View Full Version : Designers' Dreams, Tempered by Reality - By HERBERT MUSCHAMP

February 26th, 2003, 03:25 AM
February 26, 2003

Designers' Dreams, Tempered by Reality

The decision on who will redesign the World Trade Center site is expected to be announced later this week. Both finalists, Studio Daniel Libeskind and Think, a team led by Rafael Viñoly, Frederic Schwartz, Shigeru Ban and Ken Smith, have extensively revised their plans at the request of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

The Libeskind plan originally specified that most of the so-called bathtub, the sunken area enclosed within the concrete retaining walls of the World Trade Center, be used for a mix of cultural purposes. Much of that area, however, has since been claimed by the Port Authority's decision to build a major transportation hub within the retaining walls. This would leave only a marginal portion of the site to be used as the Libeskind team had planned. It would also substantially diminish that plan's architectural strength.

The most significant change required of the Think team was the reduction of the elevated platforms originally intended for cultural uses. As now envisioned, a museum would be between the 30th- and 35th-floor levels of the two 110-story towers of steel lattice. Observation platforms would be at the summits of the towers. The platforms originally designed for other cultural uses have been eliminated, diminishing the plan's vitality as a cultural center. Officials of the development corporation said it would be impossible to ensure construction on higher platforms after the museum was built.

Yet even the revised designs cannot be considered final. As is the case with many competitions for major building projects, the steering committee will be choosing a team of architects, not a completed design. Further design development is contingent on the framing of an architectural program: the precise mix of uses that the buildings will contain. An outline for a proposed program could be released as early as tomorrow.

The plans of both finalists call for incremental development, with new office buildings, designed by different architects, that would be constructed as market demand dictates. Thus we may not get a complete picture of what ground zero will look like until a decade from now.

For now, development corporation officials remain committed to realizing the core concepts of whichever plan is chosen. The composition of the corporation's board will undoubtedly change with time, however, as will the agency's mission. City officials are likely to assume more substantial representation. The position of Larry Silverstein, leaseholder of the World Trade Center site, will remain unclear pending the outcome of his legal battle with the property's insurers.

For now, though, the program for ground zero should become the major focus of public scrutiny. Whichever team is selected, the program will ultimately become the true source of meaning at ground zero. What cultural value, apart from design, will the architecture serve? What sort of message will this city send to the future about the historical trauma it has been living through?

One of the most heartening developments to come out of the debate over the future of ground zero has been the public's greater awareness of what an architectural program is. When people have spoken of a memorial, of office space, of parks and museums, they have been educating themselves about a pivotal fact that architects and planners reckon with constantly: whoever controls the program controls the architecture. Throughout the debate, the public has been saying that it wants to control the program.

That is the lesson to be drawn from the public's rejection of the original six plans presented by the development corporation at the Javits Center last July. As corporation officials themselves insisted, the plans were not architecture. They were formulas for the program. It was as such that the public rejected them. Give us a vision of something more, the people said.

The development corporation responded beautifully, up to a point. It established an independent jury to recommend a list of architects, a roster that included some of the world's most imaginative practitioners. Six of these teams in turn produced designs that people will be arguing about for years. Over all, the debate has done as much to lift the level of architectural discussion as any of the individual designs.

Still, as many have observed, the process has proceeded backward. Typically, designers work from programmatic requirements toward their architectural expression. That has not been possible in this case. Though the architects were given guidelines, they were also given wide latitude to frame their designs in broad cultural terms.

Of necessity, all of the teams were compelled to imagine some ideal cultural program capable of lifting the project above the mundane. The teams took advantage of this freedom in different ways, however, and it was on the basis of those differences that the public could begin to discriminate among the plans.

Nowhere were the differences more pronounced than in the plans prepared by the two finalists. The Libeskind design is a dramatic piece of expressionist architecture that in its original form went far toward supplanting the need for an additional memorial to the victims of 9/11. The reduction of usable space in the "bathtub" to a fraction of its original size must inevitably compromise the aesthetic strength for which this plan was chosen. That design's explicit equation of aesthetic with moral and indeed spiritual value is now open to serious question. Whatever one makes of the original design's heavily loaded symbolism — to my mind the meanings became more disturbing with each viewing — the design's symbolic heart no longer exists.

The Think's team's design has also been compromised. The plan's potential to develop a platformed urbanism was immensely compelling. If that potential is not developed on this site, the design nonetheless represents an important new way to imagine the public realm. Before long, it will be taken into fully realized urban space.

Even with the elimination of the upper decks, however, the conceptual heart of this design remains intact. This is an architecture of service to something other than architecture. It is essentially a piece of urban infrastructure, a transportation system turned skyward. Aspiration is the plan's symbolic content, in the time-honored tradition of New York skyscraper design.

In more concrete terms, the Think design serves the program. The two lattice towers are symbolic containers in which our hopes for the future can be crystalized by the uses that will be clustered within.

There has been much discussion in recent months about what those uses should be. A new home for the New York City Opera. A Museum of Freedom. An art museum. Most promising of all, an educational center on the impact of globalization.

The public has already taken the lead in shaping the program for ground zero. With little guidance from public officials or the media, the public has been educating itself about the meaning of 9/11 and its place in the broader context of world affairs. In a phenomenon that is itself worthy of serious analysis, people have been reading up on issues ranging from terrorism, the medieval crusades, nationalism, the environment and the global economy to the corporate monoculture, Islamic tribalism and the changing role of urban centers in the emerging global culture.

I base my strong preference for the Think team's proposal on its capacity to give this process of public education both a symbolic and a practical form. No other design elicited by the official planning process has risen to the cultural occasion that the public itself has defined.

Sept. 11 never was primarily about architecture. If the future of ground zero was defined in architectural terms, that was to prevent it from being defined purely by the terms of real estate development, terms in which cultural values do not begin to figure. Attention must now turn to the fullest assertion of those values.

Copyright 2003*The New York Times Company