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Filling the Hole

Breaking Ground

by Daniel Libeskind with Sarah Crichton
Riverhead, 288 pp., $27.95

1.

When the gods wish to punish us,” Oscar Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband, “they answer our prayers.” That seems to be true in architecture, whose modern history is replete with eagerly contested public commissions that have turned out to be quite the opposite of the triumphs their winners first imagined them to be. Rarely in the past century have the most memorable buildings resulted from competitions, no matter how promising their rosters of participants. The 1922 contest for a new Chicago Tribune headquarters is now best remembered for the losing entries of leading early modernist architects such as Walter Gropius, Eliel Saarinen, and Bruno Taut. Indeed, Adolf Loos’s iconic design for a tower in the form of a colossal Doric column is far more famous today than the tepid neo-Gothic pastiche by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells that was constructed.

More recently, the coveted commission for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which took thirteen years and a billion dollars to complete, has done little for the reputation of the once envied Richard Meier, whose limited powers of invention were exposed by a project of great magnitude, resources, and duration. The recent renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is another example of that phenomenon. After a widely publicized competition that included several stars of the present mid-career architectural generation—among them Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—the job went to a little-known museum specialist, Yoshio Taniguchi. A minimalist and a perfectionist, Taniguchi discovered, to his dismay, that in America, working on the mammoth scale of the new MoMA, he could not attain the lyrical delicacy of his smaller and more finely crafted buildings in Japan.

But in sheer volume of press coverage and heightened level of public expectations, no architectural commission has ever approached that of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York. Remarkably, the architects who were awarded the commissions for its focal components—Daniel Libeskind in 2003 for his “Memory Foundations” master site plan of prismatic high-rise buildings and angular plazas, and Michael Arad in 2004 for his minimalist “Reflecting Absence” memorial—have all but vanished from view.

Pictures in The New York Times wordlessly told the story of those disappearing acts. On the morning after his finish over a crowded field of more famous and prolific competitors, an exultant Libeskind appeared on the Times‘s front page, beaming amid a sea of clamoring photographers and reporters. In a profession that lately has mimicked many aspects of celebrity culture, this image represented an extraordinary conferral of star status, like one of those unheralded Metropolitan Opera debuts the newspaper of record likes to put on page one every so often. But what had Libeskind actually won? The sponsoring body, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), had insisted from the first that it was conducting not a competition but an Innovative Design Study in which participants were to follow the LMDC’s gen-eral guidelines and had to accept that their plans were subject to revisions.

The Times giveth, and the Times taketh away. The cruel illustration that accompanied an article entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Daniel Libeskind” on the front page of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section in June 2004 showed the diminutive architect silhouetted against an immense void of white space. It was a graphic confirmation of his drastically diminished role in the epochal project he once believed to be his alone.

Six months later, the paper ran a progress report on the memorial, an anodyne design that secured the commission for the unknown Arad, whose scheme has several features in common with proposals by other finalists. Those include a pair of sepulchral sunken chambers outlining the “footprints” of the twin towers, scrim-like waterfalls, and inscriptions of the names of the dead, all set within a park taking up about one quarter of the sixteen-acre Ground Zero. Arad was awarded the job only after he agreed to certain stipulations. Deemed too young and inexperienced at thirty-four to handle the prestigious task on his own, he was instructed by the LMDC to ally himself with a major landscape architect, Peter Walker, and an established architectural firm, Davis Brody Bond.

The Times update included a photo of Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg examining the latest version of the memorial, with a landscape treatment significantly different from the simpler one first suggested by Arad. The officials are shown with Walker and the new associate architect, Max Bond. Another, unidentified figure is almost completely hidden behind the governor. One can assume it is the marginalized winner, visibly missing in action. Arad, like the unlucky Libeskind, who has also been pushed aside by his appointed collaborator, might well attest to the truth of Wilde’s mordant words.

2.

Smoke had not yet stopped issuing from the wreckage of the twin towers before opportunistic architects (as well as earnest amateurs) began designing replacements. The value of capitalizing forthwith on that shared impulse was not lost on Max Protetch, a New York art and architectural drawings dealer who, within a month of the disaster, sought proposals for Ground Zero from 125 architects. Although the resulting show, which opened early in 2002, was greeted with predictable fanfare in the press, fewer than half of those invited responded. Some thought it indecently soon after the tragedy for rebuilding to be contemplated; others no doubt shunned this hypothetical exercise in expectation of being considered for the real thing, and were loath to reveal their ideas prematurely.

The fifty-eight Protetch projects (which he sold to the Library of Congress for $408,140) are depicted in Imagining Ground Zero, a richly illustrated compendium of official and nonofficial schemes accompanied by a short, sharp text by Suzanne Stephens, a writer and editor at Architectural Record. (Her introductory chapter on the history of the site is particularly cogent.) Although many of the Protetch presentations are visually arresting, all suffer from being no more than superficial images, bereft of the functional underpinnings that necessarily inform the conception and execution of any building—namely, what will it be used for and who will pay for it? It was that same lack of both a clear function and financial realism that led to the dispiriting outcome of the Ground Zero saga. Thus in its inchoate organization and hasty mounting, the Protetch exhibition can be seen as unintentionally prophetic of the creative fiasco that was about to ensue in Lower Manhattan.

But for pure prescience, no commentator came close to Ada Louise Huxtable. She remains unparalleled among her fellow architecture critics in her long experience of urban planning issues and willingness to speak frankly about the conjunction of political power, architectural ambition, and the common good. Writing less than a week after the attack, she foretold the course of events with uncanny accuracy:

[New York is] a city incapable of the large, appropriate gesture in the public interest if it costs too much….

If the usual scenario is followed, the debate will lead to a “solution” in which principle is lost and an epic opportunity squandered. With the best intentions the Municipal Art Society, a conscientious watchdog of the city’s urban quality, will announce a competition to determine what should be done with the site. The results will make a nice little exhibition, and discussions and lectures will be held. All this will be ignored by the movers and shakers making big building plans under the banner of physical and symbolic reconstruction. There will be a fuss in the press, with letters to the editor, pro and con. City Hall, in a split political decision between greed and glory, will come out for the builders and a memorial—a monument or a small park, something financially inoffensive in the larger scheme of things.1

Although Bloomberg would be deftly outflanked by Pataki—who controls both the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owns the World Trade Center site) and the LMDC, which he created to oversee the rebuilding—Huxtable was correct in her general predictions. Lip service was duly paid in public to the higher ideals of commemoration and aesthetics, giving citizens the false hope that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s initial appeal for a “soaring, beautiful memorial” would be realized. But none of the people who could have assured such a lofty result—above all the politically furtive Pataki and the site’s less-than-idealistic leaseholder, the real estate developer Larry Silverstein—seems to have had any inclination to do so if it meant endangering the economic status quo.

Sixteen Acre, Philip Nobel’s colorful, depressing account of the redevelopment process up to January 2004—when Arad won the memorial competition and Santiago Calatrava was named architect for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Port Authority fiat—covers the same ground as Paul Goldberger’s Up from Zero. Nobel’s book, though marred by faulty notions of architectural history, occasional overwriting, and an unfortunate attraction to mixed metaphors, is vastly preferable. Goldberger’s establishment-friendly attitude toward architecture has always lacked a discernible moral center. Although here he displays less of the maddening equivocation that has been his most defining characteristic as a critic, the targets he picks are most often easy ones, and unlikely to bar him from the corridors of power. Dutifully detailed but unrevealing in the way that Nobel’s book is, Up from Zero somehow makes the most dramatic architectural story of our time seem dull.

Nobel, in refreshing contrast, regards the circus-like chain of circumstances with skeptical detachment. He reports with barely contained amusement on bogus public forums of the sort Huxtable had foreseen, including a pair of “21st Century Town Meetings” organized by a nonprofit organization called AmericaSpeaks. As one disillusioned observer told him, “This is the story of a thousand people drinking Shirley Temples and smoking candy cigarettes, and they all think they’re in a back room with their Scotch and cigars.”

That misapprehension of the power of popular opinion was shared by all manner of well-meaning citizens, for not since the competition for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial two decades ago have so many people felt they have such a personal stake in a work of public architecture. Among the constituencies that sought a role at Ground Zero were local residents who wanted a return to normal neighborhood life as soon as possible and various civic groups who sought to turn the catastrophe into an opportunity for urban improvement.

Most vocal among those factions were the families of the disaster’s victims. More than half the dead left no identifiable remains, and their survivors have come to regard the World Trade Center site, and particularly the two-hundred-foot-square footprints of the twin towers, as a literal cemetery. The families have vehemently opposed any attempt to disturb those foundations, and have expressed themselves with great emotion. As one activist widow asked at an LMDC hearing, “How can we build on top of their souls that are crying?”

  1. 1

    Ada Louise Huxtable, “‘The New York Process’: Don’t Expect Anything Uplifting from the Pols and Realtors Now Pondering the WTC Site,” The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2001, p. A20.

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