The Fix at Ground Zero
The second year of machinations at the World Trade Center site has gotten off to a vigorous start. Digging out of the public-relations hole it created for itself last summer with the release of six profoundly uninspired plans by four handpicked local firms, in September the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced the selection of six mostly glamorous design teams from among "406 submissions received from every continent except Antarctica." Another, a handpicked local holdover from round one, was immediately added hors concours. The seven teams--six empowered by a jury and one by bureaucratic fiat--were then charged with creating "innovative designs" out of the appallingly complex skein of planning dilemmas at Ground Zero--What to build? Where to remember? How to profit?--and they were asked to do so using nearly the same overstuffed, lease-mandated quotas that had stymied the designers in the previous attempt: up to 10 million square feet of office space (graciously reduced from 11 million), up to 1 million square feet for an "international conference center and hotel" (an item found on no "Listening to the City" wish list) and between 600,000 and 1 million square feet of "respectful" retail space (quietly and substantially increased from last summer's totals). And, as before, all of this bounty is to be packed into a hemmed-in and hollowed-out urban site of only sixteen acres, two of which, the tower footprints, are now by official decree hallowed ground.
A working program reflecting these enduring assumptions--plus a memorial, a memorial museum, "a 21st century train station," a "distinctive skyline," a "new street grid," a "grand promenade" on West Street--was released on October 11 by the LMDC. Then the process went into chambers, where by all accounts that agency kept close tabs on the developing visions; but the Port Authority--still, alas, the owner of the site--emerged as the primary client, the party to impress. As planned, the elections came and went with progress implied; no incumbent was dogged by charges of inaction or exposed to "vision thing" risk. But in the weeks after, the papers began to fill with a steady pulse of official and leaked enthusiasms intended to raise hopes that an inventive spatial solution was near. At last, we were told, the cavalry--"great minds"--had come.
On December 18 the public was treated to an event that was an apt finale to that hype. As morning broke over lower Manhattan one year, three months and one week after it was attacked, the skylit, marble-veneered, palm-tree-canopied volume of the resurrected World Financial Center Winter Garden rang with the din of an assembling media scrum. In front of a well-guarded stage, behind a barrier of retractable ticket-line ribbons, a phalanx of miniature heroic futures waited, each world's-tallest totem of renewal suggesting its potency by the size of the tented peak it pushed up in a cloaking white sheet. Every vantage on those proud models not obstructed by the restored grove was taken up by rows of VIP folding chairs and banks of network cameras. Reporters eddied around the margins and complained that there was no coffee. This is how the city heals.
At 10 am sharp, in what may stand forever as the high-water mark of architecture's popular presence in American culture, the unveilings began, covered live on cable and local public radio, where a prominent design critic was asked to provide color commentary as if it were the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. First came Daniel Libeskind, brilliant and endearingly impish, unspooling a riff so affecting that few then or since questioned the shattered crystal city he proposed, ornamented with captured cosmic rays and puzzle-locked Tetris chits. Below a needle spire stacked with gardens (an "affirmation of life"), a "museum of the event" would hang provocatively over the concrete walls and bedrock floor of the World Trade Center's deep "bathtub" foundation. Resisting the convenient, circumscribed sanctity of the tower footprints, Libeskind left that entire relic raw. Norman Foster followed with something for everyone: a welcome humanist pitch ("Architecture is about needs: the needs of people"), a nuanced but normative memorial park around very empty footprints, and "twinned" glass towers "which kiss and touch and become one." The green engineering of those towers, their appeal to the build-'em-as-they-were crowd, the canny proposal to create private mourning zones for the victims' families and the comfortable feasibility of the whole added up to a rhetorical grand slam.
Lord Foster was a hard act to follow. Perhaps that's why Richard Meier kicked off his team's presentation with shtick: "We're the New York team. Some say we're the Dream Team. But that's not true. We're very real. And we're presenting a project that we'd like to think is also very real." That qualification told the whole story. The work Meier produced with three New York-scene rivals--Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl and Charles Gwathmey--bordered on the embarrassing: five inscrutable towers (each topping out at a cute 1,111 feet) tied by fat skyways into an imposing waffle that rears over twelve acres of windswept déjà vu. Though they got a pass from most design critics--Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times actually published his first defense before the plan was released--a studio critic would have to give the Dream Team an incomplete. The poverty of the design, a blank onto which any idea could be projected, gave heft to the murmurs that this ballyhooed collaboration had not gone smoothly. THINK, another bizarre star-cluster, brought together (among others) David Rockwell, the master of themed good-times architecture; Shigeru Ban, a genuine prophet of an ethical, bare-bones alternative; and Frederic Schwartz, whose career in the trenches was interrupted last year when his idea for decking West Street caught fire. This busy coalition covered its bets with three schemes: "World Cultural Center," twin latticework towers hung with vertiginous memorial platforms and vague not-for-profit spaces in playful blobs; "Sky Park," a plan for three towers looking down on the namesake plateau; and "Great Hall," which imagined a site-spanning thirty-story-high glass room that, despite the liberal use of the word "quiet" in architect Raphael Vinoly's presentation, looked like nothing less than a louder, loftier version of the press-choked Winter Garden itself. A third supergroup, United Architects, included jet-set mavericks from London (Foreign Office Architects), Los Angeles (Greg Lynn FORM) and Amsterdam (Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio, slumming here with their less accomplished contemporaries). Using presentation materials developed with the design and branding firm Imaginary Forces (the wizards behind the Harry Potter title sequences), Lynn sold his team as next-generation utopians. But beyond the hip bits and bytes, the team's cranky wall of canted, conjoined, triangle-faceted towers--though full of insurgent pluck--was a commonplace of New York futures past: a street-spanning megastructure, a "City in the Sky." Clearly it's time for a fresh take on the new.
The insiders presented last. Peterson/ Littenberg, the firm that skirted the jury via a consulting contract with the LMDC, was the furthest from the stylistic and urbanistic mean. Where others sought to bring life across the highway to Battery Park City, that still-sterile annex to Manhattan's Lower West Side, these urban designers in the reactionary mode sought to impose an identical impotence on Ground Zero: awkward towers jammed into a cut-rate Rockefeller Center, walled gardens and cozy pocket parks, the familiar easy streets of ersatz urbanism. This plan would create a wonderful beginner's pedestrian district for any American city that needs one, but New Yorkers expect much more from a street than what Peterson/Littenberg seem prepared to give. Apart from the self-defeating New York Four, it was the weakest of the "innovative designs" and, because of what it revealed of official taste, the most ominous. At the very end came venerable Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, forged in World War II as the house designers of the military-industrial complex. They are all over Ground Zero and have been from day one. David Childs, head of the New York office, is architect to the World Trade Center's commercial leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, and the designer of Silverstein's rapidly reborn and relentlessly anodyne Seven World Trade Center tower. Marilyn Jordan Taylor, long an articulate voice in the city's public-space debate, was active in the formation of New York New Visions, the design-world pressure group. In front of the cameras that day, a third partner, Roger Duffy, proposed a phased array of nimble, crooked towers, replacing the public-ground plane acre for acre with limited-access plazas in the sky. He took only six of the twenty minutes allotted to present a rather complex and radical idea. Does he know he shouldn't be wasting his time with hothouse flowers? Should we?