Plus Ça Change
For more than three years they have come. Day by day, the faithful gather at the wall, drawn to the place where the unthinkable happened. After the obligatory photograph, they stare down, past the PATH station discharging its human cargo, into the gaping void, wondering what will become of Ground Zero. Little wonder. Even vigilant city dwellers and professionals have lost focus on the development spiral.
For a few short months, particularly in the days surrounding the selection of a master planner, we had hoped for more. Daniel Libeskind mounted the stage with élan, flourishing authoritative rhetoric in words and images, pointing a way out of the 75-foot-deep mire. He had a vision (we could see it; it was near-tactile in the imagery) that rested on bedrock at one extreme and spiraled toward new heights for Lower Manhattan. That plan was founded on architecture.
Libeskind, however, lacked the one ingredient New York thrives on. Power flows like water in this great city between the poles of money and politics and, particularly here, real estate, while architects stand at its margins. You’ve read the books before. Today, the anointed architect’s ideas have dissipated as the powers-that-be squeezed the 16 acres into submission, resulting in a desultory mix that contains less bouquet and more blend. Witness business as usual for New York, New York.
All is not lost. Although the outcome remains unresolved, we should see interesting individual buildings, some by world-class designers at the height of their abilities. No one quibbles that Santiago Calatrava seems on the way toward a poetic major work in the transit hub. Nor that Snøhetta has unveiled a provocative structure—even though already criticized in The New York Times for being politically compromised—for a cultural center that defies gravity. The whole world loves Frank Gehry, and even the prospect of his as-yet-undefined performance center.
Yet trouble lurks at the cornerstone. SOM is scheduled to show, as this issue goes to press, its revisions to the Freedom Tower, suggesting adjustments to its original torqued skyscraper. We expect the redesigned plan to address security concerns expressed by the New York Police Department, including further setbacks from the street, less eccentricity in its form, and the absence of an open fretwork of superstructure and cabling at its crown, as well as a hardened base. This tower, freighted with the emotional baggage surrounding the whole site, has loomed tall and troubled, particularly since the forced relationship between the principals attracted widespread attention. We can hope for a simplified, integrated scheme today.
The memorial, though backed by a blue-ribbon panel, nevertheless appears to have struggled to find private funding. Modified to include a parklike setting by landscape architect Peter Walker, Michael Arad’s winning scheme seems compromised, its size diminished and its circulation reduced to two descending ramps. Long ago, Libeskind’s exposed slurry wall, the entire site’s one flash of brilliance, had been relegated to subterranean status.
Examining the larger current site plan offers no comfort. Instead, the former World Trade Center has been populated with individual components, flung across the shadow of Libeskind’s original master plan, with no hint of complexity or urban dialogue at the street level. By contrast, Peterson/Littenberg’s densely planned, carefully modulated urban dreamscape à la Rockefeller Center (minus the architecture) seems like an urban idyll, compared to today’s prospects.
Before we resort to hand-wringing, an admission is in order: The public expected architecture to solve the unsolvable on the World Trade Center site. Design offered an answer to the wrenching pain we all felt in the aftermath of destruction and loss on September 11, 2001. Building back meant reclaiming our sense of self, and ordinary men and women looked to architecture for the blueprint. Design and architecture assumed importance in popular discourse; coverage in the media broadened to include changes and advancements in all kinds of design, a movement that continues today.
Furthermore, the site remains largely unbuilt. While the governor has appointed a trusted aide and ally to push construction forward, total funds have not yet been raised for the institutions involved. Most tellingly, the first major office building completed at Ground Zero remains largely unleased. 7 World Trade Center, developer Larry Silverstein’s first significant office tower, which faces the World Trade Center site, has no major tenants other than the developer. With nearby office space lying unleased, the Freedom Tower probably faces a similar fate.
In all the hype, one truism contains real truth: A complex project demands a great client. Instead, we have faced compromise at every turn and find ourselves stuck in the subjunctive: Had the governor seized the moment, spoken with authority, claimed the ground, acted with Machiavellian virtu, he might have cut through the competing noise of the claimants and led us beyond mediocrity. If the developer, Larry Silverstein, possessed a more enlightened civic sensibility. If the city could have swapped property with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and if the Port Authority could have bought out Silverstein … If only we had a czar.
But who really wants another Robert Moses? The truth is that we may not need the contemporary version of Rockefeller Center or other mono-visions; we may benefit from the accretions of commerce or residential development that may spring up uninvited. Our wide-open times, replete with invention and competing ideas, suggest other analogies for urban development more akin to atomistic, even metabolic ones (the city or the site as organism?). In such an urban scheme, the plan would serve as a framework for organic civic growth rather than as a definitive, controlling document.
At Ground Zero, the former World Trade Center site, the controlling metaphor today may be vision, but if so, the vision has blurred. Our task as architects and planners is to refocus our attention on the site, individually and collectively. Tomorrow, New Yorkers awake to another day. Plus c’est la même chose? More of the same? Certainly not. In architecture, as in all construction, until the concrete has been poured, it is never too late to change the documents.