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Ground Zero to Sixty

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So as our political leaders abdicated, the process whipsawed between unfortunate private-sector extremes, governed by commercial and bureaucratic banalities on the one hand and blustery emotion and metaphysics on the other. People hated the preliminary schematic plans not just because they were dull but because they were preliminary and schematic—our leaders never explained to the (architecturally ignorant) public that it shouldn’t expect beauty-shot renderings at that stage. The populist backlash swung the pendulum to the opposite extreme, from boring workaday abstraction to the desperately visionary would-be avant-gardism and sexy building models of the celebrity-architect competition, from which Pataki chose Libeskind.

There are only five givens about the site that deserve a priori status now: Treat the destroyed towers’ footprints as sacrosanct; build the memorial as designed, a scheme selected by a process both democratic and meritocratic; reconstruct Greenwich and Fulton streets through the site; build the grand PATH station designed by Santiago Calatrava; and build a 9/11 museum.

That amounts to maybe a third of the site. The rest should be back on the table—not indefinitely, but through a kind of hard-assed, reality-checked, summerlong charrette involving a dozen people locked in a room. And no more fetishes or idées fixes, emotional or commercial, should be permitted to warp the process.

Forget Pataki’s ongoing insistence that the first building erected must be a 1,776-foot-tall tower. (Donald Trump is now calling Libeskind’s tower “an egghead design, designed by an egghead,” but to me it always seemed sophomorically, meretriciously Trumpian.) Forget the idea that we are obliged to build a super-tall high-rise for symbolic purposes, to defy the terrorists or “repair” the skyline. The skyline was fabulous before the Twin Towers, and Al Qaeda will not be diminished a jot by a supremely tall new skyscraper in lower Manhattan.

In fact, we all assume something like the opposite effect, do we not? We can make a Freedom Tower harder to bomb from the ground, but on that site any 1,776-foot-tall building is surely a provocation to ambitious terrorists around the world. That is the fundamental “security concern.” Will the inspirational jolt we enjoy in 2009 by having demonstrated our architectural gumption outweigh the horror we will feel if that 140-story middle finger is bombed in 2010?

Why not forget about putting huge towers there at all? There is in postwar architecture a rough inverse relationship between size and quality. The best buildings tend to be small. Perhaps more important, mediocre architecture—that is, what one tends to get—is less damaging the smaller it is.

Forget about committing to build the equivalent of five Empire State Buildings in a neighborhood that has an office-vacancy rate of over 27 percent. Childs’s new tower for Silverstein, 7 World Trade Center, hasn’t attracted a single tenant. And who can blame corporate decision-makers for a reluctance to put their people at special risk in order to prove we’re indomitable?

As the tip of Manhattan morphs once again into a partly residential quarter—even the Woolworth Building is to become condos—why not build apartments in addition to offices along the new stretch of Greenwich Street? The only thing preventing it is an anachronistic deal between the Port Authority and the state. Maybe I’m nuts, but I think people would be far readier to live than to work in high-rises on that site.

Shall we build a human-rights museum there? Maybe so—this week we’ll see the proposed design. A performing-arts center? I’ll never say no to a Frank Gehry building, but the present little–bohemian–Lincoln Center model for culture at ground zero seems both arbitrary and unlikely to succeed. And instead of arty downtown theaters and galleries, how about a truly democratic (and financially self-sustaining) cultural venue—the kind of joyful, civilized, Tivoli-like amusement park that Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and David Rockwell dreamed up as part of Bloomberg’s “Vision for Lower Manhattan” in 2002?

Summoning the requisite clarity and political will to proceed correctly and inspirationally would require our governor and mayor to start behaving like real leaders. That does not mean defaulting to some pseudo-plebiscite, but engaging instead in a kind of laser-focused enlightened despotism, neutralizing the main obstacles to success (Silverstein, the dueling bureaucracies); dusting off the good ideas from 2002 (like Peterson/Littenberg’s gardens and memorial boulevard) that were discarded in favor of emotional bombast and sci-fi stage sets; and running the process instead of intermittently hovering in its vicinity.

It would mean, for instance, going a little slowly right now to get it right. Pataki’s 44-month M.O. has been to ignore the messes, then rush the design phases for his own PR ends, then revert to feckless inattention. And last week he was true to form, reacting to the new PR crisis by suddenly ordering Childs to complete a new high-rise design in less than seven weeks . . . just in time, once again, for a Freedom Tower photo op by July 4. (When I asked Skidmore’s spokeswoman if Childs had a plan-B design on a shelf that he can now pull out, she chuckled, as if I were joking.) In other words, for this astoundingly important project to be redeemed, Bloomberg and Doctoroff would need to shift their impressive energies three miles down the Hudson from the Jets-stadium site. That seems feasible. And Pataki would have to demonstrate—or convincingly simulate—taste, wisdom, and courage. Last week, he assigned his chief of staff to be ground-zero czar, and that is at least a start. As his old ally Ed Hayes says, “The governor doesn’t have any choice. His whole career is gonna come down to this project.”


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