Last Chance to Save Ground Zero

News Protest

Courtesy Silverstein

Return to AN Feature> Making Meaning.

The eloquence of the void at Ground Zero will never be surpassed. Walking past the site almost every day, I am always moved by its immense formal authority and grandeur, its presence. Its scale and proportion are not unfamiliar: Times Square, the Zocalo in Mexico City, Red Square, the great plaza of Isfahan are in the same family of spaces, profound settings for public assembly and crucial city symbols. I imagine Ground Zero transformed into such a space of gathering, something between a plaza and a park, a permanent memorial to an event that was so terribly public.

To build such a place requires both an excellent design for the square itself and careful attention to its perimeter, the solid edges that enclose it. The basic envelope is fundamentally sound and includes many superb and historic structures, such as the Barclay-Vesey building, St. Paul’s Chapel, and the beautiful post office. Many opportunities to further shape this envelope also exist, particularly to the south where virtually the entire edge might be reconstructed. There are also sites both east and west that—rebuilt—could dramatically reinforce the sense of place. These sites would be logical for cultural institutions, commercial space, and housing.

Although there were many who immediately called for the dedication of this entire place to public use and public commemoration, this option was quickly removed from consideration as “impractical.” The Lower Manhattan Development (not memorial) Corporation decided early on that the only “vision” they would support was one that replaced all of the commercial space lost on September 11 on the site itself. The LMDC has been remarkably adroit in stifling any other suggestion and has been equally canny in their use of architecture to obscure the fundamental exclusion of the public from a meaningful role in decision-making.

When the public responded with outrage to the series of diagrammatic solutions to the site design offered two summers ago, the LMDC feigned responsiveness by staging a “competition”—whose winner was selected by administrative fiat—in which a number of architects proposed designs for exactly the same program. None had the courage to suggest that massive amounts of office and shopping space might not be the only possibility. With their fawning connivance, the public was distracted from a discussion of fundamentals and invited instead to debate the finer points of architectural style, which version of 12 million square feet of commercial space it preferred. Now, even the winner of the competition enjoys the indignity of seeing his ideas winnowed away by the growing committee of high-style designers hired by Larry Silverstein, who uncritically seek to bolster their reputations and bank accounts on the site.

Why build skyscrapers here? The main argument is commercial—pulling Silverstein’s and the Port Authority’s chestnuts out of the fire—but this flies in the face both of a lack of demand (vacancies are high all over town) and of many alternative sites for such buildings. There is, of course, also an argument that the restoration of what was there is the appropriate riposte to terror. This has unfortunately yielded the stupid machismo of yet another “world’s tallest building”—a title the Trade Center held only briefly, an equally likely result for any successor. This is simply too preening a response, without gravity, without respect. Finally, it’s argued that skyscrapers are the preeminent symbol of New York. Certainly they are the highest architectural achievement of our commercial life. However, I believe that Central Park is the greatest symbol—and the greatest repository—of our public culture.

The last act of the LMDC’s roughshod arrogation of downtown’s future has been the memorial competition—its finalists just announced—which attracted over 5,000 entries, a clear indication of the pent-up desire for participation. This competition, however, can never substitute for what should have happened, an open competition for ideas at the beginning of the process, throwing it wide open for invention and debate and allowing the memorial to function as the driver. The LMDC has instead waited until the very end and offered competitors a site that is luridly constrained. Submerged below grade, hemmed by the glass-covered slurry-wall and a gigantic waterfall, over-hung by cantilevered cultural institutions, surrounded by Daniel Libeskind’s elaborate and banal iconographic program, and lying beneath the looming bulk of the world’s tallest building, the memorial—whatever it turns out to be—will suffer the consequences of being an afterthought, an appendage to the big plans of the LMDC, the Port Authority, and Larry Silverstein.

But this need not be. Let the winner of the memorial competition—the only open competition held so far—build his or her winning entry in a great space of public assembly, not in the midst of a clutch of slick office towers. Let those who are so eager to build do so on the perimeter of the site, or in Midtown South, or in Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx. Let us have a wonderful hub of transportation—the means of bringing people together—under and near Ground Zero. Let cultural institutions gather around the site, as they do around Central Park. But stop the demeaning arrogance of business-as-usual and the construction of an architectural zoo on this hallowed ground.

Can we pay for this? We must. It is time for the federal government to step in: No less than Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor, this is the site of a national trauma and, whatever its ownership, a place that “belongs” to us all. To be sure, the price tag would be several billion dollars but we are about to spend $87 billion reconstructing Iraq, to make that country whole after the devastations of tyranny and war. Surely, we can afford to make Ground Zero a place of peaceable assembly for everyone. Indeed, if terror demands a civic reply, what better than a solemn memorial to those lost and a space for the most fundamental exercise of democracy in space, the freedom to gather in a place that is our own.

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