It was a photo finish. But, eighteen months after the Twin Towers collapsed, New York finally has a plan—or rather the beginning of a plan—for rebuilding ground zero. Last Wednesday, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg chose Daniel Libeskind’s memorial bathtub over the skeletal twin-tower scaffolds by Think, the team headed by New York architect Rafael Viñoly—even though Think had rallied from behind at the last minute, garnering the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s Site Committee endorsement on Tuesday. Did Wednesday’s exquisitely timed Wall Street Journal article exposing Viñoly’s work for the Argentine junta help tip the scales?
In any event, Think’s thinking was flawed—the ghostly Twin Towers would have depressed the skyline forever. The team promptly conceded some 10 million square feet of office towers to developers and the architects of their choosing. Libeskind, on the other hand, correctly laid claim to the whole site (at least initially). His scheme focused on a deep pit, open to bedrock, bounded by a rough concrete slurry wall, and a group of buildings following a geometry that remembers 9/11. Lines drawn across the site evoke the paths of the people whose lives converged here. The geometries, worthy of Stonehenge, mystify the whole site, making it feel sacred.
Mammon, however, has conspired to work Libeskind’s design over, and the revised plan he presented Thursday is much reduced, its mysteries nearly banished. The architect has conceded the office towers to developers (a tanned Larry Silverstein strutted conspicuously throughout the press conference). Libeskind also allowed the Port Authority to diminish the impact of his bathtub by carving out a large chunk for a bus depot. Indeed, precious little now remains of Libeskind’s original proposal, only a 9/11 museum and other cultural buildings immediately surrounding the bathtub, and an as-yet-unfunded signature garden spire, 1,776 feet tall, that may never get off the ground.
The first rule in architecture is: Get the job. But the highly capable Libeskind has already conceded too much of his vision to get there. Still, he proved his mettle pulling his brilliant Jewish Museum in Berlin through a hellacious process, its design largely intact. Now we need him to summon those skills in the even tougher city of New York.