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A New Vision for Ground Zero Beyond Mainstream Modernism

February 23, 2003

A New Vision for Ground Zero Beyond Mainstream Modernism


REBUILDING the World Trade Center site — ground zero, with all its apocalyptic implications — presents the kind of knotty problem few architects ever confront. Many were invited to submit solutions in a competition, and in the end, two teams were chosen as finalists: Think (Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Vi˜oly, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban) and Studio Daniel Libeskind.

It has been recognized that nothing will be gained by seeking to repress the repercussions of Sept. 11. But if the new architecture of the site must embody remembrance and mourning with moving dignity, and honor the victims and heroes in a respectful way, it must also rebuild and architecturally revivify the devastated zone, especially at street level. It must integrate this zone with the surrounding streets and buildings yet achieve its own architectural identity. And it must restore the broken skyline.

The architectural brief for the project forms a nexus of intersecting oppositions: remembrance versus renewal; contextualism versus identity and power of place; neighborhood needs versus those of the city; street level revivification versus skyline restoration. Any of these conflicting components alone would be a challenge; together they seem impossible to resolve.

It was clear to me from the outset that no architect or team working within the parameters of orthodox modernism or its lightly disguised offshoots would be able to come anywhere near pulling it off. Modernists are not trained to commemorate and revivify, to heal and restore; in fact, if anything, quite the opposite.

In the early 20th century, mainstream modernism formulated a program from which it has never really retreated: the repression of history, memory, place and identity; the exaltation of functionalism, technology and the machine. Its hatred of the city was announced in 1912-14 by the Italian Futurists who urged "blowing sky-high, for a start, all those monuments . . . arcades and flights of steps . . . digging out our streets and piazzas" and so forth.

The Futurists inspired Le Corbusier, who quite on his own loathed the city with its "filthy" street life, to establish in the 1920's what became the orthodox model for modernist architectural and urbanist practice: scrape clean a large site (he proposed the entire Right Bank of Paris) and build on it one or more huge, machinelike, self-absorbed, formally "perfect" architectural objects that withdraw and turn their backs on their surroundings. We all know too well what the results look like, and the World Trade Center itself was a colossal instance of this paradigm: 17 acres of ancient Manhattan leveled, the street grid suppressed, hyperscaled "twin" purist towers set up, surrounded by an agoraphobic windy space, the life of the city kept at a safe distance.

Of course, no responsible party now proposes rebuilding the World Trade Center as it was; it is recognized that what is missed and mourned is not the specific form or presence of the Twin Towers but the life they contained and provided for, and the tonic effect of an immensely high building in the downtown skyline.

But what would happen if the underlying macho-techno paradigm of the Towers was combined with its antithesis, an architecture of commemoration and revivification? Although such a hybrid is perhaps theoretically possible, the likely product of this modernism-meets-living-memorial scenario would be an architectural Frankenstein monster like the World Cultural Center proposed by the Think team. In Think's predictable scheme, totally isolated from the city by sprawling reflecting pools, gigantic twin spectral tombstones rise over the New York skyline, flayed skeletons of the World Trade Center, with various cultural and memorial spaces dangling within, including one that — really — rather resembles an airplane shooting through both buildings.

But the proposal also contains another rather unsettling ghost: not the Eiffel Tower (as Think would like) but a model taken from the realm of totalitarianism, the famous Monument to the Third Communist International, proposed in 1920 by the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin envisioned a huge hypermodernist lattice-work tower with cubes, pyramids and other shapes suspended in it to provide spaces for collectivist activities.

From the outset I thought that a viable solution to the ground zero problem could come only from a world of architectural thought beyond the orthodoxies of mainstream modernism. Its creator would have to be a visionary and a poet as well as a great reconstructive surgeon. Given the extreme complexities and contradictions to be resolved, it would necessarily be someone with a great creative intellect working at the edge of his or her abilities. Although I know from architectural history that such figures sometimes miraculously materialize, one certainly should not count on that happening on any given day. But my doubts disappeared when I saw, and studied, the project of the American architect Daniel Libeskind, best known for his Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Mr. Libeskind's project is not just the best among several competing schemes; it is in a class by itself in its deeply creative, organic relationship to the specificity of ground zero and its environment and meaning, as well as in its accommodation of human needs and sensibilities. (It is profoundly "user friendly" on all levels.)

The other projects, including the one by Think, could be plopped down in virtually any large city with minor changes, if any. By contrast, Mr. Libeskind's design is deeply rooted in the site, literally drawn up out of the bedrock of Manhattan and grown from the particular street grid and other features of this now-historic place, including the footprints of its lost buildings. It encompasses the surrounding historical complex of architecture and urban life that is Lower Manhattan, including its infrastructure, especially the transportation system. It is inconceivable for any other site.

At the core, in Mr. Libeskind's words, "The memorial site exposes ground zero all the way down to the bedrock foundations revealing the heroic foundations of democracy for all to see."

Gathered around this heroic core of Mr. Libeskind's Memory Eternal Foundations and, hovering above them, the Edge of Hope Museum are a multitude of variously shaped, angled and sized new buildings.

Together with the adjacent World Financial Center, these structures form a virtual circle. This circle is underscored by the arc of the Memorial Walk floating out over West Street, which with other features provides what Mr. Libeskind calls a "protective filter and open access to hallowed ground." This wheel of structures also spirals vigorously upward, to a single 1,776-foot slender spire, which contains office spaces in its lower 75 stories and, in its upper reaches, a sky-garden — "the Vertical Garden of the World, Healing, Blooming and Visible in the Sky . . . Life's Victorious Skyline," in the words of the proposal.

Simultaneously this ring of buildings radiates centrifugally into the city, merging seamlessly into the surrounding urban environment, whose varied complexity of form and size Mr. Libeskind's buildings mirror.

Hinged at the very center of the site are twin triangular street-level plaza-parks — the Wedge of Light (attuned to catch sunlight every year on the morning of Sept. 11) and the Heroes' Park. These mirroring public places are filled with greenery and variously surrounded by cultural and commercial spaces. They also serve as major entrances to the whole site, and as such they join mourning and remembrance with a powerful affirmation of the forces of life and renewal, a leitmotif of the entire scheme. In all respects it is a dignified and moving response to tragedy and also a project that in its plazas, concourses, cultural and commercial spaces is energetically engaged in the dynamic urban rhythm that is distinctive to New York City.

Mr. Libeskind's project also asserts its own presence in the city. From a distance it is seen rising to its great slender, garden-filled spire above the aggregate massing of Lower Manhattan. Thereby the gaping wound in the skyline of Lower Manhattan is healed and the skyline restored; the city recovers a vital part of its architectural identity through the same structures that shape a vital new urban world around ground zero. Even the critical connection with New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty is renewed, as the particular shape of Mr. Libeskind's spire repeats the lines of Liberty's upraised arm and torch; in fact, the silhouette of the entire tower seems to retrace in the sky the contours of the entire statue.

The Libeskind project for Lower Manhattan is a miracle of creativity, intelligence, skill and cutting-edge architectural thought; it looks to the future of architecture, just as Think remains mired in its past. It is the work of a great architect at the height of his powers, for a city at the height — or depth — of its architectural need. Realistically buildable in stages and open to modification, it offers an inspired, comprehensive, integrated yet amazingly functional, flexible and practical solution to virtually every challenge that the site poses. It is worthy of New York, worthy of America, and worthy of our 3,000 innocent victims and fallen heroes. And, above all, it reminds us what it means to be human in a city.  

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