Vision Quest
The new trade center must meet our need for a powerful memorial, a vibrant streetscape, and a brilliant skyline. Luckily, we have plans that do each, if not all.
At long last, visions. After fifteen months of suspended animation and false starts, we can finally consider architectural plans worthy of our grief and hope. Instead of the bean-counting schemes New Yorkers vociferously deplored last July, we find ideas and ideals for city-building that elevate the discourse and prove that our high expectations were not inflated. First, dismiss the assumption that ugly buildings are practical, and that beautiful ones aren’t. And on this fragile site tense with sadness and aspiration, consider the redemptive power of wonder. This is not the place for real-estate schemes driven mostly by the market. This time around, concepts rather than square footage drive the planning. Still, the visions are not all equal. Some proposals appeal more to the skyline, and others to the street. In schemes with a focus on soaring structures, underdesigned parks stand in as green Band-Aids. Some buildings invite the eye to examine complexities, while others are mere one-liners. Most of the proposals, though not all, treat the footprints of the destroyed towers as sacred, leaving them intact. The strongest have a theoretical foundation that is more enduring and powerful than acrobatics in the sky. All but one are modernist. Self-congratulation, however, is premature. Though we have a handful of viable schemes, there is no guarantee that any will be built. Skepticism and civic selfishness are in order here, to keep bureaucrats from acting like accountants and developers like robber barons, arguing us out of the patrimony that both the dead and the living deserve.
Foster and Partners
Pas de Deux
England’s Norman Foster, perhaps the world’s foremost specialist in humanizing high-rises, has outdone himself by transforming Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers into dual diamondlike structures that “kiss” as they stretch their way vertiginously to luminous crowns. The double tower -- which would be the world’s tallest -- fills the hole in our skyline with a dancing form that promises greater safety, through redundant escape and structural systems, along with sky lobbies that bring “town squares” and green ecosystems to dizzy heights inside. The undulating triangular façades offer appealingly different views from every vantage point in the city: Foster has created a dynamic rather than static icon. But the self-contained Trade Center has an antiseptic relationship to its surroundings -- no base mediates between the tower and the pedestrian; the ingenious scheme satisfies the sky more than the street. A rather bland park carpets the site and edges the original towers’ footprints, which Foster leaves empty and walled off, treating them as voids open only to the sky -- and to the thoughts of their visitors.
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The Som Team
Ensemble Piece
New York's homegrown political powerhouse, has produced an architecturally innovative complex of nine structures, each 60 stories tall, distributed evenly across the whole site. Working in collaboration with architect Michael Maltzan and artist Elyn Zimmerman, among others, SOM proposes an ensemble of buildings with bending profiles, like a stand of sea anemones undulating in changing currents. The swaying gestures are not arbitrary: The buildings angle to capture light and views. Connected by aerial platforms, the towers host elevated gardens and cultural facilities that expand and displace the site’s public realm to upper floors and to an archipelago of landscaped rooftops. Unfortunately, the plan treats the whole site equally in a way that smothers the original footprints and secularizes what should be sacred ground. The designers are not hiding behind the feel-good notion of a park, however, but rather Manhattanizing the environment with a dense urban fabric. This promising idea -- a field of connected buildings, enriched culturally and ecologically in three dimensions -- is maybe best reserved for a commission that does not have the WTC site’s meditative focus.
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Textbook Trade Center
The one sour note among all the proposals is the regressive scheme by Peterson/Littenberg, a small firm working as paid consultants to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which slipped the architects onto the list even though they were not designated by the jury that chose the others from the 400-plus applicants. Its presence clouds the process -- Alexander Garvin, LMDC's vice-president of planning, design, and development, used to work with Peterson/Littenberg -- and the scheme should be withdrawn, not only because of the impropriety (which typifies clubby back-scratching in closed agency circles) but also because the entire plan, from platitudinous towers to predictable cityscape, is riddled with every design cliché in the postmodernist handbook: Obelisks, anyone?
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Studio Daniel Libeskind
Solar Power
Berlin's Daniel Libeskind offers a post-Cartesian ensemble of irregular buildings, but he does not mystify the project through the calculus of the computer. Instead, he carves the site the Stonehenge way, with buildings positioned and sheared according to the angles of the sun, so that every September 11, from the exact time the first plane struck to when the second tower fell, a Park of Heroes will remain in shadow. With its suggestively cryptic façades acting as mystic billboards -- their crisscross “astral” markings script a 9/11 cosmology -- the scheme is stronger at the street than in the sky: The buildings are too inchoate as an ensemble to consummate the downtown skyline. A glass spindle of gardens is too thin -- and a tad too corny at 1,776 feet tall -- to fulfill its intended role as icon and symbol. The plan takes its strength instead from the ground, where a low-rise museum spills into the “bathtub” of bedrock and slurry walls that define ground zero. If some of the other proposals suffer from the sincerity of overdesign, Libeskind exposes the rough concrete walls as the last vestige of the original complex. In this bowl of remembrance, he excavates the idea of rawness to make the space of disaster tangible, powerful, and moving.
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THINK: World Cultural Center
Ghost Towers
The best of three plans offered by Think, a group including Rafael Viñoly, Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith, and Shigeru Ban, also reinterprets the original towers, but in the form of two scaffolds of steel that rise more than 100 stories like shafts of light, hosting a memorial, a museum, and an amphitheater. These new twins, intricately crafted ghosts of the first pair, overdedicate the site to 9/11, making the disaster now and forever New York’s defining moment. There is not enough new building in the project, called the World Cultural Center, to replace the 10 million square feet of office space or rejuvenate the site: These towers remain tombstones. There’s no depth to the plan beyond the sheer spectacle of people hiking on stairways into thin air. Think’s other two plans are based on poetic concepts, but they remain underdeveloped stanzas: Great Hall, a giant covered room centered on the original footprints, doesn’t adequately separate the memorial from everyday hustle and bustle; Sky Park, sixteen acres of green space atop a ten-story base of cultural facilities, is too isolated from the street.
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THINK: Sky Park
The focus of this design is a 16-acre public park that extends, cantilevered, over West Street, providing views of the Hudson River. In addition to acres of open lawn space, the park includes an amphitheater, ice-skating rink, cafes and a bridge to the Winter Garden. Underneath: cultural space, transportation hub, and a hotel.— Matt Dobkin
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THINK: The Great Room
A vast public space on the WTC site would be the world's largest covered plaza. Glass-enclosed and featuring transparent cylinders surrounding the former towers' footprints. Energy-conserving design collects rainwater and produces solar energy. An office/transmission/hotel tower is the largest structure in the world. Includes a museum, concert hall, and retail space. — Matt Dobkin
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United Architects
Mutating Views
United Architects, a younger group that includes Ben van Berkel, Greg Lynn, Kevin Kennon, and Jesse Reiser, reinvents not only the original Trade Center but also the skyscraper. The architects lean and twist the tubes so that they angle around the elevator cores and merge diagonally to create large floor plates in the upper reaches. At the street as in the air, the buildings part to allow sight lines and the street grid to penetrate. In a generation shift, the architects used computers to produce rather than just record the design, shaping complex crystalline structures whose glassy prisms flow like glaciers. The geometrically dazzling skins create enigmatic, mutating profiles, and the elusive and illusory shapes somehow physicalize the mystery of the titanic buildings that vanished so unthinkably from the sky. Unlike most conventional skyscrapers, the turning, angling structure offers views of the other wings, as well as views strafing past the façades down to the footprints of the original towers. United Architects keeps the voids, from which visitors can look up toward the soaring buildings: Delivering the ground to the sky charges the site with an aspirational thrust. The design is intriguingly powerful, and complete in the range of issues it addresses -- from raw square footage of office and retail space to inspirational image. There are construction problems, such as how to support underbellies of glass economically, but the design represents the most compelling idea of all those presented.
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Meier, Eisenman, Gwathmey, and Holl
Group Dynamics
Working as a team, New York architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, and Steven Holl have proposed a minimalist grid of five Cartesian towers connected by horizontal arms supporting sky gardens -- a monumental fence that recalls the exoskeletons left standing after the collapse of the original WTC. The architects plant long wooded parks that lead from the footprints into the Hudson: Virtual shadows, they integrate with a geography larger than the site itself. This is one of the few schemes to make the important connection to New York’s waterfront, establishing the reciprocal relationship between the harbor and site. But despite this poetic gesture, the structure recalls the excessively rationalist minimalism of the seventies (especially the work of the Italian group Superstudio). The pellucid but dry clarity of the matrix chills rather than comforts this disturbed ground. Strangely, the collaboration of the star architects has resulted in a proposal less than the sum of the talents: Each of the four alone would have invented a more supple, less authoritarian design.
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Photo Credit: All images courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Development Corportation.