts” era. He begins by dismissing the intellectual and professional qualifications of those who actually commission major architecture and are required to select and pay for the design.

He wishes that only architects, considered “respected” by the elite of the profession, control the selection process on behalf of the client and the public. Translation: only members of “the club” should evaluate the work of other members.

Holl asserts the “Europeans” do it much better. Does he know that in Denmark, which has the highest number of architects per capita in the world, all public and most major private buildings are designed via competition? The Danish Federation of Architects administers these competitions. To ensure objectivity, adherence to the client’s specifications and a valid design process, the juries are always weighted with more than 50 percent non-architects. Balance, fairness and best design principles are the mandate.

Rather than setting up an insular and elitist process much like the haute couture catwalks of fashion, architecture should engage the client, understand the client and help solve the complex problems inherent in the relationships between the users, the structure, economics, choice and flow of activities in the space, spatial design, and visual icons that reinforce important messages about and for the community. The final decisions are ALWAYS made by the client. Is this news to him? Architecture is not about the architect, it is about the purpose of the building. Architecture is truly an art—but unlike its sister arts, it has a deeply practical application that makes it both more essential and more accountable.

Mr. Holl also suggests that because architecture ITSELF is a “complicated” and “fragile” art, only those who have studied it academically can be trusted to properly understand, evaluate and shape it. I disagree.

First, architecture had better not be “fragile” or it will not stand the test of time or a lawsuit. Equally importantly, architecture should not be so abstract and unconnected from the client’s world and wants that the only way you can get them to accept it is by persuading them they aren’t smart enough to understand it.

I believe that quality clients and vigorous public debate can make an invaluable contribution to the final form of our shared, constructed environment. But it is absolutely the responsibility of the architect to enter into this process fully informed and prepared to both lead and follow; to work for and with the project’s other stakeholders.

Yes, architecture is complicated, but that only strengthens the argument for working in dynamic cooperation with the other inseparable leaders in the process—namely those from the political, social, economic and cultural arenas. Otherwise the results simply won’t live up to everyone’s highest expectations.

If the architect is still trying to mount the pinnacle of an ancient pyramid of power in order to command those beneath, he will stumble. Rather his goal should be, in dynamic cooperation with clients and colleagues, to collectively create a far better future.