A Big Zero

In a fraudulent display of public openness, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation hosted more than 5,000 New Yorkers at the Javits Center last week to get comments on six schemes for the reconstruction of ground zero. Mixing and matching pieces of these mediocre plans was really no more than a disingenuous exercise in P.R. meant to cover up a process that recalls Tammany Hall more than town hall. “They went about it like developers, but this is not a private decision – it should not be Larry Silverstein’s decision alone,” says Max Protetch, the gallerist who sponsored his own show featuring proposals for the site. “We can’t just wring our hands and let this go by. There should be a public outcry.”

It certainly was not lost on the world’s top urban designers that they had been effectively excluded from the process. “Public money was involved, so the call for applications should have been advertised all over the United States – and the world,” says Will Alsop, the London architect behind that city’s Jubilee subway line. “The organizers were complacent.”

The plans have no magic and little substance. Four of them, by New York firm Beyer Blinder Belle, would leave the footprints of one or both towers intact, relegating 11 million square feet of office space to the perimeter of the site, in superblocks arrayed with business-as-usual towers. The proposed collar just repeats the dehumanizing formula of upper Sixth Avenue monoliths.

Two influential New York firms – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Cooper, Robertson & Partners – were unaccountably asked for input despite the fact that they lacked even the pretense of a public mandate. Just as inappropriately, Peterson/Littenberg, advisers to LMDC, designed two of the six schemes. The proposals substitute a grassy square and a promenade for the WTC footprints. Space in both the park and the promenade is dedicated to a memorial sculpture – old-brain, Beaux-Arts planning hardly commensurate with the invention necessary in this sacred precinct.

None of the proposals offers a broader downtown planning strategy. The problem is not too much square-footage but a failure to weave all the parts into a whole. “We’re not getting the heroic vision we deserve and expect,” says one prominent New York architect, echoing many colleagues. “Everything has been compartmentalized. The plans don’t have the arc of an idea.”

For all the talk of these proposals’ being a starting point for public discussion, they are in fact a stopping point. Merely tweaking these soulless schemes dishonors the project and the events that led to it. “We have to overthrow the situation – it’s a second tragedy compounding the first,” says New York architect Steven Holl. “The plans have no sense of beauty, emotion, or spirit.”

A Big Zero