Living With Our Mistake

Is New York about to choose the wrong proposal for rebuilding the World Trade Center?

Daniel Libeskind’s maudlin poetry

Three weeks ago, after the seven contenders to rebuild the World Trade Center site had been trimmed to two, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote a piece that raised hackles all over town. Tearing into the Ground Zero scheme by Berlin-based Daniel Libeskind, he called it “astonishingly tasteless” and “emotionally manipulative.” He also said it smacked of both “nostalgia” and “kitsch”—loaded words that Muschamp reserves for his most disdainful assessments.

Weirdly enough, Muschamp had, until then, been among the most vocal supporters of Libeskind and his proposal. When the seven WTC designs were originally unveiled in December, the critic raved, “If you’re looking for the marvelous, here’s where you’ll find it. Daniel Libeskind’s project attains a perfect balance between aggression and desire.” And in October, Muschamp had written of Libeskind, “It is hard to imagine how the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation could have elevated the planning process higher than by inviting this prodigiously gifted architect to take part.”

It seemed a strangely cold-blooded turnaround—closer to a double-cross than a natural change of heart, and some attributed it to Muschamp’s desire for Libeskind’s rival, the Think Group, to win. In response, a staffer in Libeskind’s office, operating apparently without his boss’s knowledge, dashed off an angry and slightly incoherent e-mail that was quickly forwarded from editors to architects to other critics. The message called Muschamp’s critique “vicious” and “close to liabelous” [sic] and included four sample letters that supporters could send to the Times in an effort to get him fired. “He is just not reliable anymore,” one read. “Please get rid of this guy.” On the Web site for Metropolis magazine, Martin Pedersen, registering an increasingly common opinion, wrote that Muschamp’s “appalling dishonesty” was enough to justify his immediate dismissal as the paper’s chief architecture critic. Muschamp, meanwhile, appears to be enjoying the uproar. “I like conflict,” he told the New York Observer. “I don’t really care what people think of me.”

Whatever you make of it, the controversy has obscured an important fact: While Muschamp certainly chose needlessly, almost bizarrely harsh language to make his point, he happens to be right about the fundamental liabilities of Libeskind’s scheme. And, since it appears that the scheme is going to be chosen this week as the sole survivor of the bizarre architectural competition over the future of World Trade Center, it’s worth it to put the gossipy stuff aside and explore why.

Like Muschamp and many other critics, when I first saw a model of the Libeskind scheme at the World Financial Center I felt in it an emotional power that was lacking in the other schemes, which, despite moments of architectural inspiration, tended to be rather cold, even tactical, on the whole. Libeskind’s proposal, on the other hand, succeeded as a coherent, artistic whole: It suggested leaving the WTC pit as an unfinished hole in the ground contained by rough-hewn slurry walls, around which would grow a new crop of translucent towers, including a sharply peaked tower with sky gardens on its upper floors. Of all the plans, it alone seemed to achieve a remarkable balance between mourning and our desire to reach back into the sky.

Muschamp himself has identified the proposal’s “graphically powerful first impression.” But with the benefit of distance, he has begun to take a more jaundiced look at Libeskind’s uncanny talent for tapping into emotions like grief and our bewilderment at the range of human cruelty. Libeskind’s recent success is directly traceable to his mining of this talent: I can’t think of a single Libeskind design that doesn’t exploit it to one degree or another. In a building like his best-known finished work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, these responses seem entirely appropriate to the task. But in a process involving a good deal of salesmanship, as the World Trade Center dog-and-pony show has, these talents are capable of looking suspect, even tawdry. Muschamp is certainly not the only critic to have noted this. In a recent NewRepublic essay, Martin Filler labeled Libeskind “an entrepreneur of commemoration.” (It didn’t help that the architect has become an aggressive self-promoter, hawking himself and his scheme more flagrantly than any other WTC finalist.)

But what’s really happened is that the passing of time has offered the chance to imagine how the various schemes first unveiled months ago might strike us in 2013 or 2053, rather than 2003. And in that test, Libeskind’s doesn’t fare so well, as Muschamp suggested when he wrote, “Had the competition been intended to capture the fractured state of shock felt soon after 9/11, this plan would probably deserve first place. But why, after all, should a large piece of Manhattan be permanently dedicated to an artistic representation of enemy assault?”

Like much of Muschamp’s piece, those sentences, especially the second, overstate the case. But they make an important point about the maudlin poetry of Libeskind’s architecture. The ruling above-ground gesture of Libeskind’s plan, seen especially in the towers that would ring the site, is that of the shard, the sharp fragment unleashed by shattering or explosion. Combined with the idea of keeping the pit as open as a fresh wound, the shards seem to aestheticize the violence of Sept. 11. And the further we get from that day, the more misguided it seems to fix the site’s violent history in glass and steel.