The Commerce of Commemoration
Could it have been different? Goldberger, like many New Yorkers, longed to see commercial considerations set aside; he writes favorably of a discarded plan to put the site to public use as a memorial park, while redistributing the lost office space by building elsewhere in the city. He believes that in the emotionally charged aftermath of the attacks, Silverstein might have been bought out, and the Port Authority might have been convinced to give up the hallowed ground. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration proposed trading the Port the city's two airports in return for the Trade Center site, an innovative idea that died quietly, after which Bloomberg disappeared from the redevelopment debate.) But the moment passed, the acrid smoke cleared, everyone lawyered up and the process proceeded.
Nobel writes that the process followed its own logic, "a body of managed assumptions that passed for consensus," which allowed "the public and private arbiters of the site to act under the umbrella of conventional wisdom as they navigated the minefield of an unconventional dispute." Public opinion did matter, but only as long as it was expressed within these boundaries of economics and taste. It was quickly decided that some streets truncated by the old World Trade Center would be returned to their prelapsarian states, and that a new rail terminal would be built on the site. Both ideas pleased the city's political elites, who had been weaned on the "new urbanism" model of planning. When an initial round of boxy site plans came under attack, the LMDC decided to invite some of the world's most famous architects to test their imaginations on a master plan. This thrilled the city's aesthetic elites, led by the New York Times's flamboyant architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, a man who "wrapped his power around himself like a luxurious fur-lined cloak," Libeskind writes. For years, Muschamp had been bemoaning New York's architectural timidity. But the seven teams named as semifinalists in the LMDC's "Innovative Design Study" were heavily weighted toward big-named, big-thinking, big-egoed designers: Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Lord Norman Foster, Richard Meier, Rafael Viñoly, among others. In December 2002 their visions were unveiled at a televised ceremony. Goldberger writes that it "may have been the most widely covered architectural event in history."
This is where these books get interesting. The redevelopment process's encounter with the world of avant-garde architecture is a tale fit for Tom Wolfe. (Actually, Libeskind's attorney, the ubiquitous Manhattan fixer Eddie Hayes, was the model for Wolfe's character Tommy Killian, the streetwise lawyer in The Bonfire of the Vanities.) As the project lurches toward banality, the characters plot, feud and leak to the newspapers, staging palace coups and office break-ins.
After the public unveiling, the LMDC's selection committee narrowed the field to two finalists: Libeskind, whose design featured an angular office building with a 1,776-foot spire, and Viñoly's team, which envisioned a pair of enormous latticework towers. Both architects were cast to type, Goldberger writes: "Libeskind dressed in black, with heavy, black-rimmed French eyeglasses and American cowboy boots, while the silver-haired Viñoly kept multiple pairs of eyeglasses on strings around his neck and atop his head." Both spoke accented English, which was strange in Libeskind's case, since, though born in Poland, he was mostly raised in the Bronx. During the three weeks that the committee pondered, the architects did The Oprah Winfrey Show and savaged one another in the press. Viñoly's partisans called Libeskind's plan, which featured a memorial that was sunken underground, "the pit." Libeskind's team derided Viñoly's towers as "skeletons." And Viñoly had other skeletons to worry about: On the eve of the selection committee's decision, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Argentine architect, who had presented himself as a victim of the military junta that ruled his country in the 1970s and '80s, had in fact accepted commissions from the regime.
The story was well timed for Libeskind. Nevertheless, on February 25, 2003, the committee picked Viñoly. The news was reported in the next day's New York Times. Governor Pataki still had to sign off, but an anonymous committee member told the paper, "We don't expect anyone to overrule us." He was wrong. Pataki ignored the committee and picked Libeskind, rechristening his centerpiece skyscraper "Freedom Tower."