Can Antonio Gaudi's
replace the Twin Towers?
Artist/architect Paul Laffoley hopes
The following is an excerpt from
his article, which appeared in the Mar/Apr 02 edition of JUXTAPOZ
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
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
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.
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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