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JMGarcia
March 9th, 2003, 03:11 PM
by PAUL GOLDBERGER
The amazing design competition for the World Trade Center site.

Issue of 2003-03-10

The world of architecture has rarely been as lively as it was recently, during the competition for the commission to design a master plan for the World Trade Center site. It was a story about art and culture that had popular appeal, and both the tabloids and the Times ran regular updates on their front pages, including the announcement last week by the governor and the mayor that Studio Daniel Libeskind had won. At the beginning of February, a poll on the web site of New York 1, the local news channel, had shown that twenty-one per cent of the citizenry preferred Libeskind’s design, fourteen per cent liked that of the other finalist—a team known as think, headed by Rafael Viñoly, with Frederic Schwartz of New York, Shigeru Ban of Tokyo, and the New York landscape architect Ken Smith—and sixty-four per cent didn’t want either one of them. This didn’t prove much, of course. If you’d asked the French to vote on Haussmann’s boulevards, they probably would have said no to them, too.

I suspect that, for all the talk about moving quickly to decide the future of Ground Zero, many of the people who wrote letters to the editor or participated in the seemingly endless round of online forums and polls about the World Trade Center site didn’t actually want a final resolution. The closer a design got to becoming real, the less desirable it appeared to be. For one thing, it destroyed the fantasy that the twin towers would be put back the way they were. Reconstructing the original towers makes absolutely no sense, but it has a curious allure for many people, as if spending several billion dollars to duplicate one of the more conspicuous architectural mistakes of the twentieth century would be the way to show Al Qaeda that we are in command of contemporary civilization.

One of the most popular among the nine plans submitted for Ground Zero in December was a scheme by the British architect Norman Foster for a pair of seventeen-hundred-foot towers based on triangular forms. They united the jingoists and the avant-garde. You could like them if you felt that rebuilding the twin towers was the right thing to do, and you could like them if you believed that the site deserved a serious piece of contemporary architecture. Foster, who is one of the leading architects of skyscrapers in the world—he designed the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, the tallest tower in Europe, and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong—was widely thought at one point to have the inside track on Ground Zero, and his failure to make the final round of the competition came as something of a surprise. But Foster had largely ignored the instructions of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was in charge of the building process. The corporation wanted to be able to build gradually, in the course of a few years, and to have a plan that could be easily integrated into the rest of lower Manhattan, preferably through the restoration of at least a few of the streets that were removed in the nineteen-sixties to create the original trade center. Foster’s towers were set on a superblock not unlike the site of the original twin towers, and they would have immediately flooded the market with office space.

The heart of both the Libeskind and the think plans was a powerful abstract symbol that would contain only public space and public functions. They left plenty of room for office buildings, retail stores, and other kinds of commercial development around the edges, and in this sense they were more alike than they at first appeared to be. And both proposals were ambitious, so the L.M.D.C. didn’t have to make a choice between experimental architecture and conventional city planning. It could have it both ways.

The L.M.D.C. was widely praised for putting architectural values ahead of politics, but in fact the competition for the job of designing the World Trade Center site was also a useful political tool. It focussed attention on the L.M.D.C. rather than on the Port Authority, which owns Ground Zero and which had only modestly reduced its initial demand that most of the redevelopment consist of profit-making real estate. Once the public was caught up in the L.M.D.C.’s architecture crusade, the Port Authority pretty much had to follow along. Although the L.M.D.C. insisted for quite a while that it was not running an architectural competition that would culminate in a single winner—that it had commissioned all the plans simply as a way of searching for fresh ideas—it behaved as if running an architectural competition were exactly what it was doing, with the public as the impassioned jury.

In December and January, while thousands of people were filing through the Winter Garden to view models of the nine plans, the L.M.D.C. was evaluating each proposal. Roland Betts, the L.M.D.C. board member who had conceived the idea of the competition, realized that the only way to convince the Port Authority to accept the fairly radical plans was to prove that they were practical. Alexander Garvin, the L.M.D.C.’s director of planning, and Stanton Eckstut, the Port Authority’s urban-design consultant, were asked to rate them according to several criteria, such as how well they handled traffic. Engineers, traffic experts, and financial consultants ranked them in twelve categories on a five-point scale. Those that were “ideal” got two green dots. A single green dot meant “excellent”; a yellow dot “acceptable.” One red dot was a sign of concern, and a pair of red dots indicated failure. The Libeskind and Viñoly plans received the most green dots.

Once the two finalists were chosen, the process became less genteel. Both architects began a public-relations offensive. Libeskind at one point had two publicists, and in mid-February someone in his office sent out e-mails to a list of people that included several journalists, urging them to write to the Times to complain about an unexpected slam from Herbert Muschamp, the paper’s architecture critic. Two months earlier, Muschamp had written that Libeskind’s plan was “marvelous,” but now he described it as “an astonishingly tasteless idea.” Viñoly’s plan, on the other hand, was “a soaring affirmation of American values.” Around the same time, the Post called the Libeskind proposal a “grotesque, anti-urban, anti-commercial eyesore.” (The perpetrator of the pro-Libeskind e-mails sent out an abject retraction, saying that they had not been authorized by the architect.)

Things got more heated. The day the final decision was to be made, the Wall Street Journal reported that questions had been raised about the early work of Viñoly, a native of Uruguay who began his career in Argentina. In 1978, he designed sports facilities for the World Cup matches in Buenos Aires, which were sponsored by Argentina’s brutal military junta. Viñoly emigrated to the United States the following year, in part, he has said, because he could not stay in a “state of denial” about the repressive generals. The criticism seemed to some to be not unlike attempts to discredit German architects who worked briefly for the Nazis in the nineteen-thirties before fleeing Germany.

Libeskind, on the other hand, seemed to be wrapped in the American flag. He was born in Poland (his parents were survivors of the Holocaust), and he spoke often of his arrival in the United States as a boy of thirteen, in 1960, and of sailing into New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty. His Ground Zero design, he said, “speaks to the heart and soul of this great city, this great nation, and the world.” Although Libeskind has spent most of his career as an academic, he was now positioned as a populist figure. This may be why, despite his background as an avant-garde architect, he didn’t get as much support among the city’s artistic and intellectual community as Viñoly did, even though Viñoly, paradoxically, has always been much more a corporate architect.

Libeskind has a tendency to use sentimental metaphors. For instance, the front of his Felix Nussbaum museum in Osnabrück, Germany, which is dedicated to the work of an artist killed in the Holocaust, consists of a bare concrete wall. Libeskind explains this as representing “absence itself—an empty canvas of Nussbaum’s martyred life.” He says that the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, his largest completed building so far, is based on shards of a globe shattered by war and conflict. Yet Libeskind, who is also designing an addition to the Denver Art Museum, is an architect of great sophistication, and if his rhetoric can be cloying, his work is anything but kitsch.

Libeskind’s main office has been in Berlin since 1989, when he won a competition for the Jewish Museum there and decided that he had to be in the city full time or his building would never get built. Even before he won the Ground zero commission, however, he was making plans to move the office to New York—the logical step in its transformation from an academic architectural atelier to a big-time operation.

Viñoly runs a huge firm in lower Manhattan—his model shop alone employs more than twenty people—and most of his clients are well-established institutions, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, where he has been hired to expand the widely disliked Edward Durell Stone building. Viñoly’s partners in think are an unlikely group, and they had never worked together before. Frederic Schwartz, a New York architect who was for many years associated with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, designed the new ferry terminal in lower Manhattan and has deep roots in the downtown community. Shigeru Ban is probably the most theoretically minded of the three, and the one with the strongest credentials in the avant-garde; he often deals with projects that develop new forms of light, modern structures.

The plan that was chosen is significantly different from the one that people saw in the model at the Winter Garden. The L.M.D.C. asked both the Viñoly and the Libeskind teams to revise their proposals in response to specific criticisms. “This is not a situation where the designers were told to do whatever they wanted,” Alexander Garvin explained, although the L.M.D.C. promised to protect the architectural integrity of the plans. “Rest assured that the goal is not to compromise the plans but to make them better,” Roland Betts said. Preserving architectural integrity is not usually a priority for government agencies in New York, but both plans really did improve when they were revised.

The Viñoly team had proposed a pair of latticework towers, more than sixteen hundred feet high, around the footprints of the original twin towers. They would have contained cultural facilities, such as museums, in some cases at levels as high as the original trade center towers. The notion of small, irregularly shaped buildings as sculptural elements inside a larger framework isn’t entirely new—in the nineteen-sixties, the Japanese architectural group known as the Metabolists played around with ideas like this and so did Archigram, the radical architects who worked in London. But as this design evolved it seemed to depend less on those precedents, and to be more original. One of the structures that had been set into the latticework, a swooping shape near the top that went through both towers, bore a grotesque—one assumes inadvertent—resemblance to an airplane smashing into the structure. By the time the revised plan was submitted to the L.M.D.C., the cultural facilities had been pushed toward the bottom, the airplane was gone, and the structures were smaller, lighter, thinner, and shorter. The whole thing had become more elegant than the initial scheme—more a true latticework. It evoked the image of the twin towers, but subtly, and while I suspect that the allusion to the original World Trade Center is what made this design appealing to people whose primary interest was in memorializing the events of September 11th, it was a powerful image in itself, with an extraordinary transparency that made it appear to be a tower of light.

In addition to redesigning their twin towers, think added more streets and more retail space. They figured out what the height and bulk of surrounding office buildings should be, but deliberately left the architecture to others. The purpose of their plan was to elevate the public realm over the private. Libeskind, too, made much of the public realm in his design, and, like Viñoly, he allowed a certain amount of flexibility for commercial development around the edges. But Libeskind specified particular shapes for his office buildings: crystalline forms, with slicing angles. They would not be background buildings but, rather, would form the essence of the image of his project on the skyline. Libeskind’s plan also includes a spire, a broadcast and observation tower that would be the tallest structure in the world. It would repair Manhattan’s broken skyline, and although the elaborate hanging gardens Libeskind wanted to have in the upper reaches of the tower may not have made sense, the idea of a crisply sculpted, slender structure that would function both as an antenna and as a symbol is exactly right. The tower is both high-tech and poetic.

The part of Libeskind’s plan that attracted the most attention was the exposed slurry wall of concrete that formed the foundation of the original twin towers—the “bathtub.” Using it as the basis for a memorial was a powerful and moving idea, not only because of Libeskind’s observation that the wall held together during the traumatic destruction of the September 11th attacks and is therefore an apt metaphor for American democracy. There is something fitting about going into the earth to memorialize the victims of the attacks, and leaving a portion of the Ground Zero site permanently excavated, a wound deliberately left open. Libeskind’s design avoided the problem that compromises the recent redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz, in Berlin, which, like Ground Zero, was a huge void in the heart of a great city, and which now is an amalgam of new office buildings and retail atriums whose unrelenting sleekness obliterates any trace of the area’s painful history. Some of the other aspects of Libeskind’s plan seem a bit forced, like the “wedge of light” that is intended to fall near the site of the original towers at 8:46 a.m. every September 11th, and the Park of Heroes, with markings in the pavement that would contain the names of various fire and rescue companies that responded to the attacks, each name set on a direct axis between the center of Ground Zero and the rescue company’s home. But the goal is to meld sacred space with a functioning city, and Libeskind has a natural instinct for that.

Libeskind plans to make his tall tower precisely 1,776 feet high, which seems like a play for patriotic support. (Or is it a brilliant strategic move, to prevent the Port Authority from cutting it down on practical grounds?) The tower is to be attached to a seventy-story office building, which makes it cheaper to construct than if it were freestanding. But it also becomes dependent on some developer’s readiness to pay for an enormous office building, and there is no market for that in lower Manhattan today. In any event, Viñoly’s towers could not have been built immediately, either, since they were to have gone directly on top of the footprints of the twin towers, and the path facilities below the footprints would have had to be built first.

Libeskind also made significant improvements in the street pattern in his plan: Fulton and Greenwich streets would be made more prominent, and Cortlandt Street would continue as a covered shopping galleria. He expanded the train station, a huge glass shed, and reoriented it toward the corner of Fulton and Greenwich, which becomes a major intersection. But the most significant change was in the slurry wall. It turned out that while the concrete wall did indeed hold firm on September 11th, it was unlikely to have held indefinitely. Ground Zero is landfill, and the wall was constructed in the nineteen-sixties to keep water out of the trade Center basements. Horizontal bracing on the trade center’s subterranean floors counteracted the force of the water of the Hudson River on the other side of the wall. A completely exposed slurry wall would eventually have cracked, engineers said. In any case, the Port Authority wanted to use space underneath the footprints for practical things, like parking for tour buses. Roland Betts suggested that the floor of the bathtub area be raised, and Libeskind agreed. In his winning plan, he used only the top thirty feet of the foundation for the section into which people would descend to view the exposed wall; a new floor would be constructed that would help support the wall and would act as a ceiling for the space below, which would be used mainly for garages and service areas. Only a three-hundred-foot-long section of the wall would still be exposed all the way down to bedrock, and visitors could descend to the bottom of it.

Although Betts’s idea for a revised slurry wall was critical in keeping the Libeskind design in the competition, Betts himself had come to lean toward the Viñoly scheme. “I think people will come to New York clutching pictures of these towers and saying ‘take me to this,’” he said. “It is a postcard image.” Most of the L.M.D.C. site-planning committee, including John Whitehead, the chairman of the corporation, also began to favor Viñoly, and rumors spread that he was certain to be chosen. At a meeting on February 25th, the site committee voted in favor of Viñoly, but the next day, after both Libeskind and Viñoly had presented their proposals to Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, the decision was reversed. It was clear that Pataki, in particular, wanted Libeskind—and that his view meant more than anything else.

One wonders how much the architectural competition will matter in the long run. The Port Authority is continuing to develop its own plans, even as it has been coöperating with the L.M.D.C. in the design process. Larry Silverstein, the developer who leased the towers from the Port Authority just weeks before September 11th and who has continued to insist that he has the legal right to rebuild as he sees fit, said that he likes the Libeskind plan, but he craftily limited his praise to the “site plan,” and said nothing about the architect’s plans for buildings. Silverstein is still in litigation with his insurers, and when that is settled he will likely get more involved in over-all planning issues. It is possible—although unlikely, given the public’s passion about the site—that Libeskind’s plan for a sunken memorial in the exposed bathtub will be built and that much of the rest of his design will be abandoned. (Libeskind’s plan is easier to eviscerate than the think group’s would have been.)

The architectural bar has been raised in New York. Ten months ago, it was hard to imagine that the official plan for Ground Zero would be produced by one of the most innovative architects in the world. But what finally gets built will be to a large extent decided in a byzantine political process, accompanied by spin control.

Agglomeration
March 9th, 2003, 10:47 PM
I really think Pataki needs to quit forcing plans for the site. It's obvious that this Westchester-born governor doesn't understand the importance of the WTC to the vitality of Downtown or to New York State. Why can't this upstater just leave the WTC rebuilding process to the architects and real estate developers? As for Goldberger, I never listen to him at all because he has no idea how that many (though not all) in the public don't like Libeskind's current design.

(Edited by Agglomeration at 9:49 pm on Mar. 9, 2003)

NoyokA
March 9th, 2003, 11:00 PM
Libeskind however had a huge support, its merits were for those interests real-estate, architecture, memorial, and advocates for restoring LM and its skyline. Think had far fewer support, and I would be among the public outcry if they were choosen.

Bennie B
March 10th, 2003, 01:15 AM
At the beginning of February, a poll on the web site of New York 1, the local news channel, had shown that twenty-one per cent of the citizenry preferred Libeskind’s design. . . and sixty-four per cent didn’t want either one of them. *
Not to belabor the obvious, but 21% support out of a field of two-- NOT seven-- isn't exactly thundering approval.

ZippyTheChimp
March 10th, 2003, 07:16 AM
I don't think he meant poll support.

StevenRosenow
March 10th, 2003, 07:46 AM
I've never liked architecture critics, and this is just one fine example of why I have a disdain for them. Paul Goldberger has done a total "180" here and completely falls against the word he published in "World Trade Center Remembered." It's as if he completely forgets what he wrote in that book!

In it, he dismisses their architectural blandness (One that I happened to've grown a fond appreciation of), and admits that many New Yorkers came to peace, and began to appreciate the World Trade Center before their demise.

What happened here? Did he forget that?

As I sit here, the Yamasaki design gets to be looking much better over that Libeskind farce. *And why wasn't the firm of Minoru Yamasaki Associates given a chance to come up with a design?

TonyO
March 10th, 2003, 01:35 PM
The fascination with the slurry wall is amazing. *Sure it was a new way of building when it was applied. *But you can fly a jetliner into your apartment building and guess what? *The foundation will still be there.

Libeskind is a good salesman.

ZippyTheChimp
March 10th, 2003, 04:19 PM
Steven:

I haven't read the book by Goldberger, so I'll comment on what you posted. The quote from the magazine article:

Reconstructing the original towers makes absolutely no sense, but it has a curious allure for many people, as if spending several billion dollars to duplicate one of the more conspicuous architectural mistakes of the twentieth century would be the way to show Al Qaeda that we are in
command of contemporary civilization.
Your comment relating to the book:

In it, he dismisses their architectural blandness (One that I happened to've grown a fond appreciation of), and admits that many New Yorkers came to peace, and began
to appreciate the World Trade Center before their demise.

I read your statement as New Yorkers "began to appreciate..."

Where's the 180?

ZippyTheChimp
March 10th, 2003, 04:39 PM
Quote: from tonyo on 12:35 pm on Mar. 10, 2003
The fascination with the slurry wall is amazing. *Sure it was a new way of building when it was applied. *But you can fly a jetliner into your apartment building and guess what? *The foundation will still be there.

Libeskind is a good salesman.


The symbolism of open ground.
The artifact quality. The only thing left.
What is the fascination with the western wall in Jeruselem?
It's just part of a wall of an old temple.

TLOZ Link5
March 10th, 2003, 05:47 PM
Quote: from tonyo on 12:35 pm on Mar. 10, 2003
The fascination with the slurry wall is amazing. *Sure it was a new way of building when it was applied. *But you can fly a jetliner into your apartment building and guess what? *The foundation will still be there.

Libeskind is a good salesman.


Not that you'd notice the foundations were still there, because if you flew the plane yourself, then you'd probably be dead ;)

TonyO
March 10th, 2003, 08:12 PM
Quote: from ZippyTheChimp on 3:39 pm on Mar. 10, 2003

The symbolism of open ground.
The artifact quality. The only thing left.
What is the fascination with the western wall in Jeruselem?
It's just part of a wall of an old temple.


I see what you are saying. *However, the wailing wall is of religious significance. *Besides, they rebuilt the temple several times there. * In Libeskind's current form, it would still be a pit.

The Pentagon memorial will be much better I think. *Its a green space with a bench for each person killed. *Simple, and functional.

Kris
March 10th, 2003, 08:18 PM
I can't wait to sit on one of those benches and enjoy the fresh air. How inspirational.

Most foundations don't retain the water of a river. Lower Manhattan could have been flooded.

Kris
March 10th, 2003, 08:43 PM
I didn't know that Cortlandt Street would continue as a covered shopping galleria. Would that be NY's first?

TonyO
March 10th, 2003, 08:50 PM
Quote: from Kris on 7:18 pm on Mar. 10, 2003
I can't wait to sit on one of those benches and enjoy the fresh air. How inspirational.

Most foundations don't retain the water of a river. Lower Manhattan could have been flooded.
I think you may be forgetting that the foundation had millions of tons of rubble on top of it. *Without the rubble, it wouldn't have done such a swell job. *In fact, they had major leaks as the rubble was removed and had to have it reinforced.

Life is for the living. *If you are looking for inspiration, you might reconsider your ideal memorial. *Looking down in a pit is not inspiring IMHO.

Kris
March 10th, 2003, 08:56 PM
Too bad for you. The point is actually to descend into that pit. Life is for the living? Thanks for the revelation.

ZippyTheChimp
March 10th, 2003, 09:18 PM
Quote: from Kris on 7:43 pm on Mar. 10, 2003
I didn't know that Cortlandt Street would continue as a covered shopping galleria. Would that be NY's first?
I believe so, in Manhattan anyway. It appears much emphasis
is being given to improve street activity.

TLOZ Link5
March 11th, 2003, 06:11 PM
Quote: from Kris on 7:43 pm on Mar. 10, 2003
I didn't know that Cortlandt Street would continue as a covered shopping galleria. Would that be NY's first?
I think so. *But it does sound like a nice idea.