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Lane Brooks

Lane Brooks
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December 01
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Lane Brooks is a creative type who has written for House & Garden, Time Out New York, Details, and Food and Wine. He longs for a world where everything is beautiful and interesting.

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FEBRUARY 15, 2010 5:26PM

The Architecture of Politics at Ground Zero

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I wrote this blog because, frankly, I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening with the architecture at ground zero. So I purchased and just finished reading “UP FROM ZERO: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York” by Paul Goldberger (the architecture critic for The New Yorker) and "Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero" by Philip Nobel (a writer who was trained as an architect). I’ve also scanned articles from The New York Times. I thought I’d share my interesting findings with you.

So, I don’t know about you, but when the architecture and planning of the 16 acres around ground zero—probably the most significant architecture, memorial, transportation and urban planning project in our lifetime and possibly this millennia—divulged into business-as-usual New York City real estate style in mid-2004-ish, I tuned out of the process (and there were the wars and all). Many of us said, “Se la vie.” It was much too painful to watch.

I vividly remember the exhilaration of the unveiling of the site planning finalists in 2002. Do you? I lived on 14th & 5th Avenue from 1998 to 2005 and went to the viewing. It was entirely thrilling. One could see the thoughtful detail, planning and preparation all of the world-class architectural firms put into their designs. Were they perfect? No. Could they have been more ambitious? Sure. But from an awful awful tragedy, we were going to create beauty, solve age-old problems, address new ones and create a new way and hope for the future. We were. It was going to happen. Everyone was coming together in extraordinary ways… like we should. Something happened.
 
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The finalists and their presentations »

On July 20, 2002 More than 4,000 people attended the ''Listening to the City'' town hall meeting at the Jacob Javits Center, and their appraisals, combined with repeated vows by officials overseeing the rebuilding to take into account the views of the group, appeared to leave the people in charge of the effort with few options but to consider new alternatives.

July 21, 2002 New York Times - Visions of Ground Zero: The Public; Officials Rethink Building Proposals For Ground Zero

It was Daniel Libeskind who said, “Architecture is the art of compromise," on the day in February 2003 when it was announced that his plan had been selected as the master blueprint for the World Trade Center site. Wow. What foreshadowing. Truer words about rebuilding ground zero could not have been uttered. From the start, as Philip Nobel's book makes clear, the efforts to design a fate for those 16 acres were rife by different constituencies' very different needs and desires, by the need to memorialize the dead and the need to revitalize Lower Manhattan, by the clash between idealism and practicality, art and commerce, visionary hopes and raw political expedience.
 
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September 13, 2003 New York Times – Daniel Libebeskind is chosen:

The hardest realities were clear from the start: the land was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but the destroyed buildings had been leased a few weeks before Sept. 11 to a real estate man named Larry Silverstein. Each had more power over the future of the site than the mayor of New York. Each was more important than the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (L.M.D.C.), formed in November 2001 by Gov. George Pataki and Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor, to oversee the project. Those Republican politicians chose as chairman of the development corporation a Republican elder statesman named John Whitehead. ''The L.M.D.C. was intended not to replace the Port Authority, Silverstein and the city, but to work with them,'' Paul Goldberger writes in his book. And early on, Whitehead showed that some problems could be eased or managed by common sense and impeccable manners. It seems like they could not be solved.

It’s interesting – Nobel, in his book, argues that New York City at the hinge of the millennium was "a great machine for the pursuit of happiness" and was "particularly unprepared" for what would happen on Sept. 11. He adds that the architectural world was similarly ill-equipped for grappling with the aftermath of that day: "In response to the tragedy, in an attempt to defy it, they were asked to do something they no longer knew how to do: make buildings speak, give them meaning, create symbols for a culture with no common code."

Perhaps. I can’t confirm or deny; however, it seems that he’s on to something and it’s not just the architecture part. We’ve all heard the tale of how it took 1 year and 45 days to construct the Empire State Building. How was that possible?

Back to the 16 acres at ground zero: as Goldberger tells the tale, the contending parties did not easily budge. Silverstein demanded a speedy rebuilding, with his own handpicked architects in charge. On a simple financial level, this was understandable. He was paying $10 million a month to the Port Authority, even while smoke was still rising from the ruins -- and while he was waging a bitter struggle with his insurance companies to get the money needed for the work. Meanwhile, the Port Authority offered few concessions, unable to cede its old autocratic powers.

Governor Pataki, the third major player at this early stage (with great power over the Port Authority), was running for re-election in November 2002. His public utterances had one common thread: offend nobody. He was sensitive to the desires of the families of the dead. He was polite with the new Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who was insisting on an important say. To the general public, he was optimistic in a blurry way. But concrete plans were being discussed too, often behind closed doors. Goldberger was among those who hoped that Lower Manhattan, a thriving new residential neighborhood before the fanatics struck, could be made ''better still.''

''That did not happen,'' he writes, ''in large part because the person with the most power in the planning process, Governor Pataki, did not choose to step in at the beginning and wipe the slate clean so that planning could truly have started from zero, not from the point at which the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein wanted it to start.'' Goldberger acknowledges that such a swift, decisive use of political power would not have been easy. But then, Sept. 11 was itself unprecedented: ''After all that happened in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the destruction of the most powerful symbol of the American skyline, it is hard to believe that the public would have objected to a decision to take over these 16 acres of land for public purpose, and to use public funds to purchase the land from the Port Authority or to buy out Silverstein's lease.'' Pataki was re-elected in November, and ''became more assertive,'' but by the fall of 2002 it was too late for radical rethinking of the future of the site, or the larger neighborhood.

This is, after all, a great point. Who cares about Larry Silverstein? I understand about moral hazard and precedent and all of that; however, this was September 11th. He had signed the lease just a few weeks prior to the attacks. The project was hijacked, in my opinion, by the need for commercial office space and the need for rental volume Silverstein insisted on being included since he was the leaseholder. And, the New Jersey and New York Port Authorities are culpable here too. Architects and residents are not really shaping ground zero; politicians and real estate tycoons are.

In 2005 the New York City Police Department chimed in. It’s unclear to me if they were asked to comment or they insisted. They had a problem with Freedom Tower being located so close to West St. It was thought a car or truck bomb could more easily breach security. The NYPD made several recommendations.

Soon after the new security requirements were announced, it became clear that the entire building would have to be redesigned. That could have been seen as a last chance to repair what had become a confused master plan, one that had little connection, except in the minds of Mr. Libeskind and Governor Pataki, to the original. Instead, the quality of the master plan was sacrificed to the governor's insistence on preserving hollow symbolic gestures.

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A Tower of Impregnability, the Sort Politicians Love - June 30, 2005 - NYT

British Architect picked for Tower at Ground Zero - May 3, 2006 - NYT

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it "a monument to a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness… an impregnable tower braced against the outside world." From a distance, he said, it resembled "a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on the top."

Obviously, I’m not happy about the process and upset about the huge potential that has been lost, in my opinion, that could have been realized with really ground-breaking architecture and urban planning. However, for all of us who care about this city it seems this generation could have dug deeper and gotten it right.

I’m going to withhold ultimate judgment on the final outcome of the site’s architecture until it’s all up though. If you didn’t catch it in the articles, THINK Design came in 2nd. I wonder how that would have gone (you can see their presentation at the beginning of this post – Pataki didn’t like their attitude).

More info—Santiago Calatrava’s transportation hub design at ground zero:
 
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Post-9/11 Realities Warp a Soaring Design – May 10, 2009 - NYT

Frank Gehry Selected as Architect of Ground Zero Theater Center - October 13, 2004 – NYT

Freedom Tower Facts:

  • Freedom Tower – It’s official name is One World Trade Center -- alone will cost at least $3.1 billion, with the money coming from the state, the Port Authority and insurance on the old Trade Center.
  • Freedom Tower will contain 2.6 million square feet, including space for offices (floors 20 to 90) and an observation deck and restaurant (top floors 101 and 102). So far, two government agencies — the federal General Services Administration and the state Office of General Services — together have promised to lease more than 1 million square feet. A Chinese firm has signed up for another 190,000.
  • The Freedom Tower will be the nation's tallest building, displacing Chicago's Sears Tower, which took the world title from the World Trade Center towers in 1973 and was itself dethroned by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia a quarter-century later.
  • Last month, a forecast prepared for the Port Authority said the Freedom Tower would not be fully leased until 2019.
 

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Tomorrow we will mark 11 years since the tragic event and I'm sure that although the authorities will plan a huge event there will be a lot of people that will still condemn those who should have protected their loved ones.

Chad - Webfusion.