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The Fix at Ground Zero | The Nation

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The Fix at Ground Zero

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A Ground-Zero-Sum Game

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Philip Nobel
Philip Nobel writes for Metropolis, Artforum, the New York Times and Architectural Digest. He is trained as an...

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The footprints of clashing interests.

As this spectacle played out in the Winter Garden's center ring, office workers--many likely survivors of the generative event--looked on. They stood above at the mezzanine rails or sat on the grand stair that was built to take traffic from the pedestrian bridge, now scrap, that served so well as an escape route before it was taken out by the towers' collapse. Several of the hopeful teams had hired public relations firms to increase their real-time traction in the public imagination. So under the witnesses' mordant gaze, those inevitable lubricants of contemporary enterprise, smiling flacks, did their thing. Some of them--inexplicably--were telling all who would listen, "Our team should win."

Win? As things stand, there will be no winner in the rebuilding game, not one worth rooting for, anyway; a compromised process can only result in compromise. And there could have been no winner that day: This was bread and circus for the chattering class, smoke and mirrors for the viewers back home, a feint by the development powers to protect their left flank from accusations of philistinism, a dodge to buy time while they get their publicly financed house in order for a final push at that fearsome fait accompli: rebuilding on the World Trade Center site every last leasable square foot that the market will bear and society will tolerate. Before us now are nine visions, two of which hold promise in their parts, six of which are undercooked esquisses (little different from the ongoing fancies of amateurs) and one of which--the ringers' plan--offers a pitch-perfect paean to the status quo, a developers' delight. There's a lot to discuss, sure. But remember two things: (1) For architects, presentation technologies are a mask and a crutch; the right software, well handled, can make any idea look like a winner. (2) There can be no winner without something to win.

The beguiling images that were released on December 18 were not the products of a design competition. That fact was made clear in bold text on the very first page of the Request for Qualifications brief posted last August by the LMDC-- "This is NOT a design competition and will not result in the selection of a final plan"--and it was repeated quite plainly several times in published addenda to that document: "This is not a design competition. It is a design study." The distinction is significant. The LMDC has bound itself only to search for "innovative designs" that will be presented "to the public to promote a free-flowing exchange of ideas." That promise has been kept. Had this been an actual design competition, there would now be a reasonable expectation that a winner would be picked and a commission granted. Here again the August RFQ is eloquent: "At the conclusion of this process, the LMDC may choose to retain one or more of the participants to continue, or choose to retain none of them. Such election will be made at the discretion of the LMDC."

That last passage still stands as the clearest written indication of next steps. But more was betrayed in comments made by John Whitehead, the internally embattled chairman of the LMDC, as he closed down the Winter Garden event. He thanked the architects for their many plans, which, he said, his agency would now have the task of reducing to one. The architects have fattened themselves for the cannibals' feast; by the end of January the LMDC intends to digest their studies, by means unspecified, into a single master plan. By February, too, the Port Authority is scheduled to reveal another transparent-process wild card: its own in-house land-use vision, being drawn up now by Stan Eckstut, one of the original designers of Battery Park City. We'll soon see how those plans might mesh. Right now it's a state secret.

But let's not dwell on the negative. That one bright December day at the World Financial Center belonged to "the visionaries." So said Roland Betts, developer, chairman of the LMDC's Joint Site Planning Committee, friend of George W. Bush and arguably the most powerful unelected official at the table. It was a generous sentiment, and it was true; after the Times editorial board deemed the designs "a gift" ("The government's obligation...is to protect the scale and ambition of these plans against what are almost certain to be challenges from commercial and political interests"), after the online polls were closed at the New York Post and CNN (Foster's "kissing" towers won both), after the submissions were put into vitrines at the Winter Garden for public review (all day, every day through February 2), this news cycle was immediately swallowed up by the annual slide into styling an American Christmas just like the ones we used to know. Whether by chance or tactic, that snowbound intermission took two weeks out of what was only a six-week window for the LMDC to assess its harvest of ideas, gather and weigh public comment (from the exhibition, online and at a public meeting scheduled for January 13), stitch together a successor scheme and somehow stretch that exquisite corpse around the unknown angles of the Port Authority's "Plan X." What does haste make? Here, a wealth of rumors that the fix is in.

Which is not to say the design study changed nothing. It has tilted the scales ever so slightly in favor of architectural quality--insofar as quality is synonymous with the products of architecture's star system, deployed in the time-honored New York way: a signature skin job. After the big Winter Garden debut, it is unlikely that the LMDC or the Port Authority or Larry Silverstein can backtrack from the assumption that at least one marquee name will now be attached to the project. That has caused some observers, notably the Times's star-struck Muschamp, to dance little victory jigs in print. But it should offer only small comfort to lovers of the art and to all still hoping for difference at Ground Zero. Those who control the program and the publicity and the calendar and the money and the land and the sky above it can hardly be said to have bent much if they contract out for aesthetics. And--barring a lightning strike--that is where we're heading, even if we open the papers one morning in the coming weeks or years to find that the powers downtown have hired the irresistible Lord Foster or the intense Daniel Libeskind or even the shining Frank Gehry, the last of the greats untarnished by participation in the process itself. (Gehry turned down an invitation to join the ill-fated Dream Team. He's playing a longer game.) So save your hosannas. This is still business as usual, remember, even if writ large and strangely burdened. The odds-on future of the site remains a queasy trains-below, cubicles-above, memorial-in-the-footprints, shopping-everywhere dollop of old-normal Manhattan. And as in any other local real estate venture, the architect will be brought in to dress the developers' numbers. No one should be surprised; that is the bone that is always thrown, and this time we saw the windup broadcast live on TV.

Will New Yorkers take to the streets for architecture? If so, the time is now. Either the brakes are put on hard--an exotic policy prevails (like Mayor Bloomberg's pending offer to swap city-owned land under the airports for the Port Authority's fiefdom downtown); an open, binding, juried competition like the one planned for the memorial is promised for the whole site; the bottom truly falls out of the economy and the problems wait for bolder times--or we should steel ourselves for sixteen acres of prime river-view disappointment. The tragically emptied World Trade Center pit began its afterlife as an arena for exaggerated quarrels; it has become a crucible of the absurd. The great glory and weakness of architecture is that it is forever tied to such mundane circumstance. Architecture is a contingent art. Whatever new thing we get at Ground Zero will embody the context of its creation: the halting, mendacious process unfolding before us in twilight. Which is why the shaken should look elsewhere for solace, why the broken should avert their eyes and why the lost should seek another, less worldly redemption.

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