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March 20th, 2003, 03:12 PM
The Next Great City Center
Daniel Libeskind's designs for Ground Zero.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST

NEW YORK--Miracles happen. Even in New York. Now that we have stumbled through a non-program and a dyslexic process (everything backward) that made all the mistakes in the plan book and invented a few, we have a competition-winning design for Ground Zero that promises that most elusive prize of all--a concept of character and style that will address the symbolic needs of the past and the physical needs of the future.

The design by Daniel Libeskind is not about death and destruction, as some have feared; it is an original and eventful reconstruction of the World Trade Center site that brings the architecture of the 21st century to New York, where it has been sadly and shamefully lacking. Even as we preserve that tragic pit and its sustaining wall, they will become the source of new life. But this will happen only if the spotlight stays relentlessly on the rebuilding process, and if we do not lose the urgent sense of necessity and inevitability that has brought us this far.

No one can write this plan off by saying it can't be done. It is no secret that there are builders and bureaucrats dedicated to the status quo who believe, and hope, that a long drawn-out memorial design process will be all that survives of progressively debilitating compromises. That would be a default of epic proportions that would send 9/11 to the trash heap of history.

Reality was addressed during the tense period before the choice was made between the two finalists, Daniel Libeskind and Rafael Viñoly; both worked to turn their visionary proposals of the first presentation last December into practical solutions. The updated versions dealt with construction and costs--what to build, for what purpose and on what schedule, and how to keep the integrity of the memorial district while encouraging a variety of uses to support renewal and rebirth downtown. Both plans placed their highest priority on the public and cultural features at their center. Because reality in New York is a function of market forces, the large office towers will be built as demand requires.

Until now, attention has focused almost exclusively on the desire to restore a soaring presence on the skyline, and create a memorial and garden on the site. The Libeskind plan includes a symbolic skyscraper, a memorial park, and the element that has profoundly affected so many, the exposed slurry wall, the barrier that surrounded the World Trade Center site to keep back the river and held fast the day of the attacks. To understand the promise and the reality of Mr. Libeskind's vision, however, it is essential to know what happens on the ground, as well as below it, or in the sky.

The plans are not easy to read; they avoid right angles and include many intersecting spaces and changing levels, and little attention has been paid to anything except the most visible and dramatic features. Some see a superficial resemblance between this and earlier proposals, but that totally misses the point. There is much more to urban design than a plot plan. Diagrams do not resolve the integration of culture and commerce, the relationship of the public realm and private enterprise, the balance of new building and open space; they do not create the kind of places that combine memory with a vital and active urbanity. All this determines the experience people will have on the ground.
I think we should look closely at what we had before 9/11, and what we are about to get in its place. Realism will serve us well here, too. The World Trade Center was the poster project for the worst kind of urban renewal imposed on American cities in the 1960s and '70s--nothing changes that fact. The land was acquired by eminent domain and stripped of small businesses; the huge buildings were made possible by the Port Authority's right, as an independent government body, to bypass the city's laws and codes, as well as to take the city's land.

The project amputated and eliminated Lower Manhattan's historic streets, putting in their place a vast, cold, dead plaza with a pair of grossly overscaled, architecturally undistinguished towers that instantly ruptured the magic of an intricate and evocative skyline. Some of that magic was transferred to the twin towers when light gilded and colored their bland facades, and there are those--most young enough never to have known another skyline--for whom the towers still hold a nostalgic appeal. I, for one, am unable to romanticize them. They were big. Inevitably, their size made them beacons, and then targets, and tragic emblems, in the curious and sometimes terrible way history confers immortality.

Some of those lost streets will be restored. Greenwich Street, a major thoroughfare running north-south paralleling West Street that was brutally dismembered, will be reopened, and a reinstated Fulton Street will eventually continue across a West Street park to connect directly to the World Financial Center's Winter Garden and the river. West Street will tunnel under the park from Liberty to Vesey Streets.

The memorial area was originally placed in the void opened by the catastrophe, 70 feet below ground at bedrock. It has been raised to 30 feet below ground to accommodate underground transportation, and to provide the bracing needed for the slurry wall. This change makes the park more accessible, while still buffered from street noise and activity above. A void down to bedrock from the park will parallel the slurry wall. The memorial will rise vertically from bedrock to the park above, to be seen at all levels. The park, the slurry wall and the memorial will be accessible by escalator and stairs. The museum and cultural buildings will flank the memorial park.

The intersection of the restored Fulton and Greenwich Streets will become a new hub of activity. The performing arts building, an office and hotel, the new transportation center, and continuous street retail are located here. Small symbolic parks slice through the area diagonally, between buildings, providing relief and counterpoint.

The Wedge of Light, where the sun will strike through on each Sept. 11 for the exact time and duration of the attack, forms a triangular plaza along Fulton Street. This subtle memorial gesture, and the symbolic skyscraper's height of 1,776 feet, have been called kitsch; I feel more strongly that the insistence on the tallest building in the world is less an act of patriotic defiance than one of the more enduring conceits and evanescent follies of our time.

Another wedge-shaped plaza, the September 11 Place, leads from this focal corner to the entrance of the Ground Zero park and memorial. The Heroes Park, an irregular open space across Fulton Street, is a protective transition from the memorial site to the future office towers. A new south wall and one more small park complete the Liberty Street side. The intimacy and humanity of these serendipitously encountered green areas in what will again become a densely populated place is one of the great pleasures of this plan.

The first phase of construction will be the initial public investment in streets and transportation. Phase two will build the symbolic skyscraper, the Ground Zero park and the cultural buildings. Phase three will be the commercial construction, when it becomes economically viable.
The brilliance of this plan is its recognition of the fact that cultural facilities are the magnet for investment and regeneration; they are the engine of economic renewal. The process starts with the public space and services and the amenities that draw people and enterprise; this brings the private capital for hotels, offices, shops and housing. It does not matter which of the buildings are used for theaters, museums or even unanticipated purposes; they form a nexus of attraction and revival. They will speed up commercial construction, once the economy improves.

There will be no problem finding occupants for these buildings. The New York City Opera, orphaned by Lincoln Center's unsettled plans, and looking for its own theater, has already begun enthusiastic negotiations for Mr. Libeskind's performing arts building and is contacting him about designing to their specifications. There could be a home here for the Museum of the City of New York, frustrated in its aborted move to the restored Tweed Courthouse behind City Hall. Other dance and theater groups are eyeing the downtown cultural spaces hungrily. They see this, correctly, as the next great center of the city.

By building parks and restoring the waterfront, the mayor of Barcelona began the process of revitalization that has made Barcelona one of Europe's most popular and desirable cities. Tacoma, Wash., less than a hotbed of aesthetic involvement, is completing a major investment in cultural facilities, not for the sake of art, but with the prime purpose of activating downtown. This is sound, proven planning procedure.

The large office buildings, arranged in a spiraling cluster around the memorial sector, will be a far more proportionate and elegant addition to the skyline than the twin towers' bruising banality. These towers will vary in height, but none will exceed 70 stories. The question has never been how much square footage should be provided, but whether it should be allowed to dominate or trivialize the memorial sector. There is no need to be disturbed by the transformation of the prismatic shapes of the towers in the first proposal into the more conventional and rentable floorplates of accepted commercial models; this is real-estate reality. The center will still hold.

There is serious cause for alarm, however, in the treatment of the slurry wall in the revised version of the plan. For all of its miraculous strength in keeping the river at bay, the wall has been weakened and, once exposed, it is vulnerable. Two engineering proposals are being made to brace it. Neither will affect the wall's visual impact; the bracing adds a kind of Piranesian drama. But that, apparently, is not enough. The intent now is to enclose the slurry wall with a glass wall placed about six feet in front of it, closed across the top; this will create a covered space reaching down to bedrock that can be temperature and humidity controlled.

Behind glass, the wall's raw power will be lost; the direct confrontation with its enormous presence will be gone. It will become a display object, removed from reality, its terrible message tamed and transformed--just another museum-style, climate controlled, artifact. The emotional charge it delivers, the overpowering evidence of destruction it represents, the heart of the Libeskind concept, is compromised. To save the wall by providing a solution for its continued existence that effectively destroys it is an ironic twist. It turns 9/11 into Catch 22.

Ancient Roman walls, eloquent in their survival, stand everywhere without elaborate protection. This is a ruin, and it is meant to be. If we take away so much of its meaning, then we must add something else--other layers of meaning that deliver a deeper and more complex message. Etch that glass wall with all the names of the dead; treat it as part of the memorial. Make concealment and revelation work together symbolically, with the slurry wall as witness. This should be included in the challenge of the memorial design.

In an apocalyptic way, the land has been given back to us, regardless of who owns or controls it, all of which is under intense and intricate negotiation right now. Constant architectural oversight will be necessary as the plan evolves. This is something Daniel Libeskind knows all about, after 10 years on the job in Berlin guiding his competition-winning Jewish Museum to completion. He is both an able collaborator and a seasoned fighter--a realist, in other words.
That handshake at the announcement ceremony between Mr. Libeskind and Larry Silverstein, the developer who holds the twin tower leases and is being dragged kicking and screaming into enlightenment, was a historic New York first. Whether it turns into arm wrestling remains to be seen. New Yorkers are not about to let the future go. And the rest of the world is watching.

Ms. Huxtable is The Wall Street Journal's architecture critic.

March 20th, 2003, 03:57 PM
I agree at least on the conclusion.
How old is that lady ?
She praised, then criticized Yamasaki's design 30 years ago.

March 20th, 2003, 05:27 PM
I have half a mind to write this lady herself with a nasty article of my own.

I'm getting sick of all of this "Twin Towers bashing" that's been going on in the press.

March 20th, 2003, 05:47 PM
It must be another one of those NY Times conspiracies.
Hold on, she writes for the WSJ. This may have wider scope
than previously thought.

March 20th, 2003, 08:18 PM
She used to write for the Times.

March 20th, 2003, 08:37 PM
Well, there you go. A clear-cut conspiracy.

Bk Italian 123
March 20th, 2003, 09:05 PM
she got it on the dot. *I think the conclusion was the only thiing needed 2 b read. *It summarized the whole article perfectly (duh). *But she has got a point, the space at the sight, will go with alacrity. *Not a tedius, Soporific type sale of the abundant retail. *I really like the plan, regardless of the article, and other's opinions.

Bennie B
March 20th, 2003, 09:41 PM
Quote: from Fabb on 3:57 pm on Mar. 20, 2003

How old is that lady?*LOL* *They probably bought the name from her estate, like Dear Abby heh * *)

Zippy don't forget that the WSJ ran a smear article on Rafael Viñoly on Feb. 27, the day after the LMDC site committee chose the THINK plan. *So they are not exactly neutral in this matter. *

(Edited by Bennie B at 10:30 pm on Mar. 20, 2003)