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The Commerce of Commemoration | The Nation

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The Commerce of Commemoration

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What happened? One explanation can be found in an anecdote Libeskind recounts in Breaking Ground. It is worth retelling, because it reveals something about architecture's role within the redevelopment process. Libeskind writes that when the committee was about to go Viñoly's way, Eddie Hayes called Pataki. (Hayes had been advising Libeskind since early in the competition, proving that, goofy glasses notwithstanding, the architect knew how to navigate New York.) Hayes, who roomed with Pataki in law school, simply referred to the governor as "The Guy." Libeskind quotes his lawyer's description of what happened:

Andrew Rice covered commercial real estate development for the New York Observer from 2000 until 2002.

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And so I'm sitting there...looking at the paper, and I'm thinking, Holy whatever! They lost! And I think to myself, You know it's ridiculous that Eddie Hayes is going to have to push The Guy on something like this, but it's me or nobody. I've seen the model. I know the plans. I know the man. I know Libeskind's the right guy for this. So I call The Guy, and within a couple of minutes The Guy calls me back.

The string was tugged, and The Guy picked Libeskind's design.

So there it is: The commission for arguably the most important architectural project in the history of New York was decided in a phone conversation between the governor and his old law school chum. This turn of events is not surprising. But it does make Libeskind's indignation about his subsequent reverses hard to credit. The power the governor gave, he could (and did) take away. "What played out through 2002 and 2003," Goldberger writes, "was the use of architecture for political ends, not the use of politics for architectural ends."

From there, the story follows a predictable course. Silverstein wants his own architect to design Freedom Tower: David Childs, of the establishment firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Libeskind, after much infighting, is relegated to a subordinate role. What results is a lobotomized version of Libeskind's original plan. A separate competition chooses a memorial design that further departs from Libeskind's vision. Several prominent architects are chosen to design buildings on the site: Santiago Calatrava, a train station; Frank Gehry, a performing arts center; Norman Foster, an office building. But Libeskind is shut out.

Libeskind feigns pride in the remnants of his plan that remain, but he's halfhearted. The critics are less charitable. Nobel describes Freedom Tower's design as "a mongrel tower with a twist, a false top, and a piercing spire--a speculative commercial office building transformed through the alchemy of the process into an emblem of the process itself." The key word is "speculative." A new incarnation of 7 World Trade Center, an office building also owned by Silverstein, is currently being built without the promise of any large-scale tenants. Renting out the much larger Freedom Tower, a building constructed as a taunt to Osama bin Laden, won't be easy. As an economic proposition, the project evokes memories of the old, empty World Trade Center. "In mid-2004," Goldberger concludes, "the Freedom Tower seemed less to signify innovation than history repeating itself."

The battle between commerce and commemoration was never much of a contest. It's too early to tell whether the final memorial design, by Michael Arad, will strike the right emotional chord. After all, it must describe a story to which we don't yet know the ending. What is evident, however, is that Arad's work will merely be a component in a large-scale office development, like one of those public amenities--a fountain, a mural, a windswept plaza--developers routinely throw into their projects to win political favor. "How will the dead compete with all this reverence for lost construction?" Nobel asks bitterly.

It's not shocking that profit and politics triumphed over propriety. After all, this is New York. One recent morning, I paid a visit to the World Trade Center site, my first since that fall day in 2001. Strolling down a covered walkway that spans the site, I counted only a few other gawkers, among them an Amish couple from Indiana. The investment bankers bustled past without as much as a downward glance. Truth is, there wasn't much to see. Down below, helmeted workmen scurried about the paved floor of the pit. A giant jackhammer pounded away. Ground Zero was what it was destined to become: a construction site.

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