New York’s Vast Flop

A rendering of the new World Trade Center buildings in Lower Manhattan, with the reflecting pools of the National September 11 Memorial in the foreground. Three of the buildings have been completed, including One World Trade Center (far left).
DBOX/Little, Brown and Company
A rendering of the new World Trade Center buildings in Lower Manhattan, with the reflecting pools of the National September 11 Memorial in the foreground. Three of the buildings have been completed, including One World Trade Center (far left).

1.

No urban design project in modern American experience has aroused such high expectations and intense scrutiny as the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York City. It has taken fifteen years since the terrorist assault of September 11, 2001, for the principal structures of this sixteen-acre parcel in Lower Manhattan to be completed. In a field where time is money in a very direct sense (because of interest payments on the vast sums borrowed to finance big construction schemes), such a long gestation period usually signifies not judicious deliberation on the part of planners, developers, designers, engineers, and contractors, but rather economic, political, or bureaucratic problems that can impede a speedy and cost-efficient conclusion.

For example, in contrast to this slow-motion rollout, it took less than a decade to erect the Associated Architects’ twenty-two-acre, fourteen-building Rockefeller Center of 1930–1939, accomplished without benefit of the countless technological advances devised since then. That swiftness was owed in part to the project being underwritten by the richest family in America during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce and both designers and laborers were grateful for work, but it was a logistical triumph nonetheless. With Ground Zero (the popular name for the site that emerged in the attack’s immediate aftermath), the lengthy delay reflected the project’s divided and ambiguous leadership as well as the political tenor of the times.

Who was really in charge of the undertaking remained a persistent and vexing question. As the latest studies make abundantly clear, the transformation of the World Trade Center site was hampered to a shameful degree by the intransigent self-interest of both individuals and institutions. As a result, an effort ostensibly meant to display our country’s unified spirit in response to an unprecedented calamity instead revealed that communal altruism of the sort that helped America to survive the Great Depression and triumph in World War II had largely become a thing of the past. Although all major construction schemes face tremendous problems, the World Trade Center rebuilding encapsulates everything that is wrong with urban development in a period when, as in so many other aspects of our public life, the good of the many is sacrificed to the gain of the few.

The actual and emotional centerpiece of the new grouping is the magnificent National September 11 Memorial, the hypnotic pair of reflecting pools recording the names…


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