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Thread: Wall Street Journal on WTC Designs

  1. #1

    Default Wall Street Journal on WTC Designs

    I expected more from the WSJ.

    Wall Street Journal
    January 7, 2003

    'Don't Blame the Architects'

    The WTC Designs Are Visionary,
    But Process Is Business as Usual

    New York

    The crowds viewing the second round of designs for the World Trade Center site on display in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center are as international as the seven teams of architects who have produced them. The interest is global, and the spotlight is on how this extraordinary coalition of the world's most celebrated and innovative talents, commissioned by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation after the earlier design debacle, proposes to heal the shattering wounds to New York's fabric and psyche suffered on 9/11.

    Good News, Bad News

    The conceptual daring and advanced technology of these schemes -- the sheer drama of their bold images -- brings cutting-edge creativity to New York, where it is long overdue. Buildings like these have already changed skylines from London to Hong Kong. This is the architecture of the 21st century, and about as good as it gets.

    That's the good news. The bad news is that these provocative and beautiful presentations have also given us a stunning demonstration of how to do the wrong thing right. With no proper program -- a wish list from the public, elicited through opinion polls, is not a program -- they have shown us how skillfully and elegantly the wrong thing can be done.

    Under the adventurous forms and the transparent purity of glowing plexiglass models on Lilliputian skylines, the priorities remain the same -- with a little juggling, virtually all of the 11 million square feet of pre-existing commercial space has been replaced, either directly on the site or immediately adjacent to it. That concentrated bulk is still with us; it just looks a lot better.

    In response to loudly voiced public displeasure, the 11 million square feet were reduced to 6 1/2 million to 10 million square feet, with the little-noticed proviso that if less than 10 million is built at Ground Zero, the remainder must be on contiguous sites. Retail space has been increased to 600,000 square feet from the 400,000 that existed before 9/11, with a possible top of one million square feet. Retail is more profitable than offices, which accounts for this shell game with numbers.

    The objective is still the reinstatement of real estate, not the revitalization of Lower Manhattan, with the memorial an afterthought to be plugged in later. There is no guiding blueprint for the future of downtown, nothing to which these examples of the new, the beautiful and the cool can relate in any useful or rational way, although you can see how the architects have struggled to get out of that straitjacket, eagerly projecting tentative lines of connection beyond Ground Zero. The rebuilding is still being driven by Port Authority leases and the recovery of cash flow lost with the twin towers.

    Don't blame the architects; they followed the rules they were given. They have done their best to transcend this obstinate programmatic and planning vacuum that the official agencies seem determined to maintain in the face of all reason, logic and the public interest. Some of the most popular demands have been incorporated -- the restoration of the street grid, a promenade to the river, and a marker on the skyline. There are handsome transportation hubs that might, or might not, work with the transit reconstruction under way. All their proposals share concerns for safety and sustainability. All are environmentally friendly, often through amazing new technology. Most exploit new materials and innovative techniques. They stress escape routes. The use of computers from design to display is dazzling.

    If density is the soul of the city, this is its spiritual or, better, commercial apotheosis. How else could all that square footage be accommodated? It is achieved in some marvelously creative ways. The British architect Norman Foster's triangulated twin towers meet and "kiss" as they rise; the group called Think uses Rafael Vignoly's steel and glass geometry for latticed towers or a vast public room; United Architects' massed, canted buildings create a computerized, cathedral-like image. Four of the participants project the tallest building in the world. Height is an aphrodisiac to architects; they lust after it. That soaring something on the skyline, a problematic feature at best, set off an orgy of megalithic excess.

    What looks like the world of the future is the world of the past in steel and glass space frames and soaring sky cities, where all but architects might fear to dwell. Will we really go up 60 stories for coffee or relax in a vertiginous park raised high over West Street when we avoid a plaza even slightly above or below grade like the plague? New York's vitality is on the street. The World Trade Center notoriously destroyed it.

    Building enormously high as a gesture of revenge and affirmation raises serious questions of wisdom and practicality. The construction of the World Trade Center by the Port Authority in the 1970s depressed the real estate market for decades downtown. However impressive the twin towers were in sunlight and moonlight, whatever symbolism is now falsely ascribed to them through a catastrophic act, do we really need to make the same mistake again?

    An expert on the subject, the architect David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, is quoted as saying that above 65 or 70 stories a building is increasingly expensive and inefficient and must be heavily subsidized. It becomes an act of vanity, or greed, or both. When that gives us a Woolworth or Chrysler Building, we can be nonjudgmentally grateful. But should those subsidies go into the emotional rush of flinging something defiantly into the sky, or should they go to the parks and housing and cultural institutions that will make downtown a viable and desirable community? New York's skyline changes naturally and spectacularly over time.

    'What Does Sept. 11 Represent?'

    The true quality of these designs is evident in their response to the ever-present question posed in his presentation by John Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, "What does Sept. 11 represent?" Every one of the proposals incorporates the answer. Each delivers a timeless sense of the terror and tragedy, tied to a unique regeneration of place. All have indicated memorial sites for a future competition, as required, but each, in itself, in its concept and imagery, is already a memorial. This has been understood as integral to the site, and to any construction on it.

    How could these talented, responsive artists, in the very nature of the charge, resist? Who could have expected them to do otherwise? Remember, we are talking about memorials after Vietnam, when the heroic figure gave way to the solemn space and somber wall, when memory was held in names inscribed on black granite, grief expressed by the haunting, enduring nature of an evocative place. Anyone familiar with the process of design knows that memory and signification are inseparable from conceptualization.

    There is no realism, no traditional sculpture group of heroes or victims that can satisfy all of the bereaved, or reveal the magnitude of the loss. The isolation and postponement of the memorial has been wrong from the start; instead of making it more important, this marginalizes it.

    One design breaks the rules and sets the priorities straight. Daniel Libeskind's powerful concept does not beg the issue of the memorial; it is the centerpiece of his proposal. Mr. Libeskind has done what he does superbly, like no one else, as anyone who has visited his Jewish Museum in Berlin knows; he has perfected an intensely individual, profoundly moving architecture of memory and loss of unsurpassed impact and meaning. The design struck a common nerve; one had the sense, at the presentation, of an end to an undefined yearning and search. You could tell by the sustained applause and tears that this is what people really wanted, and what New York needs.

    Mr. Libeskind takes you down 70 feet to bedrock, the real Ground Zero, where the slurry wall holding back the Hudson River looms like some overwhelming, archaic survival. In the void, he builds a museum out of the jagged shards and symbolic spaces that characterize his architecture, and that pierce the soul as much as any memorabilia. There are two public places -- a Park of Heroes, and a Wedge of Light. In an annual commemorative ritual tied to sun and sky, a shaft of light will illuminate the void between the time of the first and second attacks. An elevated walkway circles the site. The area is served by a transportation center that forms a nexus of commercial and cultural activities. Buildings at its borders could be designed and phased according to market demand. A fractured tower rises 1,776 feet with a spine containing "gardens of the world." But Mr. Libeskind proves that depth, rather than height, has a supernaturally commanding presence.

    Forget the additional time and expense of a competition; nothing will ever be better than this. Build Mr. Libeskind's memorial and it will become a world magnet for the hotels, restaurants, shops and theaters that will make Ground Zero a center of life downtown. It will be a source and incubator of renewal.

    We are promised a plan by the LMDC at the end of this month -- although what kind, by whom, and according to what criteria are unclear. All that we have been told is that it is to be a land-use plan; it will not be any of these designs. With the kind of thinking demonstrated so far, this will probably be an assortment of real estate parcels that take priority over a vaguely indicated public realm. Why the rush? With a surplus of commercial space downtown and a soft economy, no one is going to build now. It would take at least 10 years for the market to absorb the construction. Why this insistence on a replacement before a framework has been established as context and support for the future?

    A Neighborhood Focus

    Just before the unveiling of the LMDC's designs, Mayor Bloomberg weighed in with New York City's Vision for Lower Manhattan. Developed by Peterson/Littenberg, whose ground zero designs are as retro as the other solutions are visionary, its emphasis on urban design principles is both inviting and sound. It specifies public investments in transit, streets, parks and open space, housing, schools, cultural institutions and waterfront uses. The focus is on neighborhoods. It provides costs, and calculates private market response to public investment in improvements and amenities, the proven way to attract capital and construction. This is a plan, not a lock-hold on real estate or a dream dropped from outer space.

    Generously, you can say that the Port Authority and the incestuous chain of New York State Authorities leading from the LMDC to the governor's office have no idea what planning is, or don't want to know. More realistically, they would see no political advantage in a procedure that violates their dedicated alliance with the development community and its limited objectives. It sounds like a bad joke, but the development mantra in New York has always been that "the highest and best use of the land is its most profitable use" -- an actual quote, repeated often, and believed devoutly. The public realm is nebulous and unprofitable.

    The land swap must be pursued that would exchange the city-owned land under the airports, now rented by the Port Authority, for the Authority-owned land of the World Trade Center. The Trade Center leases can, and should, be bought out; Larry Silverstein cannot replace the twin towers, and a massively increased mall must not dictate street and land uses. A negotiated buyout is possible for all concerned that will leave insurance money for future construction. Everything has changed so radically that no return to pre-existing conditions is possible.

    The skyscraper is not dead; these marvels of our time will be built as long as egos, demand, art and greed, and the sheer, vertical exhilaration of the city, exist. But depending on your level of cynicism, this whole design exercise can be seen as the politics of accommodation, or as a detour leading inevitably, after pious analysis and appropriate lip service, to business as usual as practiced by the political-development establishment in New York. What a waste, what a loss, of talent and potential; what a betrayal of the past and future that would be.

    Ms. Huxtable is the Journal's architecture critic.

    (Edited by Eugenius at 4:43 pm on Jan. 7, 2003)

  2. #2

    Default Wall Street Journal on WTC Designs


    Ada Louis Huxtable is the former architecture critic for the New York Times and is closely associated with New-Urbanism and Regional Plan Association-type stuff. *She is very old.

    And, of course, the opinions expressed in her column don't necessarily reflect those of the WSJ.

    I'd like to add that this column is a lot more objective and even-handed than the propaganda you see coming from Herbert Muschamp at the Times (forget the Post). *For example, she gives an honest appraisal of the Peterson/Littenberg plan, whereas Muschamp just immediately and arbitrarily rejects it as not super avant-garde futuristic visionary challenging and exotic enough, without any further consideration. *

  3. #3

    Default Wall Street Journal on WTC Designs

    Daily News...

    Designs soar, critics fall flat

    If you build it, they will come. If you build a scale model of it, they will chew your ear off.

    That's what's happening vis-ŕ-vis the nine potential designs for the World Trade Center site: a whole lotta griping going on when we should be just plain grateful.

    At first, when these plans were unveiled Dec. 18, the city gasped with amazement. Here, at last, was the grandeur we'd been longing for! Towers of culture and gardens in the sky! Reflecting pools and vast public plazas! What a contrast to the refrigerator-box architecture unveiled by the Port Authority last summer!

    But soon the professional party poopers - rival architects, city planners and, yes, columnists - started curbing the city's enthusiasm. Don't expect any of these plans to actually get built, they scoffed. No project gets green-lighted until the developers put down dough, and those guys could choose another plan entirely.

    Besides, the critics continued, these designs are too big, too tall, too weird. And who needs all that office space anyway? It's an exercise in fantasy. The public should not get its hopes up.

    But getting our hopes up is exactly what we're doing. And great things can come of that.

    At the World Financial Center, where the scale models are on display daily through Feb. 2, the crowd was almost levitating with excitement.

    "I just like the unconventionalness," said James Chesek, an airport security employee visiting the displays with his brother.

    "I love that one," said Dennis Salvador, a maintenance engineer at the financial center, pointing to the zigzagging "kissing towers" by Foster and Partners. He recalled the pre-9/11 fun he'd always had watching tourists lie down to photograph the twin towers. He wants to see towers rising again.

    So did firefighters visiting the exhibit. "New York is the center of the world, and not having the tallest building anymore is demeaning," said one. He'd like to see the giant towers designed by the Think team get built.

    As they slowly worked their way through the exhibit, the visitors pointed and scribbled notes - many even read the blurbs. Best of all, they talked to one another, because this was not some stuffy museum show, but the very stuff of our future.

    "The public is what made this happen," said Barbara Gallucci, an artist who lives 10 blocks from Ground Zero. If dismayed New Yorkers had not decried the first set of plans, she believes, "We would have ended up with a little park with a bronze statue of firemen and policemen."

    So will any of these models end up as The One? Maybe not precisely as planned - or maybe not at all. But their sheer boldness has ignited the public's thirst for both design and democracy.

    "It's showing the importance of architecture. Maybe people will be more demanding of the next office building," said James Cava, a construction executive up from Washington.

    Maybe they'll be more demanding of their elected officials, too. "It all depends how loud we scream," said Chesek, convinced that the lesson we've learned this time around is: Speak up!

    Whether or not any of these towers reach the sky, they already have uplifted our city.


  4. #4

    Default Wall Street Journal on WTC Designs

    Good response, NYguy. *It's interesting to see some strife among the critics, not to mention the positive quotes about tall buildings.

  5. #5

    Default Wall Street Journal on WTC Designs

    Yes the critics are all part of the process. They'll chew the fat and spit out some polite opinions that'll echo and mingle with personal views until eventually some secret magic happens and an announcement is made. Politics, payoffs, pride and prejudices will probably be more important than architectural merit.

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