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.