Slow Glow

The WTC design finalists need staying power over flash.

At Ground Zero, we’ve gone from Who’s Who to Who’s That?

That was the most compelling storyline to emerge from a press conference this morning unveiling the eight teams of finalists for the memorial at Ground Zero. In contrast to the group of architects charged with rebuilding the site—a group that is becoming increasingly top-heavy with design-world star power, from Daniel Libeskind to David Childs to Santiago Calatrava to Norman Foster—the 16 members of the memorial teams offer a picture of youth and anonymity. Unless you work in the design world in one capacity or another, chances are you’ve never heard of any of them.

In a rebuilding process that has lately been marked more by power plays than by inspiration, this strikes me as a very good thing. Of course, youth may not, on its own, be enough to ensure that the process moves back toward purer motives and more intelligent design choices. But it may give a shot in the arm to potential reformers roaming the halls of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the Port Authority, and the New York mayor’s and governor’s offices.

None of the finalists may be as young as Maya Lin was—21—when she won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1979. But quite a few are apparently still in their 20s—green enough that internships, undergraduate degrees, and summer trips abroad to study in Italy or England still feature prominently in their bios. The key question now is whether any of them will prove to possess the sense of graceful, beyond-her-years wisdom that Lin showed back then.

All the designers who entered the competition—there were more than 5,200 in total, from 63 countries—were given pretty strict guidelines to follow. They had to confine their memorial designs to a 4.7-acre parcel of the Ground Zero site that includes the footprints of the Twin Towers. They had to include a spot to mark unidentified remains.

And they had to work within the master plan devised by Libeskind (and others). Most annoyingly, they had to work underneath the hulking building—one of several slated to hold cultural facilities—that extends out over the footprint of the north tower. The compromise that put the shell there keeps the north footprint untouched, in the strictest and most literal definition of the word, but steals its air rights. (The south footprint is similarly, but much less extensively, covered.)

In the end, one of the more important byproducts of the presentations this morning may be public disappointment, if not some stronger emotion, at the realization that the north footprint is due to be enclosed and shadowed in this way. At least two of the finalists, to their credit, have suggested that the buildings clogging that area be moved to a different part of the site, and perhaps the LMDC and the Port Authority will see how much that kind of a switch opens up and improves Ground Zero as a whole. But don’t hold your breath.

Votives in Suspension

On a purely emotional level, the most striking scheme is the one that was presented first this morning: Votives in Suspension, by Norman Lee and Michael Lewis, two exhibition designers from Houston. I found their design, whose centerpiece is a room filled with hanging votives, each representing one of the 9/11 victims, powerful on first viewing; but already, even as I write these words three hours after the press conference finished, its charms seem to be fading. In the end, I think the votive motif may strike many people as too easily poetic.

Passages of Light:Memorial Cloud

As far as visuals go, the coolest design is, without much doubt, the project by Gisela Baurmann, Sawad Brooks, and Jonas Coersmeier, all three of whom live in New York. The central focus of their design is something called the Memorial Cloud, a field of tubes that is flat and see-through on the top, at street level, and has an undulating ceiling, one whose shapes recall church architecture, when seen from underneath. The tubes are lit dramatically from below: one beam for each victim. While many of the other designs in the final group of eight have moments of quiet, minimalist power, the Memorial Cloud is easily the most exciting in terms of form and profile.

Which may be a reason, in the end, to distrust it a little bit. We live in an age of remarkably sophisticated design and presentation tools, ones that can turn workaday architectural schemes into jaw-dropping digital imagery or computer animations. We expect that design images will thrill us, or move us, as soon as we encounter them.

This is a dangerous way to judge architecture, but it’s an even more dangerous way to think about memorials. The landmarks of the genre, like Lin’s veterans’ memorial, reveal their power slowly; they relate deeply to the site and to the idea of remembrance in ways that may not be immediately apparent in a couple of renderings. The materials that the LMDC e-mailed out this morning contained relatively few plans and elevations and were instead heavy on dazzling imagery. And the renderings included one extra-sexy “signature” image per team. All of us will need time to look closely at the designs in as much of a contemplative state as we can muster; otherwise we risk choosing a memorial with style over one with staying power.

All of which is a long way of saying, watch this space.