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New York, USA - Mark Lamster on the opening of the World Trade Center memorial

After 10 years of rhetoric, intrigue, exploitation, in-fighting, bean-counting, horse-trading, design development and construction, the essential contours of what is to mark the site once occupied by the World Trade Center are finally beginning to emerge. It has been an enervating journey, to say the least, and if you were expecting the result to be anything but compromised, you clearly have not been paying attention.

For all the ballyhooed talk of openness and public participation, the transformation of the six hectares of Ground Zero was orchestrated − predictably − behind closed doors. This is New York, after all, and that’s how things work here: this is not a city of monuments and memorials, but a commercial metropolis. Skyscrapers are built, and the first realisation of a visit to Ground Zero as it presently stands is that, above all else, it is a real estate development project.

Daniel Libeskind, the feel-good mascot of the early years of rebuilding, has been dispensed with, along with the architect’s masterplan. Once known as the Freedom Tower and blessedly rechristened One World Trade Center, the centrepiece will still rise to a symbolic height of 1,776 feet (the year of American Independence), but is otherwise the work of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. It is an icy stalagmite in the manner that is the firm’s signature, a building created by and for men who wear pinstriped suits − an apt symbol for the city’s financial district.

That tower is just one of several that ring Ground Zero. Fumihiko Maki’s decidedly banal Tower 5 is currently rising at the south-eastern edge, and the adjacent Tower 3, by Richard Rogers, is now poking up over street level, although it is not likely to grow much higher until the economy improves. Santiago Calatrava’s transportation shed, next door, remains behind schedule and woefully over-budget. Across the street, a partially completed museum pavilion by Snøhetta, a beached relic from the Decon era, will lead to cultural exhibits in the cavernous depths beneath the memorial plaza, their content still the subject of hot contention.

At the heart of the site is Michael Arad’s memorial, dramatically different in final execution than in his competition-winning design entry of 2003. That original proposal sensibly wiped the site clear of Libeskind’s intrusions, restored the memorial plaza to street level, and placed a pair of reflecting pools at the footprints of the destroyed towers. The memorial spaces were to be beneath these pools. ‘Visitors are removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness,’ said Arad. The names of the dead would be inscribed on ledges facing veils of water cascading into square catchment basins.

Arad’s underground chambers were fatally flawed from the outset − too claustrophobic; a logistical and security nightmare − but at least they offered a sense of the terrible sublime. As it is, they have been jettisoned, and his reflective pools now sit amid a pleasant grid of oaks specified by landscape architect Peter Walker, who was brought in to reduce the severity of the proceedings. The names of the dead line the rim of the pools, stencil-cut into bronze panels so they can be backlit at night. The effect is impressive but somewhat gimmicky, lacking the authority of carved stone.

The enormity of Arad’s black granite volumes, the whoosh of so much tumbling water, and the inherent gravity of the site confer significant and undeniable power. As works of art, they are a bit too literal for comfort − they do not possess the ineffable quality of, say, a Richard Serra sculpture − and their force will be undercut by the crowds who will gather along their waist-high ledges, an endless parade of mourners, gawkers and camera-wielding tourists gazing down, rather than up (as logic might suggest). The shifting human spectacle, ever visible across the basins, will make solitary reflection a challenge − quite a change from the promised removal from the ‘sights and sounds of the city’.

‘We don’t need to set this space aside and make it a cemetery,’ Arad told me on a recent trip to the site. Just how well it mediates between its roles as a centre of mourning and as an outdoor cafeteria for office-workers, will be, if nothing else, interesting to watch. New Yorkers have a tradition of coming to terms with and then growing to appreciate their most controversial developments: the World Trade Center itself being a prime exemple.

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