Windows on the Void

Why seven new designs are merely fantasies.

An immigrant’s vision

When it comes to the prospects and timetable for rebuilding Lower Manhattan, only one observation seems appropriate after yesterday’s unveiling of seven new architectural plans: If you’re not confused, you’re probably not paying attention.

After all, just last week, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, joint leaders of the rebuilding process, confirmed that they had accelerated their Ground Zero efforts with a master plan due at the end of January. The announcement was all about newfound focus and nose-to-the-grindstone efficiency.

But yesterday’s ceremony included suggestions from some of the most adventurous and ambitious architects in the world. Their approach was amorphous, wide-ranging, and philosophical. The first architect to appear, the Polish-born intellectual Daniel Libeskind, gave an emotional introduction, which began with the story of his arrival in New York City as an immigrant and ended with a poetic, verb-less sentence: “Life victorious!”

Twinned towers

There are strikingly common elements in the latest designs, including a new downtown hub for subways and trains and a restored street grid. In purely architectural terms, the big news was the triumph of the mega-skyscraper. Four of the seven design teams want to put the tallest building in the world at the site. Norman Foster is calling for a “twinned tower” that would rise 300 feet higher than the World Trade Center did. The group led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has devised a massive collection of towers that is nearly as wide as it is tall (and it is very tall): Their shadows may fall all the way north to Greenwich Village. This tower-heavy emphasis is sure to launch discussions on implications for the environment, for security, for New Yorkers’ psyches. But it also reflects the problematic requirements for rebuilding at Ground Zero: The LMDC has mandated that the new plans accommodate 6.5 million to 10 million square feet of office space. The only way to do so and keep any sense of openness at street level, while also leaving space for a memorial and a park, is to build high and wide into the sky. 

New York’s city planners now have an embarrassment of design riches to work with. (So have architects, architecture students, and critics, who will be analyzing these proposals for decades.) And the richness and variety of the designs would seem to mark the beginning of a public dialogue—which officials have trumpeted, of course, as an essential part of the rebuilding process. And yet the public comment period is not even six weeks long: It begins today and is set to end on or around the day that the new “master plan” is announced. Key procedural questions remain unanswered, too: Will a single scheme, as one official suggested yesterday, be picked? Or will the city agencies take the public’s favorite design elements and add them to the surface of an essentially conservative solution, for an architectural equivalent of fat tires and tricked-out detailing on a Ford Taurus? So far officials have been vague, at best, about the answers. None of this exactly suggests that planners will be giving our feedback somber and deliberate reflection.

Casting a mighty shadow over the Village

Why, in that case, dump this endlessly entertaining tangle of proposals in our laps now? The answer is that some rebuilding officials were deeply stung by reaction to the first six Ground Zero proposals, which were introduced over the summer to widespread ridicule. They wanted to appear open to fresh, inventive takes on reconstruction. But their supposed openness is just going to invite more trouble. Even if officials play it safe and hand the job to the LMDC’s consultant firm, Peterson/Littenberg—whose work looked old-fashioned and unimaginative yesterday—there are some nasty battles on the horizon. For one thing, there’s the obvious economic problem of trying to find tenants for so much new office space. And to make matters worse, Stanton Eckstut and Alexander Garvin, the two urban planners responsible for synthesizing this huge collection of designs, are said to detest each other. (Or, as the Times carefully phrased it last week, “Mr. Eckstut and Mr. Garvin have a longstanding professional rivalry.”) Forget about six weeks; six years might not be enough time to negotiate this particular urban-planning maze.

In the end, it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which a truly successful master plan—one that’s at once architecturally inventive and a good use of urban space—is produced within the allotted time. That’s the sad irony of yesterday’s unveiling: The more creative and visionary the designs look, the more chaos in the actual rebuilding process they seem to foretell.