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Architects sought work before the ashes of the World Trade Center were even cold’

[Archive] Monumental proposals by fashionable architectural superstars for lower Manhattan: are these appropriate memorials to 9/11?

First published in the AR in February 2002

Following the terrorist attack of September 11 2001, resulting in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, architects and critics world-wide, along with the local leaseholder and planners, voiced immediate concerns about future development. It has become obvious, however, after a long, painful process of public meetings, that to establish a successful masterplan for the 16-acre (6.5 ha) site will require an act of courage beyond the kind of inspired ingenuity that usually moves architecture one notch higher. New York City has understandably become so entangled in the emotional aspects of its human loss that no one appears prepared to separate public and private mourning from the exceptional opportunity presented to make an innovative fresh start that will reintegrate and improve the city fabric.

Having failed to produce a satisfactory plan from its own architects and planners at an earlier stage, the Lower Manhattan Development corporation commissioned seven architectural firms or collaborative teams to offer planning design for the site. These were unveiled last December with great fanfare in the newly-restored Winter Garden, the sparkling glass barrel-vaulted structure designed by Cesar Pelli in Battery Park City across from Ground Zero, as the World Trade Center site is now known. (The Winter Garden itself had been shattered by the attack.) Given the names of the architects and their reputations for both successful planning and design, the collective outcome was a major disappointment. Although there are some ingenious solutions for transportation networks and cultural amenities new to the neighbourhood, all of the proposals were hostage to the Memorial lobby.

Unfortunately, restrictions placed on the architects by the official brief for the ‘Innovative Design Study’ tied them to the past, making it impossible for them simply to devise the best and most original plans for a financial district that is also rapidly becoming residential. Now New Yorkers will never know what these minds could have produced under more productive and liberating circumstances. None of the architects went against the programme’s strong preference for preserving the footprints of the twin towers for memorial or memorial related elements’. In truth, the towers were always a mistake of urban design principles - too large, too tall, and set in a windswept empty plaza. The fact that the city must now be saddled for ever with their gigantic footprints is counter to the spirit of renewal and survival so well exemplified by cities in war-torn Europe after the Second World War. In reality, these spaces are not burial sites and, therefore, should not be treated as virtual hallowed ground.

Another of the stipulations called for a restored skyline ‘to provide a significant, identifiable symbol … a new icon for New York’. Four of the presentations proposed the tallest buildings in the world, and not only the tallest but also the safest - with alternative corridors and stairways in case of emergency. Has nothing been learned as a result of September 11? No building that tall, no matter how ‘green’ and sustainable, is safe, and the best memorial is to guarantee that future employees are not plagued by anxiety. As these architects know, towers do not have to be tallest to be elegant and urban.


Libeskind’s cluster of glass prisms with interior forest in the spire. Shaft of sunlight on 11 September is memorial

The brief was right in recognizing how the area had become more residential since the construction of the Twin Towers, citing both the Park Avenue-like apartment houses around public squares in Battery Park City and the continuing rehabilitation of surrounding commercial buildings into residences. Also, the programme wisely called for reinstating the criss-crossed street system destroyed by the construction of the Twin Towers in order to create new commercial areas and a circulation pattern that would integrate the old lower Manhattan with Battery Park City and the Hudson River beyond. (A glance just across the river to New Jersey reveals the rapidly developing business quarter of Jersey City indicating that maybe a bridge should be the city’s priority since the area is still only directly accessible by boat and train.)

New York is not the most beautiful city in the world, but it has an electric environment and retains the pioneer spirit going back to its Dutch settlers who first colonized this neighbourhood with its narrow winding streets. What give the district its beauty are its density and the long canyons of light between towers. What is called for is a new and exciting complex of buildings that will become seamless with their surroundings and serve the public with commercial, cultural and residential facilities. Perhaps the most painful idea for the city to face is the need to make the former World Trade Center completely disappear.

Although none of the architects was invited to design the actual memorial - the subject of a later international competition - they all attempted to suggest one within their overall planning designs. Daniel Libeskind, who recalls his own shipside view of downtown New York as a teenage immigrant, was so impressed by the survival of the towers’ slurry walls that he retained them and sunk the footprints below a cluster of prismatic glass buildings, the spire of the tallest housing an interior forest. (So-called public gardens in upper stories of buildings were another unrealistic theme of several proposals in a city where you cannot even go to a dentist in Rockefeller Center without showing a photo ID.) In addition to a museum for September 11, the configuration of Libeskind’s structures allowed for an annual shaft of direct sunlight to mark the anniversary of the attack.

In Foster and Partners’ plan, the footprints are excavated beneath high steel and stone walls in a park setting, and the underground perimeter appears to have a series of shrine-like spaces in which the grieving can remember their loved ones, though it is questionable how many families ever want to return to the site except for official occasions. (Also, one need only recall the failed shopping well at the General Motors Building at Firth Avenue and 58th Street to understand New Yorkers’ distaste for outdoor spaces below ground, With the exception of the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.) The firm’s graceful ‘twinned towers’ (among the tallest) based on triangulation technology touch at three points to create observation platforms and other amenities, though again it is uncertain if the public would ever be permitted entry because of security considerations. The best Foster contribution is a multi-storey transportation hub under an immense glass canopy, which could reasonably become the sole use of the site.


Think replaces World Trade Center with World Cultural Center containing inner buildings for different arts.

In a similar vein, United Architects’ collaboration (including Foreign Office Architects, Reiser + Umemoto RUR Architecture PC and others) proposed aposed descent into the footprints to gaze up to their new towers, a family of futuristic sloping and cantilevered structures they call a ‘crystalline veil’ to protect the space below. In a Wagnerian turn, they see the ‘Sky Memorial’ in an upper floor as a kind of Valhalla where ‘the heroes lived’. Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl (a Supreme Court of architects) truly designed the proverbial camel (the horse designed by a committee) with their two tick-tack-toe buildings at right-angles as a new concept for a tower cum ceremonial gateway incorporating horizontal escape routes between the vertical elements. These also overlook a windy plaza where the footprints are reflecting pools, never mind how dirty still water becomes in New York where freezing temperatures preclude water altogether in winter leaving unattractive empty basins.

By completely filling the site with a grid of vertical glass zigzag structures, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill came closest to the concept of density to provide multi-use buildings - cultural as well as commercial - though they also incorporated those inevitable sky gardens above and reflecting pools below. It would be a massive block of light on the skyline. At the other extreme, the centrepiece of Peterson/Littenberg’s proposal is a sunken walled garden, an urban courtyard determined by the geometry of the footprints with an outdoor amphitheatre on one of them with a museum underneath. Buildings of a more humane size and context would surround this green space, but one wonders whether any of the architects considered the nearby parks and gardens in Battery Park City which seem ample enough to serve the community without more vast green areas for the city to maintain. This firm did introduce one of the most seductive urban elements of all by converting West Street, between Ground Zero and Battery Park City, into a grand tree-lined boulevard extending to the tip of Manhattan.

Finally, Think, a team including Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Vifioly, Shigeru Ban and landscape architect Ken Smith, submitted three different proposals: a 16-acre inclined rooftop Sky Park over a retail concourse, a hotel, offices and a transportation centre; the Great Room, a glass-enclosed public plaza, with the footprints protected by glass cylinders, and next to it the tallest building in the world; and the World Cultural Center, featuring two open latticework towers that would contain within them at different levels distinctly separate buildings designed by various architects to house the performing arts, a conference centre and an open amphitheatre. The lightness and elegance of this seemingly fantasy structure was truly innovative and seemed, in the end, more New York than the first two designs.

During the almost seven weeks the proposals were on view behind glass at the Winter Garden, people came in droves to view them, and children found the models and accompanying videos even more exciting than the usual holiday store windows uptown. In order to exhibit their three different designs in the urban context, Think, for example, elevated each one in turn on rotating raised platforms that fit into a scale model of lower Manhattan. As one small boy watched the towers of the first design sink below, he remarked, ‘What a good idea, if the planes come again, they can just make the buildings disappear’.

After the Cataclysm

First published in the AR in November 2002

The immediate aftermath of the attack of 11 September on the World Trade Center in New York brought out the best in so many people: unfortunately not architects. Fireman, policemen, and rescue workers risked and even lost their lives while responding to the catastrophic events of the day. Restaurateurs in the area, in the face of significant financial losses, provided free meals to those working on the site. Many people, asking for no financial compensation, volunteered for jobs associated with the clean up and support for victims families. And, I will always remember the way hard-edged, loud and often socially insensitive residents of this great city were transformed almost magically into softer, quieter and more considerate citizens of a wounded and shocked city and country. There was an unusual hush to this boisterous and energetic place as people turned to each other on the streets, in bars and cafes, at work, on the subway, really just about anywhere and tried to make sense of what had just happened. There were no answers, only questions.

Architects, with a few exceptions, rather than ask questions or undertake good works, began before the ashes of the World Trade Center were even cold to provide answers and to seek work. In contrast to so many others, they began a loud campaign in the media to insert themselves as central players in the discussion about the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site and of Lower Manhattan in general. Suggestions about the design of buildings to replace the collapsed towers, demands that there needed to be a dramatic architectural response to the tragedy and a sense that architecture was the anodyne to the tragedy dominated the public comments of architects immediately after the events of 11 September (and they still do). The media were filled with encomiums about this or that suggestion from one or another architect about what was best for the site. And almost always what was best was architectural. Of all the architects who responded publicly to the events of 11 September, I recall only one expressing a need for a pause for the wounds of the tragedy to begin to heal and for people to have time to make sense of what had happened.

Indeed like vultures fighting over a dead carcass, architects and architectural critics began a still raging debate about which architects and what designs would best serve the World Trade Center site and lower Manhattan. The issue, as the architecture critic of the New York Times put it a year later, is ultimately architectural. Architects, it could be argued were right to see it this way. It was clear that there would need to be some kind of architectural response in the process of renewing the site. The response of architects also was probably not surprising given the declining architectural economy in New York (and nationally). Yet, in the aftermath of the tragedy, the city was still in mourning, and it was still unclear just what the city and its politicians, planners and developers would do in response to the tragic events that it had just experienced.

Architects though seemed blithely unconcerned with the larger issues and focused entirely on the issue of architecture itself. Even though the area had begun to experience a loss of jobs and firms before 11 September as a result of both an economic downturn and the decision, ironically, of a number of firms to disperse both services and employees throughout the region, architectural responses (with a few notable exceptions) assumed that jobs and firms would return. If, as The Wall Street Joumal argued, Wall Street was still the spiritual heart of the financial district, it was no longer its physical centre, it suggested the possibility of new programmes and new building types for the area. Architects were not listening. For some architects, it was just another day of serving the needs and wishes of the developers and planners - themselves seeking physical fixes to the tragedy - looking to find a design response to their programmatic suggestions for the area. For other architects, the destruction of the World Trade Center offered an opportunity to rebuild in the grand tradition of the Wall Street of the past: grandeur, conceptual bravado and bigness were the operative bases for their responses.

The debate between what might be described as banal and big, corporate and conceptual, might best be understood by looking at the response to the six plans provided by the architects under the auspices of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. When unveiled, the six plans were met with what one journalist called ‘spontaneous booing’; the plans were seen as pedestrian.

In response, a number of architects, mostly world famous celebrity architects, under the auspices of the New York Times provided a series of design suggestions. In a correction of what these architects saw as real estate planning where plots are designed for particular developers, they suggested a plan whereby plots would be divided and designed by different important architects (usually architects well known for their conceptual and ground-breaking designs). Although the difference here might escape many of us, a series of designs was produced each on its own plot with little or no relation to the buildings that bordered it - why each building is located where it is goes unexplained. Images ran from twisted towers  that would suggest partly collapsed structures to inverted Art Deco skyscrapers, from formalist exercises to more conventional designs of large buildings (AR March 2002). Designs ranged from what one friend called ‘the offensive to the rhetorically clever’ although most were ·just more images of stylish buildings with no more to add to the discussion than the earlier more banal designs they were supposed to replace. Or, as another critic suggested about another set of architectural suggestions for the World Trade Center site but apropos of most of the architectural responses, the majority of the proposals were merely ‘egoistic exercises and have little to do with how to repair the existing rent in the urban fabric’. 1

Overall the new proposals in the New York Times2 suggest a kind of image zoo for gazing but not a well thought through urban response to the problems facing the lower Manhattan area and New York since 11 September. What is captured according to the critic of the New York Times is ‘imagination’ and nothing so conventional as issues of use and function. Architecture as image is critical. Indeed, the architectural committee responsible for this image zoo accepted the overall planning programme set out by the planners of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

The architects who contributed to the New York Times do not monopolize this kind of thinking. Large skyscrapers and grand designs are central to a series of architectural images in the 16 September 2002 New York magazine and the images exhibited at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York. If one or two images suggest a rereading or rethinking of the site, most are merely exercises in architectural pyrotechnics. They are images about architecture and not architecture addressing the social and cultural issues raised by the events of 11 September or the problems now facing New Yorkers.

Nonetheless, the tactics of the architects involved in this debate appeared to have worked, at least for some. The most recent move by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has resulted in six architectural teams3 being selected to provide designs for the area. They include many of those who so blithely provided the images spoken about. Indeed, these images have now provided work and inserted the architects once again into the process of rethinking, or at least redesigning the World Trade Center site. Cynics might say ‘so what?’ - let the architects Play. Nothing matters but the desires of the developer Larry Silverstein who holds the lease on the World Trade Center site. Nonetheless, the tragic events of 11 September opened up an important space to begin not only the repair of the physical destruction of the site, but to begin an important conversation about what this all means for the city, especially a global city like New York, and how society might be rebuilt. Architects have a lot to offer in a discussion with others about just how we might design and rebuild after the larger discussion has begun.

Architecture is socially and culturally important if not determinative. What needed to be addressed before the creation of architectural images are questions like what do the events of 11 September mean? How might we, in light of these events and the changing economy of New York, rethink what is needed to be done at the site? Whose city and whose site is it? To whom does the site ultimately belong and how should this be recognized? What might best suit a post 11 September New York? How should the resources of the city be allocated ?

Indeed, it would be important to raise the question whether all the efforts at rebuilding the city should be centred on the Tade Center site and Lower Manhattan exclusively. Architects have no unique insights into these questions and have no monopoly on the answers but, as citizens, they have as much to offer as anyone else. It would have benefited architects as people and professionals to have joined this conversation first before they placed their images and egos, their professional differences and their personnel energies on the line. They might not only have become part of a general discourse from which they might have learned things that would have benefited their designs, they might also eventually have through good works found work that would have been able to provide more substantive and interesting responses to 11 September.

All photographs courtesy of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation

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