Disappearing Act

Towering Vision: Architect Daniel Libeskind with a model of his plan for the World Trade Center sitePhoto: Herbert Knosowski/AP Wide World

Of all the architects who presented entries in last year’s World Trade Center competition, Daniel Libeskind was the sole designer who spoke emotively, translating the feelings that pervade this sacred piece of land into a three-dimensional corollary. Central to his design was a 70-foot-deep pit that exposed two raw and potent symbols, the bedrock of the site and the famous slurry wall that withstood the assault. The geometries of that day and that hour—the paths of the fire trucks, the angles of the sun—ordered his site plan and the placement of the towers, on whose angular surfaces and faceted shapes the geometries were inscribed. Libeskind’s original scheme earned first place because he endowed his project with that most fragile architectural quality, aura. From bedrock to pinnacle, the design was cut—on the bias—from the same cloth.

That vision has been so altered that it is no longer on the table. The pit has risen 40 feet and looks as sanitized as a putting green: There is no bedrock left, and very little slurry wall. Libeskind’s wedge-shaped Park of Heroes has been narrowed down to the width of a large sidewalk, no longer a mirror image of the adjacent Wedge of Light (which itself turns out not to have direct sunlight as originally advertised by Libeskind). An elevated promenade encircling the project has been eliminated. The asymmetry of the Freedom Tower rising beside its host skyscraper may be sacrificed for a spire placed atop the tower. The angular footprints of the towers have been squared to align with the streets. The design of the transportation hub has been awarded to Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Libeskind, whose architectural vision for the redesign of ground zero captured millions of hearts and minds, has emerged as a human fig leaf for the real design and reconstruction plans now under way. While Libeskind remains the nominal site planner, developer Larry Silverstein has effectively taken control of the bulk of the design package, maintaining that as leaseholder he has the right and obligation to direct the reconstruction. Two weeks ago, Silverstein rolled out Sir Norman Foster of England, Fumihiko Maki of Japan, and Jean Nouvel of France as the architects for three of the five towers. Earlier, Silverstein appointed David Childs of New York’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as lead architect of the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower.

In the process, Libeskind has been all but routed from the project; he is responsible only for about 4 percent of the estimated square-footage. Other than the museum at the edge of the reduced pit and the general outline of the site plan, there is little left of the Libeskind scheme visually or conceptually. Five wildly different architectural signatures—Foster, Maki, Calatrava, Nouvel, Childs—do not add up to a coherent vision.

“Even with Libeskind lingering on camera, smiling, the vision for ground zero is unraveling. The coherence of the ensemble is now at risk.”

Libeskind’s winning scheme, moreover, has proved very useful as a Trojan horse for the takeover: His crescendo of towers sweeping up in height toward the Freedom Tower is trotted out to illustrate each new turn in the development, as though the idea were still intact. At first, his towers were complex, the 9/11 events quilted on their façades in conflicted geometries. Over the months, as the designs were dumbed down, the towers lost their texture, meaning, and signature, becoming tame, with mullion lines set politely askew. Nevertheless, until the new dream team was named, there remained an overall unity, each piece complementing the ensemble, spiraling up in a powerful collective gesture.

Now that Libeskind’s designs are evaporating, the site plan looks disturbingly similar to the one by New York firm Beyer Blinder Belle that was shouted down in a town-hall forum. Governor Pataki, who promised to protect the design, has failed to halt the commercialization that is rubbing out its sense of mystery. The subjectivity that distinguished Libeskind’s project is caving in to cold, bottom-line logic. And with the public cut out of the process, there is no town-hall audience to hiss. Assuming that the matter of the design was settled with the competition results, the public believes that the Libeskind scheme is still on the agenda, not a decoy standing in for a scandalous bait-and-switch.

To be sure, Libeskind—who appears ever more complicit in his own irrelevance to the project—originally said that some of the buildings, in the interest of heterogeneity, might be designed by others. He probably made the statement to help get the job, but in the end it was his design that won the competition, and he does not have the right to give away pieces, especially in a dubious process beyond public oversight.

There are several official justifications for the marginalization of Libeskind. Technically, last year’s competition—despite the detailed architectural proposals presented by all the teams—was intended to solicit site concepts and not architectural proposals (as though the two could be dissociated). Also, the competition was a nonbinding “ideas” competition. The specific reason cited for taking Libeskind off the towers is that he has no experience as a skyscraper architect. Still, Libeskind won the competition largely through the design of towers inextricably integrated into his site plan (he has no track record as a master planner, for that matter).

But Silverstein, as a developer, has little experience working with great architects, and his own building portfolio is sorely undistinguished. His apartment buildings on West 42nd Street facing the Hudson are banal. Ditto the new 7 World Trade Center, designed by SOM and now under construction as a replacement for a building destroyed on 9/11—it’s just another slick box. Healing our physical and psychic wounds through building this site anew requires acumen that Silverstein has never displayed. And the built-in profit motive would set any red-blooded developer up for a conflict with the public’s own interest in creating a complex that properly memorializes 9/11. Business as usual for this site amounts to a second catastrophe.

The official tolerance for Silverstein is based on the perception that with the insurance money, he alone can rebuild this site. The courts have just ruled against his full claim, but even if Silverstein prevails in his appeal, the process should not be privatized—if only because a huge amount of public money is tied up directly and indirectly in the larger project. Silverstein may be the leaseholder on paper, but morally the nation owns the site. The Port Authority recently bought out Westfield America, the developer of the underground shopping mall, and Silverstein is now a worthy candidate for cashiering. Maybe the federal government should just slide in and take over the project from the Port Authority, so that the General Services Administration, the nation’s landlord, with its enlightened design program, can handle the project competently.

Even with Libeskind lingering on camera, smiling, the vision is unraveling. The coherence of the ensemble, the chance for a Rockefeller Center of our time, is now at risk. Yet there are alternatives already on the table. If Libeskind’s contribution is restricted to the site plan and the museum, then the rightful heir to the rest of it should be one of the other competition schemes that a responsive and activist public already has weighed in on. Some are worthy. The entire complex, not just the museum and memorial, should be an inspired and integrated response to 9/11. Instead, ground zero is back to square one. The new design deals are being worked out piecemeal, behind closed doors in executive suites. Yet all of the WTC was destroyed, and only a complete vision can make us, and this piece of earth, whole again.

Disappearing Act