DATE September 28, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Anthony Vidler discusses architecture and the World
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
As workers continue the agonizing task of clearing and cataloging the rubble
at the site where the World Trade Center once stood, a debate has already
begun about what should fill the hole left by terrorism. Some have proposed
rebuilding the twin towers exactly as they were as an act of defiance and
optimism, the sooner the better. Others support establishing a park, a place
of beauty and peace to memorialize the victims and help the city heal. Most
agree that the tragedy is an opportunity to reconsider what kind of city New
York is in the wake of the attacks and that whatever rises at the site should
reflect the city's new identity.
My guest, Anthony Vidler, is acting dean of the Cooper Union School of
Architecture in New York City. He's currently on leave as professor of art
history and architecture at UCLA and is the author of "Warped Space: Art,
Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture." I asked him what architectural
vision the World Trade Center reflected when it was conceived back in the
Professor ANTHONY VIDLER (Cooper Union School of Architecture): Well, I think
it was the--if you like the apotheosis of an architecture of business, of an
architecture of communication and flow and international, global trade and
commerce that really began in this country to take flight in the late 1940s
and '50s. I would say that the first buildings, if you like, to symbolize
this sense of an architecture of business, a business art as architects used
to call it, they were buildings that were built as--C. Wright Mills(ph) said
it very pertinently, almost as giant file cabinets for the efficient
organization of business. And it seems to me that the World Trade Center,
with its massive pile-up of floors, its extraordinary, if you like, almost
anonymity of the external appearance was, in a sense, the largest version of
this great office building boom that took off after the war.
BOGAEV: Another word that gets kicked around when people talk about this
vision of efficiency in business is `transparency.'
Prof. VIDLER: Right.
BOGAEV: This was the transparent architecture. What did they mean by that?
Prof. VIDLER: Well, in the 1920s and '30s, when architects in Europe,
especially, began to frame the terms in which modern architecture or modernist
architecture might be built, they were extremely excited about the new
materials, new industrial materials of iron glass, steel glass, concrete,
about the possibilities of buildings, in a sense, bringing light into their
interiors. And, of course, in an office building one of the most important
questions before the major introduction of artificial lighting systems was to
bring light into a deep interior so that the secretary pools and the
executives could work in daylight.
Secondly, in the '20s and '30s, there was a tremendous utopian enthusiasm for
the rebuilding of cities that had been caked in soot and dirt and grime from
the Victorian steam age, so to speak, and the notion of these glistening glass
towers which, if they were glass, seemed to dissolve into refracted light.
The Pepsi Cola building or Manufacturers Trust building in New York are very,
very powerful visions of that transparency. If you think of the Manufacturers
Trust building, which has this great safe--the bank safe transparently exposed
and in the center of it, you have a sense of how these buildings should
have--were imagined as public buildings, as belonging to the public, as
accessible to the public and as part of a new glistening, modern utopia.
BOGAEV: You've written that in certain terms, the skyscrapers were meant to
dispel people's fears of city life, to dispel their neuroses about the
closeness of it, which is really ironic when you think that skyscrapers have
ended up being such a focus of fear and anxiety.
Prof. VIDLER: Yes. Well, it's interesting, 'cause in my book "Warped Space,"
I talk about the way in which city space has, since the late 19th century,
been seen by inhabitants of cities as a kind of lockers, as a place which, if
you like, embodies their various fears, anxieties, what Freud called neuroses,
that we've seen that in the opening up and broadening of the boulevards in
Paris, many people describe sensations which we now call agoraphobic. And
we've seen in the condensed apartment buildings that became a way of life in
the modern cities in the late 1930--20th century people experience what is now
called claustrophobia. Doctors tended in those days to literalize people's
anxieties in such a way as ascribing them directly to the places in which they
found themselves, to the places in which they felt those anxieties. I think
in the 1920s, there were some 400 or 500 different phobias, many, many, many
of which were ascribed to place, to sites--acrophobia, the fear of heights on
acropolises, and so on and so forth. So, yes, indeed, there are many, many
places. I don't know a space in modern society that has not been attributed
to the inspiration of one phobia or another.
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Anthony Vidler. He's the acting dean at the Cooper
Union School of Architecture. He's also the author of "Warped Space: Art,
Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture."
How do you see the September 11th attack changing or challenging our ideas
about the city, given that there's always been this split in the image of New
York between people who saw it as pure possibility and a place where miracles
happen and it was the biggest and the best and it welcomed everyone; and then,
on the other hand, there was the idea that it's a scary, crime-ridden and
decadent, arrogant place, our national mammon? Have the attacks changed those
polar images of New York?
Prof. VIDLER: Not so much about how you design cities in the wake of
terrorism because I think there's no way in which you can design cities in the
wake of terrorism. This is a specific kind of attack. It will change its
nature over again. Terrorism doesn't know cities to attack. It knows only
sites and specific moments. And so, for me, it's an opportunity to rethink
the difficulties and problems that we have had in shaping and framing
architectural spaces for living and working in cities of high density since
the Second World War. And I think that it would be a shame to repeat the
difficulties of the overdevelopment of the '60s, for example, simply because
we feel it's a brave and proud act to rebuild exactly as it was before.
BOGAEV: You just said that you can't design for security, you can't design
against a terrorist attack. I think someone was quoted saying you can't
design for the epicenter of an earthquake. Is that what you mean? It's
Prof. VIDLER: In the sense that we design for living. We don't design for
dying. We design for community. We don't design for specific moments. My
sense is that the--you know, to design a city of checkpoints, of surveillance,
of video cams, of stop and go, of identity cards would be a city not worth
living in. And it would also be a very difficult city to escape from. I
think one of the interesting lessons we learned, unfortunately and unhappily,
on September 11th was, in fact, the permeability and the openness and the
number of ways of leaving the site was an aid to the escape of those who,
fortunately, were able to survive the bombing. And so I think that no amount
of, if you like, designing for space being defensible will necessarily defend
space. I think it's up to us to defend space by our community activities, by
the life we live in it, by the kinds of values we project from it; and the
rest, I would say, is up to a very good, equitable foreign policy.
BOGAEV: In terms of learning from history, what worked about the site? What
worked about the twin towers?
Prof. VIDLER: Well, as you know, the twin towers were very contentious when
they were first built, both as objects and as objects of such enormous size.
BOGAEV: In that they were those big windswept, freezing in the winter and
barren in the summer, that they inspired very little human feeling?
Prof. VIDLER: In those terms, yes. But also, I think, when we're thinking of
urban life, we think of a mix of activities. And what I think the density of
commercial space in that area has, up to quite recently, precluded was the
development of small-scale businesses, of the kinds of businesses that support
everyday living activities. Park spaces have only very recently and almost
reluctantly been inserted into areas that are needed now for those who live in
Battery Park and even around the municipal center. So there are dozens of
stories that I've heard from architects and others of those who are bringing
up the second wave of children in these areas. And it would be, I think, a
great shame to ignore that this has become a vital area of living for New
Yorkers and not just an area of commerce.
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Anthony Vidler. He's the acting dean at the
Cooper Union School of Architecture. He's a professor of art history and
architecture at UCLA currently on leave from that university. We'll talk
more about the various proposals for rebuilding the site of the World Trade
Center after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back with Anthony Vidler. He's acting dean at the Cooper Union
School of Architecture. He's also the author of "Warped Space: Art,
Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture."
Were you in New York on September 11th?
Prof. VIDLER: I was, indeed.
BOGAEV: And what did you see of the attack?
Prof. VIDLER: I saw every moment of the drama of the World Trade Center,
first from the roof of the Cooper Union and down on the ground a little closer
and from almost a second or two after the first strike.
BOGAEV: Given your background, and I don't assume that this is what would be
going through your mind when you're watching such a horrific event, but did
you have an engineer's sense of how the buildings would stand the impact of
the planes and the fire?
Prof. VIDLER: I had an instantaneous sense of a kind of a brilliant, almost
architectural-rendered image of the interior of these office floors, of the
interior of the escape stairs, of the interior of the elevators and of what
was happening inside. And I can't say that that was anything but--I just felt
entirely suffocated. I was amazed, actually, to tell you the truth, at how
long each of the two buildings stood. I was told by the responsible engineer
for the two towers were, in fact, built to withstand the impact of a 727, not
necessarily at that height and not necessarily loaded with so much fuel. But,
indeed, they stood, one of them for nearly an hour, one of them for over an
hour, allowing for thousands of those on the floors below the impact to
escape. And so, in that respect, I would say that the engineering was as good
as it could have been in the '60s.
BOGAEV: In the wake of the terrorist attacks, are there specific
recommendations for safety measures that you think architects will be
inserting into their plans?
Prof. VIDLER: I would, obviously, ask for much wider fire stairs, fire stairs
that are not based on the calculation of the amount of rentable space you can
get if they're smaller and so on and so forth, and much tougher structures.
But, again, as we understand, nothing can withstand nuclear attack. We can't
build buildings and we didn't build buildings throughout the '50s and '60s
during the great time of fear and threat of nuclear annihilation, I don't
think we can build buildings for the threat of terrorism. I do think we can
reflect on safety in high buildings. One of the interesting facts I uncovered
in looking through the history of tall buildings in Manhattan is that after
one of the first fatal fires in a skyscraper in Manhattan--a much lower
skyscraper, of course--in 1912, a commission reported to the city that perhaps
the height of skyscrapers should be calibrated in terms of the time that it
takes to evacuate the inhabitants of that building in relationship to its
ability to withstand fire.
BOGAEV: Now you're acting dean of the Cooper Union, which is downtown. Now
that the towers are no longer there, some people in the neighborhood have
talked of losing their bearings. Have you felt that?
Prof. VIDLER: It's true that architecture very quickly, whether it's vilified
or not vilified, becomes a landmark. I remember the tremendous debates over
the construction of the Eiffel Tower, which was--in Paris, which was supposed
to be a temporary structure. And when it didn't come down, people were
outraged. And I always remember the story of the novelist Marc Passon(ph),
who was asked why, if he hated the tower so much, did he lunch there every
morning on the top of the tower. He said, `Well, quite frankly, it's the only
place in Paris from which I cannot see the tower.' And so it is true that
buildings become landmarks. And certainly, the World Trade Center--I came to
this country before it was built in the early '60s and I was then teaching in
Princeton and every time I came to New York and saw these towers rising, they
became the natural landmark of, you know, the sort of moment of, `Ah, finally
I'm going to the city and back to street life again.'
Peter Wheelwright, the chair of architecture at Parsons School, who lives very
close to the towers and was evacuated very quickly, spoke the other night of
the way in which the towers were the place that he pointed his children to if
they got lost. You know, `Just--if you get lost downtown, just make for those
towers and you're home.' So, yes, they've become a landmark. But it's quite
clear that other landmarks will take their place. It's very interesting how
now we see the old skyscrapers almost so much more clearly. We see the
Woolworth building, actually, as the landmark that it was originally meant to
BOGAEV: There was a recent New York Times article on this debate about
rebuilding the site and the point was made that the towers were built at a
time when New York was aspiring to be a global financial center, that it was
staking its claim very loudly and emphatically. But now that position is
secure, and I think the quote was, "it need only whisper its intent." It's an
interesting call for subtlety in architecture in remembrance. Do you have an
idea of--or a vision of that?
Prof. VIDLER: Well, I think, in a way, I would rephrase that first statement
and I would say, yes, it's a--they were built at a time when high buildings
represented that aspiration. In other words, the notion of building taller
and taller and taller and taller. Remember Frank Lloyd Wright, at one point
in his career, coming out and demanding a mile-high skyscraper for Chicago.
There's a sense that this has always been a kind of almost aesthetic
aspiration to symbolize power. I think that if we look at some of the other
proposals of the '60s for occupying the World Trade Center site with the World
Trade Center, there's a very elegant proposal by Skidmorings and Merrill(ph)
which is a very relatively low, flat, you know, pancake building with
courtyards in it and a very small-scale slab, rather like that of the United
Nations building beside it. I would think that it's possible for institutions
to have power without having necessarily symbolizing that power through
height. Maybe it's time for institutions, especially public institutions, to
demonstrate a kind of openness to access as opposed to a parade of symbolic
BOGAEV: Do you have different ideas about what architecture means to us or
the strength of our attachment to buildings as symbols, after experiencing the
Prof. VIDLER: Well, I think what is very, very clear and has been clear is
that whatever the architects of buildings and spaces intend originally,
whatever the clients of those buildings and spaces intends for the architect
to symbolize initially is radically transformed by use, radically transformed
by time and history, and symbolic associations shift as our understanding of
the importance and nature of institutions shifts. So what can be symbolic of
a great aspiration one day becomes symbolic of an evil intention the next, for
example. We saw that in the monumental pomp of national socialism, for
example, in Germany in the '30s and '40s. I have no single answer about what
kind of architecture makes a particular kind of symbolic effect or resonance
on a population. It changes as populations, aspirations and natures
themselves change. So my sense is that you never can tell.
BOGAEV: Anthony Vidler, thank you very much for talking with me today on
Prof. VIDLER: Thank you very much for inviting me.
BOGAEV: Anthony Vidler is acting dean of the Cooper Union School of
Architecture. I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: Coming up, we take a look at how New York City has responded to
earlier catastrophes with Ric Burns, director of the PBS documentary series on
the history of New York, and with one of the film's commentators, writer Peter
Quinn. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "London Bridges" and John
Powers reviews "Zoolander," the new Ben Stiller film.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jane Stevenson's first novel, "London Bridges"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
British writer Jane Stevenson made a splashy debut last year with her
collection of four novellas called "Several Deceptions." Now she's written
her first novel, "London Bridges." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says the more
Stevenson, the better.
It's fitting that the title of Jane Stevenson's first novel, "London Bridges,"
is architectural in nature. Anyone who, like me, read and swooned over
Stevenson's publishing debut last year, a collection of four novellas entitled
"Several Deceptions," already knows that Stevenson is an elegant writer who's
partial to clean lines, sharp turns and Chrysler Building-type pointed
endings. Four deceptions happily reminded me and other reviewers of O.
Henry's short stories because each novella contained an ultimate `Aha!' moment
"London Bridges" is a longer literary enterprise, so it's structured
differently. Instead of one big vertical exclamation point, this novel is
built more like, well, a bridge, whose narrative jolts and coincidences are
lengthily strung out. But the most beguiling aspect of Stevenson's writing
has nothing to do with architecture or utility. She's really an esthete,
someone for whom a witty, acrobatic story is its own excuse for being. Many
of her characters are academics, and her language and references are
intellectually adroit. In this novel, for instance, she alludes to William
Blake, T.S. Eliot and Jane Austen, and the crux of the story has to do with a
missing Greek homoerotic epic poem.
Educated illusions aside, however, Stevenson is not a big idea writer. I
think that's why "London Bridges," which is stylized and screwball comic, in a
kind of restrained Barbara Pym-ish way, has gotten some lukewarm reviews. I
enjoyed it, but then I'm also a sucker for those middlebrow Brit wit sitcoms
that my local PBS station airs on Saturday nights. And "London Bridges" is,
indeed, something of the literary equivalent of "As Time Goes By" and "Keeping
Up Appearances." In a pub scene at the very end of "London Bridges," a
character tidily sums up the gnarled multi twists-of-fate plot here by saying,
`What actually happened is we've sort of accidentally solved a crime which no
one knew had even happened just by getting to know each other.'
Those characters who, thorough flukes, do get to know each other, mostly
constitute a lineup of the new Britain. Among them are Jeanene Malone, an
expatriate Australian in London to study classical Greek; Dale Dessey(ph), a
lawyer and first-generation Londoner whose Indian parents operate a sweet
shop; Sebastian Rayfield(ph), a gay classics scholar, and the villain of the
piece; Edward Lupsip(ph), a cash-poor but lineage-heavy old Etonian who works
alongside Dale and who resents the energy and the effrontery of anyone who's
out of the blue blood mainstream.
In the course of carrying out some legal drudgery, Lupsip stumbles upon a
trust established centuries ago by the Greek community in London to support an
Orthodox church, which turns out to have been demolished in World War II.
Lupsip suspects that somewhere in London there's a big pot of unclaimed money
that's been accumulating interest for decades. His snooping leads him to a
crumbling Dickensian townhouse in a forgotten square where a man older than
dirt named Mr. Ugenities(ph) presides over ancient treasures. That is, until
he's murdered. Meanwhile, the lives of the other characters intersect in
unexpected ways until all converge in an outrageous, exuberant chase-scene
finale, featuring Druids and eco-warriors on motorbikes.
I said before that Stevenson is not a big idea writer; and that's true. But I
didn't mean to imply her novel is all style, no substance. Without a trace of
politically correct sermonizing, Stevenson revels in the surprising
cross-cultural and cross-racial connections, the bridges, as it were, that
living in any city inevitably promotes. For a relatively short novel, "London
Bridges" really gives readers a sense of the multitudinousness of London, and
it meditates on the cost of embracing those changes that give the city its
vitality. Matthew Arnold, the Victorian critic few people read anymore, once
talked about sweetness and light as being the two top literary virtues.
Funny, "London Bridges" contains both sweetness and light, although, granted,
the light it sheds on contemporary London may be too soft and flattering for
some cynics' tastes.
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed the new novel, "London Bridges," by Jane Stevenson.
Coming up, how New York has recovered from crises in the past. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Ric Burns and Peter Quinn discuss Burns' documentary
about New York
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
When Ric Burns finished his 14-hour documentary about New York, he thought he
brought his film up to the present, and then on September 11th, a whole new
chapter began. Ric Burns is the brother of filmmaker Ken Burns, and he
co-produced "The Civil War" with his brother. The final two episodes of Ric
Burns' "New York" will air Sunday and Monday nights on most public television
stations. They cover the period from the Great Depression to the turn of the
century, which was yet another time in which the city reinvented itself in the
wake of devastation. I spoke earlier with Ric Burns, and Peter Quinn, author
of the historical novel "Banished Children of Eve," and one of the on-air
contributors to the series. Ric Burns has said that for him the attack on the
World Trade Center marked the end of New York's `island fantasy.'
Mr. RIC BURNS (Documentary Film Director): You know, the phrase of E.B.
White's from 1949, thinking of the specter of nuclear holocaust in the
post-Second World War period. And I felt very much that although White
anticipated that sense of vulnerability, but it took in the end half a century
for it to be made real in the awful way that people imagine the planes coming
over and the flames leaping up. But it took a half a century for that to come
about. I think that that's very true. I think that our island fantasy of
invulnerability, of a kind of, you know, what seemed to me as sort of a
schizophrenic cosmopolitanism in which you can be involved in a global
commercial system, in so far as you get to reap the rewards of it, but you can
avoid the mess and the pain and the difficulty. And that's clear now that
that's an illusion. And there's so many ways in which the kind of brash,
ebullient fantasy of New York has been shattered. And I'm not saying whether
that's a good or a bad thing, it's just happened.
BOGAEV: Just to take this down to a very personal level, I was trying to
imagine myself into your position. You took New York on, you've created this
seven-part monolith about this city, and now it's missing its final chapter.
And I was wondering, actually, if there are things that come back to you that
you have either portrayed in the series or said about New York that now have a
different meaning, a different resonance for you?
Mr. BURNS: Oh, oh, it's incredible, Barbara. I mean, the entire film, and
especially the last four and a half hours to be broadcast this week, our
filled with stories, characters, events and themes, all of which the context
of their reception changed immediately on Tuesday, the 11th. I mean, usually
it takes years, decades for something that you work on to kind of acquire,
through the accretion of the historical process, different meanings. Now just
the shadow of a building, the image on the edge of a frame of the World Trade
Center, now absolutely reforms, transforms the way in which you read the film.
No one--obviously, we never could have anticipated that, but it's a very eerie
experience for all of my colleagues and for me. And I think, actually, for
anyone who's seen the film, to see it, and see that it's now haunted, as if,
retrospectively, by the ghost of an event yet to come when the filmmakers made
it, which now pervades every frame and it pervades the way you feel and think
about the stories and the characters that you're being presented with.
Think, for example, of La Guardia, Fiorello La Guardia, two weeks ago, felt
like a little bit of a different character, a little bit of a historical
figure. Now he seems like the very embodiment of our current Italian-American
mayor who is, you know, been taken--who has taken the city to his heart and
been taken to the heart by so many people around the city and around the
country. That is just one of literally hundreds of ways in which the story
has been--the context of its reception has been changed, reshaped.
BOGAEV: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani comments in your film, Ric Burns, that La
Guardia took over during the most difficult time ever to be mayor and that he
was the perfect person for that time. I think that's, again, one of those
moments where you feel this resonating. Here so many are saying that Giuliani
is the perfect mayor for this time, and this crisis, in New York. It's
interesting, they are such different men but similar in ways.
Mr. BURNS: They are very similar. I mean, they're both autocratic men, in
many ways; sort of towering egos; terrible tempers, each of them; known for
lashing out at the press and their associates. Each with a fierce puritanical
streak in them, wanting to sort of clean up the city, save it from the abyss
of morality into which it seems to be dropping. At the same time,
relentlessly honest men. New Yorkers, through and through, with a deep and
abiding love for the city and its people. And when the--in the toughest of
hours, absolutely there, able to speak truth to people, able to provide an
example of honesty and courage in the darkest of times. And it's simply
astonishing, you know, there's a painting of La Guardia, which Mayor Giuliani
had put over his desk in the northwest corner of City Hall, and he's
consciously thought of himself in the shadow of La Guardia who is his mentor.
And I think what's very, very clear now is there are many ways in which both
intentionally and unintentionally he has become the successor to La Guardia.
I certainly think he will rank as one of the very greatest of mayors. I think
he had a shot at that without this event. With this event, I think it's
absolutely a done deal.
Mr. PETER QUINN (Author, "Banished Children of Eve"): They're the oddest
creatures, too, in another way; they're both Republican mayors, which doesn't
happen very often in New York.
BOGAEV: One figure profiled in an upcoming episode is Robert Moses, and he's
the man primarily responsible for much of the urban planning in New York in
the 20th century, and it was his vision of monolithic glass and steel
skyscrapers and a city crisscrossed by huge highways. Peter, could you sum up
for us what Robert Moses' vision for New York was?
Mr. QUINN: I kind of grew up with Robert Moses' vision of New York in the
Bronx in the 1950s. I remember going down in the neighborhood I was to play
where they were clearing apartment buildings for the Cross Bronx Expressway.
And his vision was this kind of 19th century reformist idea of clean, orderly
highways, the automobile--everything under control, everything under essential
authority. It's the antithesis of what New York really is. And he had this
kind of modern edge to it where the automobile was the future, dispersing
populations. He had no use for immigrants or poor--it was to get on with the
business of America, which was going to be lived mostly in the suburbs.
People would drive in the city maybe to work. It was a deeply anti-urban
Mr. BURNS: The historian Ken Jackson has said that Robert Moses saw New York
as a transportation problem to be solved, and set about solving that
transportation problem with a vengeance. He had a vision, a grand unified
vision, of, as Peter has said, a clean, orderly, flowing metropolitan region
in which there was no disorder, there was no sort of complexity of sort of
human function in any given neighborhoods. The industry was where it should
be. The residential areas were where they should be. People had their
recreational areas over here, and it all worked according to a model, and
according to a plan. It, unfortunately, was a plan which had a kind of
abstract beauty and symmetry to it, but it wasn't a plan that had anything to
do with the way day after day a modern Democratic society functions.
Mr. QUINN: It was also a plan where the minorities and the poor would be
segmented out to make life more orderly for everybody else so you would build
housing projects on Coney Island where people couldn't reach work. So that
that kind of life of the poor where in a real city it's intermingled with
everybody else, his idea was to put it in a ghetto; and, you know, it was a
modern ghetto, it was vertical rather than spread out, but that was part of
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with writer Peter Quinn, also documentary filmmaker Ric
Burns. The sixth and seventh episodes of Ric Burns' series about New York
airs this Sunday and Monday nights on PBS stations nationwide. Peter Quinn is
a commentator in the series. He's also the author of the historical novel
"Banished Children of Eve."
I think one of the most harrowing examples from the documentary series on New
York reinventing itself after a catastrophe is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
fire. And that was a scene of carnage that New York really had never
experienced up until this recent attack, and it forced the city to confront
the inhuman labor conditions and the sweatshops at the turn of the century.
It caused many changes in labor laws and social welfare.
Ric Burns, could you revisit for us the circumstances of the fire?
Mr. BURNS: In May of 1911, really one of the worst disasters in American
industrial history took place in Greenwich Village off Washington Square in a
sweatshop in a factory, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which--it was a
time before there were any laws regulating the workplace, regulating the
conditions, regulating how many people, whether or not there could be exits,
or certainly sprinklers--hadn't been heard of. And on a Saturday evening,
shortly before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory closed for the rest of the
weekend, a fire broke out on the ninth floor and the exit doors were locked.
All other means of escaping the building were really rapidly closed off by the
very swiftly growing conflagration. And in the end, some 144 garment workers,
women, most of them quite young, almost most of them immigrants, European
immigrants, were consumed in the blaze or were forced to jump out of the
eighth, ninth or 10th floor of the building to their death on the street
below. With that disaster, as with the recent World Trade Center disaster,
the eyes of the city and, shortly after that, the eyes of the world, were
fixed on that. New York was the media capital already in 1911. The press
rushed up and a horrified city gathered round and watched this happen.
BOGAEV: Ric Burns, how did the public and the city respond to the tragedy?
Mr. BURNS: In a way that's both extraordinary and reminiscent of the response
to the recent disasters. As terrible as that disaster was, it coalesced a
community of New Yorkers in a way that had never--people who had never come
together before came together in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory fire. The whole city, rich and poor, every profession, every part of
the political life of the city, came together and said, `We cannot allow these
conditions to continue.' And so out of the tragedy came both civic unity of a
kind that might not ever have existed before and also the political will and
the political consensus to actually make laws, to change laws, to try to
ensure that such tragedies wouldn't happen again.
BOGAEV: Ric, you decided to change the closing credit sequence for the final
episode because of the events of September 11th. Why did you make the change,
and why not add a segment or an introduction or a postscript or--What was
wrong about the tone of the ending?
Mr. BURNS: You know, we'd had--the end credit sequence for the last episode
was, we thought, an infinitely charming sequence of talking heads--Fran
Lebowitz, Spalding Gray, Calvin Butts, Brendan Gill, Donald Trump. Each one
sort of more irreverent, brash and ebullient than the next. And we kind
of--by nightfall on Tuesday, the 11th of September, New York did not seem like
a very brash or ebullient or even very irreverent place. Those qualities that
perhaps all too glibly are associated with New Yorkers had just fallen to the
ground. And really, for me the only part of the series that simply seemed
absolutely inappropriate in its tone was that sort of cheeky end credit
sequence; so we scrapped it, somewhat sadly.
And instead, chose comments from just two people, from Robert Caro, who wrote
the great biography of Robert Moses, and from my colleague, Peter Quinn, who's
here with us today. And both those interviews had been conducted years before
the events of two weeks ago, but what they had to say spoke to the themes, the
global themes that I think are at the heart, the serious heart, of the city's
history, and spoke of the degree to which, if we're going to make it as a
global civilization, we're going to make it in the way New York has been
making it imperfectly for the last few hundred years. Making it all together,
with all the peoples of the world here, with all races, all religions, all
ethnicities, all peoples of every national origin there, and finding a way, as
Peter puts it, in the end credit sequence, to not blow each other up, to not
wash out our differences, not deny our differences, but somehow live with our
differences intact. That's the experiment that New York has been engaged in
for so long; not the creation of a homogenized culture, but the creation of a
tolerant, diverse, complex, often very messy culture in which difference is
celebrated and tolerated.
BOGAEV: Ric Burns, Peter Quinn, I want to thank you very much for talking
with me today.
Mr. BURNS: Thanks for having us, Barbara.
Mr. QUINN: Thank you very much, Barbara.
BOGAEV: Ric Burns and writer Peter Quinn. Episodes six and seven of Ric
Burns' documentary series on New York air Sunday and Monday nights on PBS
Coming up, a review of the new film "Zoolander." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: First new Hollywood comedy to open since September 11th
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
The first new Hollywood comedy to open since September 11th is "Zoolander."
It stars Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed the film. And like a
lot of movie comedies these days, the main character was first created for TV.
John Powers has a review.
Ever since September 11th, people have been talking about what the attacks
might have done to the American psyche, especially the lightheartedness that
is one of our best qualities. There's been acute anxiety among creators of
comedy who wonder if they can still make the same jokes as before, or whether
the audience wants something deeper and less irreverent. Will the public
still laugh at Jim Carrey shooting a cow? It's been easiest for talk show
hosts like David Letterman whose daily schedule allows him to make instant
changes. He quickly donned a new seriousness, canonizing Rudy Giuliani,
rather than mocking him, and saving his jokes for safe, friendly targets like
Regis Philbin. Things are far trickier for the movie business where the film
you see today may well have been in the works since the late 1990s. That's
why nobody knows whether this fall's new comedies will somehow violate the
national mood or whether they'll benefit from the audience's desperate need
for something, anything to laugh about.
The first test case is "Zoolander," a ramshackle new comedy made by and
starring Ben Stiller. He plays Derek Zoolander, the world's greatest male
model, with a patented stare he calls `blue steel,' and all the intelligence
of a pet rock. He's so stupid he spells the word day, `D-A-I-Y-E.'
Zoolander's world starts to crumble when he's beaten at the Model of the Year
award by a newcomer named Hansel, a blond, scooter-riding dude played by Owen
Wilson, who you might remember as Jackie Chan's sidekick in "Shanghai Noon."
And Zoolander's life gets even worse when he's brainwashed by an evil
designer. That's "Saturday Night Live's" Will Ferrell. He's ordered to kill
the prime minister of Malaysia, who's hurting the fashion industry by
insisting they pay garment workers a living wage.
Through it all, Zoolander remains unfailingly foolish and self-absorbed.
Here, he's being interviewed by a reporter from Time magazine.
(Soundbite of "Zoolander")
Unidentified Actress: So when did you know you wanted to be a model?
Mr. BEN STILLER: (As Derek Zoolander) Hmm. I guess it would have to be the
first time I went through the second grade. I caught my reflection in a spoon
while I was eating my cereal and I remember thinking `Wow! You're
ridiculously good-looking. Maybe you could do that for a career.'
Unidentified Actress: Do what?
Mr. STILLER: Be professionally good-looking.
Unidentified Actress: Right.
POWERS: Ben Stiller made his name doing spoofs on TV. And he has a
razor-sharp eye for the absurdities of pop culture. "Zoolander" itself began
as a skit on VH-1 and it boasts some clever comic ideas, like the fashion line
called Derelict(ph), whose style is taken from the homeless, or the notion of
the mystic scooter boy Hansel, who's so plugged in that he travels with his
own Sherpa. But while these are good gags, Stiller hasn't escaped his roots
in skit comedy. Far too many of the movie's jokes feel secondhand, as if he'd
simply opened a Cuisinart and dropped in "Austin Powers," "Charlie's Angels,"
"Dumb & Dumber," not to mention parodies of "The Godfather" in 2001.
The movie doesn't go anywhere. This might not matter if Stiller were a
magical performer like Mike Myers who has the knack of making silliness seem
inspired. But his aura is too neurotic for the part. Even as he struggles to
become sweet, dumb, self-absorbed Derek Zoolander, his ambition and
intelligence are always there behind his eyes, worrying. The movie's stolen
by Owen Wilson, whose smile radiates absolute pleasure in life, and whose odd
hippy-dippy timing gives even the flattest scene an off-kilter sense of fun.
His presence even boosts Stiller's performance, which suddenly gets looser and
funnier each time Wilson comes on screen. The two are buddies in real life,
and their scenes together are terrific, especially a male modeling walk-off
and the silliest orgy scene ever put on film.
If classic Hollywood comedies were constructed like Swiss watches in which the
nuances of plot and character were made to mesh perfectly, today's comedies
more often resemble a drunken game of darts in which the filmmaker tosses up
scene after scene and hopes a few hit the bull's-eye. In "Zoolander," there
are few hits and a lot of misses. But Stiller doesn't seem to care. Neither
did the audience I saw it with, a preview screening packed with college kids
whose desire for laughter obviously outweighed any other consideration. They
didn't care whether the movie was any good, they just wanted to escape into
familiar goofiness. When singers from 'N Sync and Limp Bizkit showed up in
cameos, they cheered. Their world was still intact.
BOGAEV: John Powers is executive editor of LA Weekly.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.