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Site Unseen

The two final plans for rebuilding ground zero may seem like a triumph of design, but in fact they’re a triumph for developers.

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Like most New Yorkers, you’ve doubtless been under the impression that one of the more provocative plans presented in December for rebuilding the World Trade Center would eventually be built, forever blotting out the memory of the bland proposals put forth—and loudly derided—last summer.

Last week, however, the Port Authority and Lower Manhattan Development Corporation rejected the proposals—including the brilliant United Architects scheme, and the one by the Richard Meier group—that properly interpret the entire site as a memorial, office buildings and all. Instead, what they chose were plans by the Daniel Libeskind Studio and by the New York group Think, each of which centers on a dramatic 9/11 memorial while consigning everything else at the site to an uncertain fate. Imagine these plans as Trojan horses, concealing the prospective developers who actually control the site. As it had last summer, money spoke more than architecture. And the plan that is eventually chosen may have to give way to other proposals, notably whatever is put forth by the site’s lease owner, Larry Silverstein. (In a brilliant chess move, Silverstein’s court architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, withdrew from the competition—and could well end up designing the commercial space by fiat.)

The choice of memorials now on the table is between earth and sky. Libeskind would dedicate the deep concrete tub protecting the entire site from the Hudson as a memorial, while Think would nest cultural buildings in two intricate steel scaffolds more than 100 stories tall, ghosts of the original towers. Unlike Libeskind, the Thinkers, led by Rafael Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz, didn’t even attempt to design the 6 to 10 million square feet of office buildings, focusing solely on a memorial. Yet Libeskind—despite the charismatic beauty of his office towers, their façades marked in astral patterns—says that he doesn’t really care about designing the supporting cast of buildings, either.

In December, what made most of the visions visionary was the architecture. But their memorials aside, the final two plans bear an uncanny resemblance to the hapless schemes that were shouted down last July—architecture that is Architecture risks falling out altogether in favor of real-estate-as-usual. To confuse things even more, the Port Authority and LMDC are sponsoring yet another design competition for a memorial that will also compete with these plans.

Last week’s announcement gives us little reason to trust a process that, for a while at least, appeared responsive to a city’s demand for architectural greatness. Instead, it’s again heading toward a fiasco, with too many people thinking small in a big way.


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