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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?”

Though cities in Europe and Japan would look quite different if places where thousands of innocent civilians died in World War II had been left vacant as memorials, the unprecedented nature of such carnage in the United States has made opposition to the families seem not merely insensitive but politically suicidal. The bereaved of 9/11 were effective in prompting the federal government’s official report on the attacks and an overhaul of the nation’s intelligence agencies, yet they could not keep Ground Zero inviolate, as many of them demanded.

The bizarrely fluctuating pace of the World Trade Center redevelopment timetable—which accelerated and slowed with little apparent outward logic—had much to do with behind-the-scenes manipulations by Pataki and his functionaries, who dominated both the Port Authority and the LMDC. The temporizing of some Pataki appointees was intended to minimize the effects that architectural decisions might have had on his 2002 reelection prospects. The governor—who like George W. Bush was outshone in the days after 9/11 by “America’s Mayor,” Giuliani—wanted to be seen as moving ahead with the reconstruction, but not too fast, in case opposition to any part of it became a political liability. Thus, hurry-up-and- wait longueurs were followed by impossibly tight deadlines. This erratic rhythm resulted in inferior design and planning solutions that might not have been accepted had there been more time for thoughtful deliberation.

Pataki’s race for his third term as governor was not his only political concern, of course. The 2004 Republican National Convention was scheduled to be held in New York less than two weeks before the third anniversary of 9/11, and Pataki wanted the cornerstone of the central Ground Zero skyscraper, which he dubbed the Freedom Tower, to be laid by that date. Silverstein caused a furor when he blurted out—whether knowledgeably or not—that the ceremony was to be held during the convention itself; he had to retract his remark, and the consecration was carried out earlier that summer to avoid charges that it was being exploited for partisan purposes.

3.

The most vivid personality to emerge from the saga of rebuilding Ground Zero has been Daniel Libeskind. His premature (but calculatingly timed) autobiography, Breaking Ground, has the potential to become for architecture buffs what Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel’s 1958 memoir, And the Bridge Is Love, is for music lovers—an enduring camp classic. Despite their very different life stories, the respective authors share an unmitigated self-regard coupled with an equal lack of self-awareness. Although that combination of personality traits is not uncommon (among architects as much as artistic adventuresses), it is rare for a book so transparently an exercise in spin control to have the exact opposite of its intended effect.

Libeskind’s narcissistic belief that his force of personal will in itself can overcome any obstacle leaps from almost every page of his life story. The disjointed narrative—it is hard to believe he collaborated with a professional writer—lurches back and forth with disorienting speed. We zoom unsequentially from Lodz, where he was born in 1946, the son of Polish Jewish parents who survived Hitler and then Stalin’s gulag; to his family’s years in Israel and his success as a musical prodigy; to New York and his life there as a teenager and architecture student; to Berlin and to its Jewish Museum, which brought him international recognition when he was over fifty; and back to New York for his latest, least edifying struggle.

Though Libeskind writes with what may seem to be a heedless, openhearted candor, it is instructive to read his self-serving account side by side with Nobel’s gossipy yet credible versions of some of the same incidents. The architect’s wife, Nina, who acts as his public relations director, business manager, and all-purpose adviser, is known in architectural circles as a formidable character and a major agent of her husband’s advancement, which he gratefully acknowledges several times in his repetitive text. There can be little doubt that the couple’s unflagging persistence carried the day for them in Berlin, where they simply refused to accept what seemed like certain defeat for his Jewish Museum at several points during its troubled, decade-long gestation.

The Libeskinds’ victory in the German capital seems to have made them overconfident about the challenges they were to face in New York. In Berlin, they claimed the moral high ground and influenced public opinion so effectively that after reunification, when the overextended German government was slashing cultural budgets, the Jewish Museum proceeded because it would have been perceived as a national disgrace had that symbol of contrition been further delayed or canceled.

There was no such card to play in New York, where the Libeskinds encountered a nemesis whose political instincts and tenacity far outstripped even theirs—David Childs, design principal of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Childs, a cool strategist who has a history of changing styles when useful to his advancement, brings to mind the successful conformist architect Peter Keating in The Fountainhead. The Libeskinds’ no-holds-barred tactics, recounted with harrowing humor by Nobel, are more reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde.

Libeskind, trying to put the best face on the humiliating usurpation of his publicly ordained role by Childs, clung, until the publication of his new book, to the fictive position that he was still actively involved in shaping the Freedom Tower. In truth, it was he who had overstepped the guidelines of the LMDC’s Innovative Design Study in the first place. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so an architect is irresistibly drawn to an attractive absence. Because the brief was so ill-defined, the more enterprising of the competitors in the corporation’s hurriedly arranged study took it upon themselves to fill in the most conspicuous blanks.

One contestant who followed the letter of the guidelines and presented a plan that looked unresolved in contrast to the others—Roger Duffy, who headed a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team working independently of Childs—came to regret his timidity, and withdrew before the winner was chosen. (Duffy may also have been pressured to do so within his firm in order not to conflict with Childs’s ongoing relationship with Silverstein.) The several architects who exceeded the brief’s vague guidelines may have pretended that theirs were mere suggestions rather than full-fledged proposals. But the public took them at face value, and the designs settled in the general imagination as the choices from which a final plan would be chosen, thereby forcing the LMDC’s hand.

A memorial was no more a part of the Innovative Design Study brief than a fully detailed skyscraper. Yet in his master plan, Libeskind decreed a de facto shrine by exposing the towers’ monumental foundation walls, a theatrical gesture that would have made anything added there, beyond a place for inscribing the names of the dead, seem superfluous. This suggestion struck the expected chord with the bereaved, whose rallying cry for leaving the footprints sacrosanct thereafter became “From bedrock to infinity.”

Pataki showed a preference for Libeskind’s scheme from the outset, intuiting that it would best fulfill the families’ desire for an emotionally resounding memorial. The governor went so far as to overrule the LMDC’s selection of THINK—an ad hoc team including the architects Rafael Viñoly, Shigeru Ban, and Frederic Schwartz—and name Libeskind in their place. (It did not help THINK’s chances that on the morning the decision was to be made, The Wall Street Journal ran a story saying that Viñoly, before moving to New York, worked in his native Argentina, where he designed a soccer stadium and other buildings for the country’s military junta during the 1970s (although the Journal commented, “No one has suggested the architect supported the junta’s politics…”).2

The THINK design showed a pair of airy latticework cylinders that would have risen over the twin towers’ footprints and incorporated various components of a World Cultural Center. Commercial development would have been pushed to the periphery of the site. Pataki characterized the design in the same freighted terms the Libeskinds used to denounce it. “Those towers look like death to me,” the governor told Roland Betts of the LMDC. “There’s no goddamn way I’m going to build those skeletons!” Thereafter, Pataki supported Libeskind until the troublesome architect was at last reckoned a superfluous irritant who could only impede the smooth resolution of the project, and was quietly replaced by the more solicitous Childs.

4.

The sixty-three-year-old Childs is an opaque, paradoxical figure, and a clear portrait of him fails to emerge from any of the recent books, although he was interviewed at length by both Goldberger and Nobel, and he is extensively quoted, disparagingly, by Libeskind. Childs’s contradictory craving for establishment recognition and artistic credibility most closely resembles the career path pursued by the late Philip Johnson, though the taciturn Childs lacks Johnson’s mercurial charm and social acumen. As Johnson did, he wants to have things both ways, as their mutual friend Peter Eisenman told Andy Geller of the New York Post:

[Childs] is tormented about being his own signature self and being in a big corporate firm. He has aspirations to be a great architect, but they are limited by a lack of capacity to say what he wants to do. He’s a Hamlet-like figure. On the one hand he says, “I’ve got to get out.” On the other hand he says, “What about all the years I’ve put in?” [SOM] is very powerful and very strong. He’d lose that backing.

A more obvious impediment to Childs’s “aspirations to be a great architect” is the fact that he is a dreadful designer. As with Johnson, his ambivalent position has nonetheless provided him ample opportunity to build on a grand scale. Two of Childs’s previous Manhattan skyscrapers—the postmodern Worldwide Plaza of 1986– 1989 on Eighth Avenue in midtown and the neo-moderne Time Warner Building of 2000–2004 on Columbus Circle—are among the worst blights on the city’s skyline in recent decades. Some of us who subscribe to an auteur theory of architecture—believing there are some architects whose every building is worthy of serious consideration regardless of their occasional failures, whereas others seem incapable of creating anything of lasting distinction—are inclined to place Childs in the second category.

That judgment was not altered by the unveiling, at the end of 2003, of Childs’s synthetic revision of the Freedom Tower, for which Libeskind is tortuously credited as “collaborating architect during concept and schematic design phases.” All that remained of Libeskind’s original vision—an asymmetrical, crystalline shaft meant to echo the Statue of Liberty—were a vestigial evocation of its needlelike, off-center spire and its 1,776-foot height (a figure that Nina Libeskind came up with as a patriotic selling point).

Childs, seeking the sex appeal that his stolid first version lacked, called in the structural engineer Guy Nordenson, who suggested a torqued effect to give the tapered shaft more sculptural interest. But it was all mere styling. The most unsatisfactory of the scheme’s elements is its insubstantial uppermost portion. Even the irrepressible Silverstein admits he will have trouble renting space there at heights above fifty-eight floors. Tenant reluctance would be understandable, especially if prospective lessees recall that the September 11 attack was the second deadly assault on the twin towers and that a plot against their replacement is not unlikely. Thus the building will be surmounted by a scaffold-like superstructure (one quarter of the total height) supporting the fiction that the site will once again hold the tallest building in the world.

Soon after Silverstein signed his ninety-nine-year lease—six weeks before September 11, 2001—Childs began preparing renovation plans for the three-decade-old twin towers. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the architect consulted with his new client and got the contract to rebuild the smaller 7 World Trade Center building, also destroyed on the fatal day. While “goo-goos” (urban planning slang for high-minded “good government” advocates, deriving from “goody-goodies”) were conspiring to foist a first-rate architect on the aesthetically indifferent developer, Childs was secretly preparing an alternative design that Silverstein intended to offer in place of any officially sanctioned scheme that did not meet his demanding profit projections.

The LMDC hoped a compromise could satisfy the developer as well as comply with Libeskind’s master plan: it wanted to compel Childs and Libeskind to collaborate on a hybrid that would meld their individual schemes. But this ploy soon unraveled. According to Libeskind, his protests about being shunted aside caused Childs to tell him, “That agreement means nothing to me. My client is not the LMDC or the people of New York. It’s Larry [Silverstein] who’s calling the shots.” When an LMDC official explained to Childs that “the Libeskinds are afraid of being chewed up by the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill machine,” he responded, with all the sincerity of Br’er Rabbit, “Well, I’m afraid of being chewed up by the Libeskind machine.”

In fact, neither the state nor the city of New York had sufficient funds to do what many goo-goos had fervently hoped for: a buyout of Silverstein, which would have removed the Gradgrindian developer from the scene and allowed a complete reconsideration of the scheme, freed from the profit motive. An ingenious maneuver to overcome this impasse was dreamed up by Bloomberg’s aides, who postulated that the city would take over the sixteen acres of Ground Zero, allowing Silverstein and the Port Authority to have in return the 5,610 acres that lie beneath the city’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. (The city collects ground rents from the operators of the airline terminals and other buildings at the two facilities.) Because the transaction offered no guaranteed gain to the Port Authority (an appointed, quasi-governmental body that operates outside the restraints imposed on elected officials), the admirable mayoral idea died of inaction.

What was equally feasible—given the bonds of cronyism that link several power brokers in Pataki’s orbit—would have been for the federal government to intercede on behalf of the cash-poor state and city and provide funding for some imaginative reuse of the World Trade Center site. Roland Betts of the LMDC, who had been a Yale fraternity brother of George W. Bush’s and remains close to the President, would have been the perfect point man to press that cause. For just $5 billion or so (the figure it was rumored that Silverstein would settle for, about what the US is now spending per month in Iraq), the Bush administration, never reluctant to assert linkage between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, could have commandeered a symbol at Ground Zero more powerful than a mere developer office building. We should be grateful, for the sake of future generations if not the current electorate, that the shift in patronage never occurred.

5.

Need the outcome of what once seemed such a potentially elevating endeavor have been so thoroughly disappointing? Ada Louise Huxtable’s clairvoyance notwithstanding, it certainly would have been possible for more distinguished designs to be produced had more time and thought been devoted to the master plan, the principal skyscraper, and the memorial. As the haphazard scenario unfolded, the urgency of producing, before other decisions could be made, final versions of the individual components of the World Trade Center site’s complicated infrastructure had a direct bearing on what will be built.

For example, one aspect of Libeskind’s ensemble that captured many people’s imagination was the “Wedge of Light,” his architectural framing of the sun, which he alleged would illuminate the heart of the complex every September 11, at the very hour of the 2001 attack, like some latter-day Stonehenge. A rival architect soon debunked this romantic claim as impossible, given the height of surrounding structures. But the sensible positioning of Calatrava’s transportation hub to link it with the PATH commuter railway’s temporary World Trade Center station will seal off the site’s eastward prospect irrevocably.

Many observers bemoaned the project’s lack of a strong leader along the lines of Robert Moses, New York’s autocratic mid-twentieth-century urban planning chief. Pataki could have assumed that commanding role, when we consider how astutely he took over control of every aspect of the Ground Zero decision-making process. (Three businessmen directly involved in the rebuilding of Ground Zero were among the biggest donors to his campaign for governor in 2004.3 ) He preferred a hidden-hand approach that now seems less craftily Machiavellian than crassly expedient. The governor was clearly more concerned with his second bid for reelection (which was never seriously in doubt in any case) and his political future in the Republican Party than in striving for a proud architectural legacy.

Nobel’s close reading of Silverstein’s 580-page lease with the Port Authority suggests that the developer’s impetus to rebuild on such a massive scale was not dictated by the document, as Silverstein has maintained. The lease’s ambiguous wording might have allowed interpretations other than the one the developer chose to accept. As the author points out, the usual practice after catastrophic disasters is for insurer and insured to agree on some kind of mutual compensation and the negation of their contract. But as Silverstein has admitted, he was first drawn to the World Trade Center as a trophy property. Fate quickly turned it into a cynosure of international attention, in the process transforming him from a second-tier developer to the controlling power of a historic effort.

From the outset, Silverstein had insisted that the attack on the twin towers—separate buildings hit by separate airplanes—was not a single occurrence (the term used by the insurance industry) but two distinct events and losses. He had insured his newly acquired leasehold for $3.55 billion, and although his insurers had agreed to reimburse him for that amount—more than enough to proceed with the Freedom Tower, estimated at $1.5 billion—it was not enough for the redevelopment of the entire site. Silverstein’s lawsuit, which sought $7 billion, dragged through the courts, and few analysts believed he would prevail. But at the end of 2004, a federal jury awarded him an additional $1.1 billion.

Though much less than Silverstein sought, that judgment enables him to begin planning a second tower at Ground Zero. Perhaps it will be designed by one of the international stars—Norman Foster, Fumihiko Maki, and Jean Nouvel—whom he has promised to employ as further funding becomes available. It remains to be seen whether those architects will be as acquiescent to Silverstein as Childs has been.

And what of all that new office space at Ground Zero? There is no need, now or likely ever, to replace the ten million square feet of rentable space lost there, any more than there was to build them when the World Trade Center rose four decades ago. It took New York’s then governor, Nelson Rockefeller, to bail out the overreaching project’s prime mover—his brother David—by installing floor after floor of state agencies in the largely unlet towers. By September 11, 2001, the complex had attained a much higher ratio of nongovernmental tenants, but they of course have relocated elsewhere, often far from Ground Zero, and are unlikely to return. Thus Pataki has pledged a state rental subsidy of the Freedom Tower similar to the Rockefellers’, though he will be out of his present office when the building is completed, after an estimated five years of construction.

In a current television commercial promoting the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, Pataki proclaims it “the center of commerce, culture, and community.” In fact, it is none of those things. True, several institutions have announced plans to move to the old World Trade Center site. (The architects for those new buildings were chosen in September 2004 by the LMDC and the future tenants from a group of sixty competitors.) The Joyce dance theater and the Signature Theatre will occupy an arts center to be designed by Frank Gehry. The Drawing Center will move from its SoHo gallery to a new home by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, designated architects of the International Freedom Center (concerned with human rights) there as well. But none of those groups are dominant forces in New York’s artistic life, and their cumulative impact will not shift the city’s center of cultural gravity to Ground Zero. Despite calls by neighborhood residents for more housing to strengthen Lower Manhattan as a vital residential community with around-the-clock life, none is projected in the plans as they now stand. And even for the big money business, the district is not what it used to be.

The inexorable decentralization of the workplace caused by computer technology, especially in the financial services industry once concentrated in Lower Manhattan but now scattered throughout the New York metropolitan region (and all the more so since September 11), makes the Freedom Tower already seem pathetically outmoded. What could have been a thrilling demonstration of imaginative urbanism—engaging a new architecturally aware public yearning for a symbol for the ages—has, through political pettiness and personal greed, become just another schlock job. n

—January 27, 2005

  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.

  2. 2

    Jess Bravin, “Ground Zero Finalist’s Past Draws Questions,” The Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2003, p. B8.

  3. 3

    See Patrick D. Healy, “Leading Donors to Pataki PAC in 2004 Included Developers of Ground Zero,” The New York Times, January 22, 2005, p. B1.

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