Ground Zero to Sixty

How long has it been since September 11? Exactly as long as the Second World War lasted for Americans. Leaving aside the geopolitical comparison (that is, the last time the U.S. suffered a devastating surprise attack, the correct response—all-out war against our fascist enemies—was plain), it’s striking that our parents and grandparents managed to win World War II in 44 months while we have not been able even to agree on a plan for what to do with ground zero.

“It’s a fucking mess,” the lawyer Ed Hayes said, first off, when I called him about the latest unraveling of the project. Hayes’s clients include ground-zero architect Daniel Libeskind and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and he’s close to Governor Pataki. “It could be catastrophic.”

Okay. When we wind up in fucking messes in our personal or professional lives, don’t we find it best to admit our errors and start fresh? But no, Senator Schumer told the Post, “we ought to not go back to the drawing board.” No, last week’s nervous New York Times editorial agreed, “to redo the entire plan for rebuilding ground zero … would be a mistake, a waste of precious time and formidable talent.”

But most of that time and talent have already been wasted. Libeskind’s original design for a spiraling, asymmetrical Freedom Tower was abandoned almost two years ago when he was forced by Pataki, his patron, into a doomed, viciously dysfunctional partnership with David Childs, the World Trade Center’s hired architect from Skidmore Owings and Merrill. The product of their two-year “collaboration” was an awkward mongrel design that Kelly’s NYPD has now vetoed on security grounds. In his desperately resolute recent statements about ground zero, Pataki is trying to have it both ways, suggesting that they both were and weren’t really starting over. “I have no doubt,” he said, “that David Childs will come up with yet another magnificent design.” In other words, back to the drawing board, without the little dude in the funny glasses—but only as briefly as possible.

Libeskind has been spinning deliriously from the end of the plank he has been walking. According to the Times, he professed himself confident that “the intent and spirit of the master plan … would remain even if the shape of the building changed.” But it is not just the shape (and material) that has to be changed—Freedom Tower must move east toward Greenwich Street, farther from hypothetical West Street truck-bombers, which may well squeeze the hypothetical performing-arts center out of existence, in one stroke changing the intent and spirit of that whole quarter of the master plan. And exactly what is so visionary about the rest of Libeskind’s plan, anyhow? Filling three new blocks along the eastern half of the site with three mammoth office towers is the sort of urban planning kids can do playing Sim City.

All the ground-zero design work is a sunken cost, as economists say, and the sensible course now is to learn from the mistakes, not to stick with the flawed plan simply because we’re behind schedule and frustrated and embarrassed. Given that the whole complex will take ten or twenty years to finish, and may last a century or more, what’s another six months now? Only lately have most of us come to our post-9/11 senses. It’s time to move beyond our denial (reproduce the Twin Towers!) and anger (build them taller!) to acceptance—of the unpleasant truths and the practical obligations of remaking this piece of the city. Let’s really go back to the drawing board, not just hastily to redesign and reposition the Freedom Tower but to rethink the whole scheme. Let’s not squander this latest opportunity as we’ve squandered so many during the past 44 months.

It was a wasted opportunity when Giuliani let Pataki take control of the rebuilding—a cynical, mistaken trade of the city’s interests for presumed Republican partisan advantage. It was a wasted opportunity when Pataki and Bloomberg did not use the extraordinary, whatever-it-takes spirit after 9/11 to purge the 900-pound gorillas (the Port Authority and its World Trade Center leaseholder, Larry Silverstein) by buying off Silverstein, and by trading the city-owned land under La Guardia and JFK for the Port’s Trade Center site, a brilliant scheme by Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff that Pataki pocket-vetoed. When the first, bland master-plan sketches appeared three summers ago, Bloomberg complained that they were essentially identical—no leave-it-mostly-empty option, no build-some-housing option—but then he never pressed the issue.

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.”

Ground Zero to Sixty