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Quagmire at Ground Zero

The Parthenon viewed through the glass of the New Acropolis Museum, Athens (Nikos Danilidis/New Acropolis Museum)

The newly postponed completion dates for New York City’s beleaguered and laggard World Trade Center reconstruction project have an unexpected but telling parallel in Bernard Tschumi’s much-delayed New Acropolis Museum in Athens. When the museum finally opened this summer, few commentators noted that it was to have been completed in time for the city’s 2004 Olympics. Some blamed the lapse on Hellenic inefficiency. Santiago Calatrava’s flamboyant and technically complicated Olympic Stadium was barely ready for the games, an athletic extravaganza that burdened the Greek government with a $7 billion debt.

Yet the New Acropolis Museum’s dilatory debut had less to do with an insolvent sponsor or lackadaisical contractors than it did with ancient ruins discovered during excavation, which required archaeological assessment and prompted design revisions. The five additional years it took to finish this showcase for Greece’s portion of the Parthenon marbles anticipated the revised architectural timeline for Ground Zero, revealed soon after the Athens museum opening.

As the eighth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approached, a now familiar ritual recurred. In the August 4 New York Daily News, Douglas Feiden reported that “the July 14 ‘confidential draft…risk analysis’ by the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center (LMCCC) found that every blockbuster project at Ground Zero has fallen years behind.” Among these are the 102-story Freedom Tower, delayed another five years until 2018, and Calatrava’s birdlike Transportation Hub—which the architect drastically modified after cost estimates ballooned by some $1.1 billion to a total of $4.3 billion—which will open four years behind schedule, also in 2018.

More troubling to most Americans will be the realization that despite politicians’ repeated vows, the site’s focal September 11 Memorial will not be in place for the tenth anniversary of the disaster, but instead two years later—-if then. In mid October, the property’s leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, whose endless wrangling with the Port Authority has contributed much to the delays, suggested that even the revised dates are far too optimistic: “If you’re going the Port’s way, I think the time frame they set for completion is sometime around 2037.”

Parallels between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center began with the Cassandra-like prophecy of Ada Louise Huxtable, who within days of the September 11 catastrophe, predicted with eerie detail what a bureaucratic boondoggle this emotionally fraught and politically loaded endeavor would quickly become.

The New Acropolis Museum’s unveiling in June brought to mind the controversy that surrounded the genesis of the Parthenon itself—2,600 years earlier. This celebrated landmark superseded an earlier Acropolis temple to Athena that the Persians destroyed in 480 BC, following their victory at Thermopylae, just after the allied Greek city-states of the Delian League swore the Oath of Plataea, whereby shrines devastated by their Asiatic enemy would not be rebuilt. Instead, such ruins were meant to stand not only as memorials but as mute admonitions against civic unpreparedness. The remains of the so-called proto-Parthenon stood for three decades because of that prohibition on rebuilding, until 450 BC, when the Peace of Callias ended the Persian Wars and nullified the Greek anti-reconstruction pact. Nonetheless, Athenian traditionalists warned that to rebuild the old temple was an act of hubris, so the new sanctuary was positioned elsewhere on the Acropolis.

Few may have expected a modern Parthenon to rise from the ashes of Ground Zero, but neither did many foresee an architectural quagmire that so painfully reflects the state of our nation in the wake of September 11. Thus it was no surprise that today’s quintessential right-wing broadcasting demagogue, Glenn Beck of the Fox News Channel, inveighed against the latest World Trade Center delays in his inimitable fashion. “If it were up to you or me, just regular schmoes in America,” Beck assured his listeners,

the Freedom Tower would have been done years ago. And it wouldn’t have been the Freedom Tower, it would have been the Freedom Towers—because we would’ve built both of these towers back the way they were before! Except we would’ve built them stronger! We would’ve built them in a way that resisted attack! And you know what? My guess is they would’ve been twenty-five stories taller, with a big, fat “Come and try that again” sign on top. We would’ve built it with our bare hands if we had to, because that’s what Americans do.

Just as predictably, there has already been much blame-shifting among the agencies and officials responsible for this urban-planning debacle. What seems clear, even before more detailed accounts emerge, is that the fundamental mistake was to let this highly symbolic scheme remain in the grasp of a commercial real estate developer. Although a public buyout of Larry Silverstein was deemed beyond the resources of “wartime” government, that would have been the best way to free the site and rethink the future of Ground Zero with anything like the idealism we still see manifest atop the Acropolis.

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