Mar '04[Home]


Building at Ground Zero: Zero-Sum or The Practical in Service to the Spiritual
by Christopher A. Miller

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Construction on the 16-acre World Trade Center site of anything other than a memorial to the 3000 people murdered there inflames many New Yorkers as demeaning and disrespectful. The extreme version of this attitude was exemplified by the victimsš friends and families who protested at the site on the two-year anniversary of 9/11 that subway tunnel work, although deep below it, was tantamount to grave vandalism.

Certain business interests and politicians seem intent on building at the site for its own sake. This approach forces the attacks into the background by erecting new, taller-than-ever office towers as evidence that the city has endured and overcome its horrendous loss. The first perspective wants buildings that extend the mourning—forever, if possible. The second wants buildings that hurry us to heal and get back to work—at the risk of being profane.

Good architecture can reconcile these extremes without slide rule calculations that x percentage of memorial space will result in y loss of profits, or vice versa. Architecture is about the creation of place, and buildings and spaces for the site can be simultaneously practical and sacred. The high vaults of Notre Dame cathedral inspire awe and sanctity while also enhancing the congregation's ability to hear the choir; its magnificent flying buttresses hold up the walls. The WTC site requires a design which offers the practical in service to the spiritual.

Cities, especially European cities, are full of built spaces that acknowledge and recall the triumphs and mistakes of the past, while still allowing people to live, work, and play in the present day-to-day. Surrounded by an enormous traffic circle, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris still provides a place where people can ponder the violent bas reliefs of Revolutionary France and Napoleonšs conquests, see the eternal flame rekindled daily in honor of Francešs fallen, or pause before the French counterpart to the American Tomb of the Unknown Solider. The Arc requires neither its neighboring buildings, nor the Champs-Elysées itself to be draped in military or mourning garb. In Berlin, Norman Fosteršs designs for rebuilding the Reichstag do not emphasize the death and destruction wrought by the Nazis. Instead, literal transparency and a high degree of public accessibility work actively to ensure that a malevolent government can never seize power again in Germany. The WTC site needs this kind of architecture: thoughtful, active, and contextual.

Building nothing at the WTC site is like inviting a wound to reinfect. Building office towers and shopping malls just because we can and do will repeat the hollow, robotic spaces of the original Twin Towers. We all lose if the project is treated as a zero-sum game where we are allowed only to buy or cry. The final designs for the site should be judged, not by some morbid equation for the proper ratio of mourning to retailing, but rather, by how well they deliver accessible, vital spaces for all kinds of urban activity: reflection, entertainment, commerce, sleeping and eating, holding hands and walking.

The designs of WTC master plan architect Daniel Libeskind powerfully re-emphasize the collapse of the towers, from the headstone-like spire to the enormous hole formed by the downward spiral of the spirešs surrounding high-rises. The plan promises to have it both ways by stuffing commercial, retail, and cultural space into buildings designed to visually link every rooftop and entry plaza directly with the attack. These fluid echoes between created space and destroyed space are a work of genius.

However, the reality of Mr. Libeskind's design aesthetics is that they are rigid and unwelcoming. If the site remains over time a harsh reminder of unbearable loss, then its millions of square feet of office and residential space will be empty and inappropriate. If, instead, the city wants more business space, then the slashes and stabs of the designs will interrupt the flow of can-do American capitalism. To his credit, Libeskind has quickly realized this and is trying to lead the project to the point where the site's architecture is perceived in other than either-or terms.

A brand-name architect accustomed to having his projects built precisely as he envisions them or not at all, Mr. Libeskind is discovering that the WTC site is a space that cannot be filled with architecture-as-sculpture, no matter how beautiful and clever. The needs of site and city—emotional, physical, financial, and largely undefinable—rather than his personal vision, will decide what is eventually built and, just as importantly, not built. New York City is a living, breathing place, with guts, lungs, brains, veins, and heart, and the WTC site is a wounded vital organ. His task is to heal it.

Mr. Libeskind is very capable of delivering functional, sensitive, meaningful architecture, and has shown himself willing to set aside his design derring-do to accomplish just that. He has moved his firm to New York from Berlin to be more of a hands-on project architect and allied himself with the extremely capable and talented urban architect David Childs. (Others visit a site once or twice and then drop their plans, as from a cloud, onto the hard hats of local avatars.) He has already presented a first draft of a revised master plan and agreed to re-design his tower-and-spire combo to better meet the physical constraints of the site. Now he must show how his architecture can directly overlap, connect, and fuse the contradictions of the site.

A frequent contributor, Christopher A. Miller writes on architecture for this and other publications. His article on the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia appears in the Sep 03 issue. He has also contributed poems to the 12 section.