Up From The Ashes
Rarely have so many had so much invested in the shape and outcome of an
architectural project. What’s next for the World Trade Center site?

By Cathleen McGuigan

    Nov. 12 issue —  In a packed midtown-Manhattan hall one evening last week,
400 architects and design buffs got together to talk about the future of the New York
City skyline. Since September 11 dozens of similar forums and meetings have
taken place all over the city, convocations of people swapping ideas about the
reconstruction of the 16 acres where the World Trade Center used to be.   

THEY TOSS AROUND NOTIONS for new buildings, memorials, parks. At last
week’s confab, which included architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and
historian Mike Wallace, some speakers argued that a skyscraper should be built
on the site again. Others expounded on the need to make the downtown
streetscape friendlier. There were few specific proposals—and surprisingly, even
fewer arguments. “It was amazing how much consensus there was,� said
one observer. Usually architects are trying to one-up each other. But since the
attacks there’s been an unprecedented outpouring of desire from designers to
be part of civic life and influence what gets built on the site. “Why can’t we
have a great public space?� asked architect Hugh Hardy. “It’s a
fantastic opportunity.â€� Williams quoted the Mexican architect Luis Barragan: â
€œThe certainty of death is the spring of action.â€�
     Yet there’s no certainty that these voices and hundreds of others from the
design community will even be a factor in deciding what’s eventually built. Late
last week New York Gov. George Pataki and the outgoing mayor, Rudolph Giuliani,
announced a new state-city corporation to oversee the redevelopment of all of
lower Manhattan, including transportation and infrastructure as well as
reconstruction of the WTC site. The corporation, whose board members and
chairman are yet to be named, will channel federal funds to those projects, starting
with a $2.8 billion allocation. With businesses fleeing and the economy teetering,
trying to restore confidence is higher on the political agenda than Medici-like
notions of fostering great architecture and public spaces.  

     At the same time, developer Larry Silverstein, who bought a 99-year lease for
the Twin Towers only last summer, is exploring ideas for rebuilding, with help from
architect David Childs of the firm SOM and planner Alex Cooper. (Silverstein’s
progress depends in part on whether he collects on a $7.2 billion insurance claim
or gets only the $3.6 billion his insurers want to pay out. He has also asked
Congress to cap his liability in lawsuits resulting from the attacks.) Still, the lack of
any official role hasn’t stopped architects, planners, artists and civic groups
from forming a dizzying array of ad-hoc advisory groups. “We’re in a rush
because there’s a window where maybe we can influence public policy, and
we’re afraid the window will close,� says Ray Gastil, head of the Van Alen
Institute, one of 16 design groups in a coalition called New York New Visions. Says
Robert Yaro, head of the Regional Plan Association, “This can’t be some
biggies in a closed room. It has to be a public process.â€�  
“We hope that passion for good design is contagious.�
chairman of SOM          â€œWe hope that passion for good design is contagious,â
€� says designer Marilyn Taylor, chairman of SOM, a leader in the volunteer force,
who’s been a link to downtown business honchos. Meanwhile, the coalition
groups are doing everything from researching successful urban centers to pro
bono space planning for businesses that had to relocate in the wake of the
terrorist attack. But they have no real power. One team is writing a paper on how to
choose a design for a memorial—the one item that everyone, from the governor
on down, agrees must be built on the site. But what’s trickier is figuring out
what the memorial should be. “There should be an international competition
for the design,� says architect and team member Michael Manfredi, “and it
must be an integral part of the design of the site.â€�  

Meanwhile, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land,
has wisely decided to salvage key pieces of WTC wreckage. Gigantic twisted steel
beams—â€�torqued in amazing ways,â€� says architect Bart Voorsanger, whoâ
€™s helping select what to save—as well as crushed fire trucks and even
fragments of an Alexander Calder mobile that once swung in a lobby, have been
tagged for keeping. “Somebody may choose to put these elements in a
memorial,â€� says Voorsanger, “or we’ll archive them.â€�  

What should be built on the World Trade Center site?

 An exact replica of the original buildings
 Lower-rise office buildings
 A memorial to those who died
 Not sure

What should be built on the World Trade Center site?

* 19683 responses

An exact replica of the original buildings

Lower-rise office buildings

A memorial to those who died

Not sure

Survey results tallied every 60 seconds. Live Votes reflect respondents' views and
are not scientifically valid surveys.
     Most designers have stayed away from publicly advocating a specific design for
what should replace the Twin Towers. But Max Protetch, a Manhattan dealer in
architectural drawings, is inviting more than 100 architects from around the world
to do just that. He’ll exhibit the results in January. “I called Philip Johnson
and Oscar Niemeyer,� he says, “as well as young architects. This is how a
larger public can speak.� Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum, was
planning a show on the Twin Towers when the terrorists attacked. Now she’s
shifted the exhibit’s focus: rather than just showing the towers as monuments,
it will look at their creation as part of ’60s urban-renewal trends.
      Remembering that historical context is key to any ideas for reconstruction. In
the days after the attack, we felt nostalgic for the towers—some even suggested
rebuilding them just as they were. Now the thinking seems to be, let’s make
lower Manhattan a better place and improve the public realm. Maybe put some
streets back through the 16-acre “superblock� that the designers of the
WTC created and reconnect the site to the surrounding street grid and the
waterfront. “The World Trade Center created this kind of impenetrable barrier
between TriBeCa and the rest of downtown,� explains Yaro, who used to go to
the now-defunct Washington Market in the neighborhood as a kid in the ’50s.  

 There were fewer people living in lower Manhattan in 1960 than there were in
1800. But today the area around the financial district is also residential. Out of the
WTC disaster comes the chance to make the place more urbane and humane, as
well as to improve the transportation links. Yes, we’re talking urban planning
here, and it’s not a sexy subject. The glamour could come with new cultural
and entertainment amenities that would bring more tourists and night life to the
      Those are ideas many planners are considering, and so, now, is developer
Silverstein. “What we’re doing is massing studies,� he says, which
means trying out rough models of office buildings of various sizes on the site. â
€œWe don’t know the number, the size or the placement yet. Or where to place
an appropriate memorial. Could we fit in a performing-arts center? Or a museum?â
€� Architect Childs says he’s not designing any specific buildings; in fact, he
thinks that several architects should be involved. “You can have a strong
concept executed by multiple hands,� he says. “And I believe there should
be a strong vertical tower or an open structure like the Eiffel Tower.â€�  

As plans unfold and commissions meet and various consortiums lobby, these
ideas will become more complicated and fraught. This is democracy and
capitalism in action—and that’s never been a formula for good design. Some
of the architects who’ve been speaking out may tire and go back to their
drawing boards. But here’s hoping that the best architects believe they have a
big stake in the project, whether they’re hired or not. Their good ideas need to
flow—and bad ideas that crop up need to be stopped. Rethinking the
neighborhood plan is a good start. The tough part will be seeking the most
thoughtful, innovative, spectacular designs for the buildings and public spaces that
will rise from the ashes. That’s what citizens of New York and beyond need to
push for. After all, as Yaro puts it, “we’re talking about building the first 21st-
century city.�
     Â© 2001 Newsweek, Inc.