Fixing the Whole

Opportunity: Rebuilding after the WTC tragedy demands creative thinking.Photo: Mark Peterson/Corbis SABA.

Whether to leave Ground Zero a haunted vacuum or to build more towers is the question that has polarized opinion about this contested square of land and pain. Each position – consecrating a void or constructing a solid – is correct in its way. Dedicating the land as a memorial acknowledges its sanctity, while building anew affirms life. We are faced with the psychological imperative of fixing the holes in our sky. September 11 traumatized our collective consciousness, and repairing the city is a way of healing ourselves.

Asked why he had stopped at just 110 stories, architect Minoru Yamasaki replied, “I didn’t want to lose the human scale.” But his twin towers only acquired a human face after all those Xeroxed posters of missing persons appeared along our sidewalks. Certainly the towers were remarkable feats of engineering and symbols of mankind’s perennial aspiration to height. But in their unyielding repetition and architectural purity, with deserts for plazas and identical façades, they embodied all that is depersonalizing in American architecture. The concourses and elevators processed people in flows that amounted to human assembly lines, and the minimalist towers defied street life and the nearby waterfront and harbor; their bulk overwhelmed the surrounding office towers.

New York must, of course, build on the ashes, but in a corrective, effective, and sensitive way. Some 12 million square feet have vanished from the business table, or about 3.2 percent of Manhattan’s office space. The issue is not only how to replace the square footage in buildings with some soul, but also where to allot the space strategically. It is as important to think differently as it is to think big, and to think outside the many boxes that have confined and paralyzed our recent efforts at building the city. No one asked for the opportunity, but deploying the equivalent of fifteen Empire State Buildings in New York represents a powerful tool for reshaping the city. Rushing to build – Larry Silverstein says, “In five years, we can have this thing done” – shortchanges the lives lost. How can we respect those lives and make the most out of this tragedy?

Urbanists and architects have convened in a task force, the NYC Rebuild Task Force. Among its most promising subgroups are those looking at expanding the effort into the rest of lower Manhattan and the waterfront. Even before the 11th, there was a tendency to disperse the financial district, and New York should inventively control and shape this pattern rather than abet the flow to New Jersey.

Ground zero won’t be ready for reconstruction for another year, but that is no reason to put off thinking (or at least dreaming) about extending New York’s underground map. The perception that land is in short supply here is a myth: Waterfronts along the East River and New York harbor brim with underutilized tracts of formerly industrialized land that could be mainstreamed to Wall Street with new transportation infrastructure – especially rail lines linking the city east-west. The NYC Rebuild Task Force has identified, for example, the possible extension of the path train east to Water Street, and if path were tunneled north to the vast sanitation shed near the Manhattan Bridge, and then under the East River up to the huge, underused, and waiting Brooklyn Navy Yard, who would have to hike out to Jersey City? What if the 1 and 9 trains tunneled out to gorgeously sited Red Hook, with all its warehouses and underdeveloped land? The planned and already funded restoration of the beautiful Battery Maritime Building, with its three slips, could reinforce the reopening of our waterfront with ferries fanning out in a crescent of development emanating from downtown.

To its credit, New Jersey started cleaning up its brownfields and preparing its transportation infrastructure years ago to attract overflow from Wall Street. New York slept and missed its own boat. After the 11th, the dispersal only accelerated. As we reinforce the centrality of ground zero and the financial district, we should also take the opportunity to cultivate the waterfront. Why not finally commandeer Governors Island and plant Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim there, along with, say, a Tanglewood-style shed for summer concerts? The brilliant proposal for the 2012 Summer Olympics already calls for cultivating the waterfront along the East River, and an expanded, water-oriented Wall Street dovetails into this larger regional vision.

Ground Zero remains the radiant center, but the question persists: How to build on its smoldering sadness? Not just with more offices. One approach is to treat the one-acre footprints of the towers as voids rather than solids, in a kind of role reversal: Turn the squares at the base of the towers into basins flooded with water from the Hudson. The waterfront comes back to the site in the form of one-acre lakes that establish a reflective serenity at the core of this disturbed piece of earth. The other fourteen acres of the site should mirror all New York City, as a delirious 24-hour district of apartment houses, shops, and cultural facilities, riotously mixed in with the financial industry – supporting what Rem Koolhaas called Manhattan’s “culture of congestion.”

We have been conditioned to expect little from the city in the way of public works and urban vision, but ground zero demands an about-face and a master plan, one that reverses the sense that lower Manhattan is an irrecoverable fatality. War came to us, and it necessitates city-building along with the nation-building that will presumably be carried out elsewhere. But greatness in this shattered context is a matter not merely of size and quantity but of vision as well. Wall Street is the last place we would normally look for the soul that we normally associate with, say, Harlem, but whatever reincarnation occurs through rebuilding downtown must be transformative, and, as Daniel Burnham said, it must stir men’s blood. There are many ways to think about reinventing ground zero in the context of an expanded lower Manhattan, but replicating the towers, and doing it quickly, could mean another loss. In this moment of crisis, building anew is a way of finding how we want to change – and who we want to be.

Fixing the Whole