We Made It

Joe Woolhead

The Architect’s Newspaper published its first issue two years and two months after the tragedy of 9/11/01. By that November 2003, the process of envisioning plans for the site—still called Ground Zero—had reached one of several nadirs: the architects of One World Trade Center—at that time, the Freedom Tower—were not on speaking terms; Governor Pataki was ignoring the recommendations of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency officially charged with sorting out what best to do; and the finalists for the memorial competition had just been announced to tepid response.

It was a rich time for a news organization to wade into the details of how things get done in the city. Now as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it seems that every pundit on the planet is weighing in on the emerging results of those tumultuous years, recalling sometimes inaccurately what happened, when, and why. We decided to dig up all of our own coverage from printed pages and on the web, filling in as needed from the Port Authority and LMDC’s archived press releases and such sharply detailed accounts as Philip Nobel’s intellectually knuckle-whitening 16 Acres, to make a contemporaneous timeline.

It proved to be a chastening, even stomach churning, exercise to relive even from a distance the sordid disagreements, the political posturing, and wrenching disillusions as they revealed all too clearly a complete collapse of confidence that anything inspiring, appropriate, or up to world-class standards was going to be rebuilt at the site.

But that time seems past. After several visits from our offices—now just three blocks away from the World Trade Center site, thanks to the Empire State Development Action Plan assisting small businesses in the area—the feeling is very different. In the rank upon rank of nearly grown trees, the measured pacing and pattern of granite pavers that draw all-comers from every direction inexorably toward the vast footprints, the names carved deep into the parapet stone that will be kept cool to the touch in summer and warm and ice-free in winter, there is both dignity and poetry.

Whether this is the result of design or the extreme care so obviously taken in construction and installation—special cranes had to be invented for installing the trees in their customized ground holes—it is hard to say. Certainly, the architecture built so far is compromised. One World Trade Center has been repeatedly assaulted with demands to make the base more bomb resistant—in spite of a growing awareness that prevention and deterrence before contact is the more effective security measure—and less expensive. The Snøhetta building is little more than a shed for the massive vents, mechanical equipment, and staircase serving the 98,000 square foot museum designed by Aedes (formerly Davis Brody Bond) beneath ground. Not the ambitious memorial structure as envisioned, it is still a much-needed focal point for the flat expanse between the plunging footprints. In fact, across the site, still bathed in sunlight for now, the impression is that the designs may not be spectacular visions of 21st century architecture, but they are strong enough to carry the weight all the city, not to mention tourists, will bring to bear on it over time. And sheer durability may be the best that any architecture can offer in the long run.

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