Commemorating 9/11 USA

Comment: The politics of rebuilding lower Manhattan

It is still too early to tell if the new complex will remain isolated or if it will meld seamlessly into the surrounding city

Libeskind's original master plan for the World Trade Center site

The World Trade Center complex in New York was designed in 1965 as a massive modernist superblock. This was, in actuality, a giant plinth of either cold, windswept or unbearably hot concrete built over an underground, seven-level parking garage and shopping mall. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Emery Roth and Sons, this 16-acre complex of buildings replaced a dense 19th-century grid of small buildings housing electronic shops known as “Radio Row”. It became a national symbol of modernist city planning gone awry, not only for the overbearing height of its banal, faux-Gothic towers, but because the footprint of its concrete platform was disconnected from the historic grid of New York.

It is ten years since the destruction of the World Trade Center and the story of its reconstruction has become a metaphor for rethinking how the modernist city of post-second world war urban renewal can be knitted back into a traditional urban pattern of the city. Further, given the complexity of New York’s planning tradition, which gives power to state, city and private commercial stakeholders and, in this case, the families of those killed, the planning process has been complex, arduous and contentious.

The land on which the centre sits is owned by a public/private corporation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, overseen by two states. It is a unique parcel of land because it does not have to adhere to New York’s labyrinthine zoning regulations. It is, in essence, a free-floating parcel in the city, which can evolve without much input from public officials. Before the 11 September attacks, the Port Authority leased the ten million sq. ft complex to the developer Larry Silverstein, who in turn commissioned David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to renovate the centre. So when the buildings were destroyed, Silverstein again turned to Childs to “be his Yamasaki” and design a new complex.

But the Port Authority, responding to the intense public interest, also wanted a say. The governor of New York, hoping to exert control over the Port Authority, formed the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) to control a promised $21 billion in federal money. The LMDC immediately hired the New York architects Beyer Blinder Belle and engineers Parsons Brinckerhoff to design six overall “land-use options” or “concept plans” to determine how the streets, buildings, public spaces and transportation needs of lower Manhattan could be arranged on the site. These plans, which kept in place the existing superblock footprint, were almost immediately rejected by the public as banal and lacking in creativity, and too much like the original trade centre. This public reaction forced the LMDC and the Port Authority to stage a second competition for an “innovative design study”.

And so, in December 2002, nine new schemes were presented in a public forum in front of thousands of New Yorkers. Two months later, two of the nine schemes were selected as finalists in the competition: Studio Daniel Libeskind and the Think proposal, made by a group that included Rafael Viñoly, Frederic Schwartz, Shigeru Ban, David Rockwell and the landscape architect Ken Smith. In a series of events that would foretell the eventual confusion about who actually designed which building at the World Trade Center, the New York Times leaked a front-page story that Think had won the competition, but on the following day, after a contentious meeting, LMDC announced that Studio Daniel Libeskind had actually been selected as the winner.

The story of planning Ground Zero, however, became even more bizarre. This design charette (draft group solution) carried out by public officials meant nothing to the leaseholder of the buildings, Larry Silverstein, who had already selected SOM’s David Childs to design the buildings. However, because of the uniqueness and notoriety of the site, Silverstein and Childs were forced to accept a design compromise with Libeskind. The architecture of the then-called Freedom Tower (now One World Trade Center) is the result of this process. Libeskind describes it in his book Breaking Ground as “a forced marriage”.

It is clear from the first master plan that the 4.7-acre space including the footprints of the original twin towers would remain open, un-built upon, and a public memorial for the site. So, in 2003, the LMDC launched a competition to design a memorial for this part of the site to commemorate those whose lives were lost in the 11 September attack. In 2004, a 13-member jury selected landscape architect Michael Arad (who had been working for the New York Housing Authority) and Peter Walker as the winners, for a design called Reflecting Absence. The design is consistent with the original Daniel Libeskind master plan calling for the memorial to focus on the former twin tower footprints, making them the site of massive waterfalls that drop 30 feet below the ground into a reflecting pool of water, and the area above a forest of trees.

What remains of the original master plan is clearly the one presented by Libeskind, with its spiral of buildings and “wedge of light” opening that will, every 11 September, allow sunlight to make its way into the site, and which includes a central open space and memorial. But David Childs’s contribution to the master plan includes a significant insertion of Fulton and Greenwich Streets into and through the site. It is still too early to tell if the new complex will remain isolated or if it will meld—as Libeskind and Childs hope—seamlessly into the surrounding city. But the plan will certainly be a landmark in the process of modulating the replanning of the modernist project, the one that demanded independence from the historic city, for better or worse.

The writer is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper

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