The Commerce of Commemoration
I first saw the World Trade Center's ruins a few weeks after September 11, 2001, at a time when the sulfurous stench of disaster still lingered over lower Manhattan. A prominent real estate developer invited me to view the wreckage from an adjacent office building. I was writing a newspaper article about the first stirrings of a debate within New York's real estate community--a fractious coterie of politicians, planners and property magnates--about what might be rebuilt on the spot everyone had come to call "Ground Zero." Looking down that day, as cranes lifted great bundles of debris, releasing clouds of yellow smoke from the depths of the pile, I was staggered by the enormity of the disaster. Sixteen acres of rubble. Meanwhile, my friend the developer, a smart and practical man, looked out the same window and saw something else: an opportunity. "It looks more and more like a construction site every day," he said.
Looking back now, it seems premature, and perhaps a bit ghoulish, that the two of us were talking about construction as fliers bearing the faces of the missing still hung limply from lampposts downtown. But, as architecture critic Philip Nobel dryly notes, America reacted to unspeakable tragedy "by returning to first principles." In New York, that meant building. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the city cannot abide a void. In those reeling days, many took solace in the notion that those precious acres, empty of all but meaning, might be filled with something that not only commemorated the nearly 3,000 dead but also affirmed that the city, and its aspirations, had survived.
Events moved fast, at times outpacing both mourning and deliberation. Two days after the attacks, Larry Silverstein, the developer who leased the Trade Center, told the Wall Street Journal, "It would be the tragedy of tragedies not to rebuild." He suggested that four fifty-five-story skyscrapers be erected on the property--by Larry Silverstein, naturally. In November 2001, New York Governor George Pataki announced the creation of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), a state agency charged with devising a plan for the site. By early the next year, it was holding public hearings. The site was cleared of debris by July, as more than 1.6 million tons of steel, concrete, dust and pulverized human remains were ferried over to a final resting place at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. Shortly after that, the LMDC conducted a much-publicized architectural competition. Model skyscrapers were unveiled and hotly debated. A winner was chosen: Daniel Libeskind, an architect best known for his dark and contorted design of Berlin's Jewish Museum. On July 4, 2004, less than three years after the World Trade Center's destruction, Pataki, a Republican, looked on as the cornerstone of a new Freedom Tower was laid, just in time for his party's national convention in New York.
This is a remarkable story: one of grit and determination, of unprecedented accomplishment at breakneck pace, amid the harshest possible public scrutiny. So why are the authors of three new books so disappointed? Paul Goldberger's Up From Zero, Philip Nobel's Sixteen Acres and Daniel Libeskind's Breaking Ground approach the redevelopment project from different perspectives. Goldberger, The New Yorker's architecture critic, takes an evenhanded insider's approach. Nobel, who covered the story for numerous publications, including The Nation, is an unabashed outsider, gleefully dissecting every motive, assumption and plan he comes across in the course of what he calls the "redevelopment follies." Libeskind, the architect who was toasted and later humiliated, predictably recounts his own heroics in high-flown style, while stooping occasionally to settle some scores. Taken together, these books tell how an experiment in imagination, born of tragedy and buoyed by hope--hope that New York, in the names of the dead, might create something transcendent--ultimately came to grief.
They have appeared with the same headlong speed that characterized the entire rebuilding initiative. It may seem strange to read assessments of structures that, as of now, remain little more than plastic models and pencil marks. But these books are not premature, because they are not really about architecture. They are about politics, ambition, ego and greed. Architecture, Nobel writes, is "an art that is neither high nor low, an art that gets to be art only after locking lips with reality: satisfying a client, securing funds and permits and insurance, getting built." In this case, reality demanded that whatever was constructed on the site of the World Trade Center fulfill two imperatives: First, pay tribute to the dead, and second--but by no means secondary--reproduce the millions in rental revenue generated by the World Trade Center.