After seven years of fits and starts, the United States General Services Administration's project to memorialize downtown's African Burial Ground is taking off again. But does the latest series of public forums really mean the process is back on track? Deborah Grossberg investigates.
Although the United States General Services Administration (GSA) has received high honors in recent months from the National Building Museum and the American Architectural Foundation for its design achievements, the organization stands accused by some New Yorkers of dropping the ball on a crucial project close to home: the African Burial Ground Memorial. After the high-profile discovery of the historic site nearly 15 years ago and the announcement of an RFP for a memorial design in 1997, the project has fallen off the GSA's and the public's radar. Basically, the GSA's been on vacation on this project,, said Mabel Wilson, an architect on the finalist team GroundWorks, whose design was selected along with four others in February 2003.
City councilmember Charles Barron, an active participant on the Committee of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground, voiced his dissatisfaction more forcefully: The GSA has been showing us the same kind of arrogance and disrespect as it displayed at the beginning of this project..
|On a map from 1763 (left), a rectangular 6-acre strip just north of the Commons today's City Hall Parkkis labeled Negro Burial Ground..|
Acknowledging that the memorial was, in the words of GSA chief of staff Karl Reichelt, long overdue,, the GSA stepped up the pace on the project last year. In September, the organization brought in the National Parks Service (NPS) as a consultant and public liaison, a role it often plays in work involving national historic landmarks. (The African Burial Ground was designated a landmark in 1993.) We're not necessarily in the business of building memorials,, said Mark Dremel, project manager for the African Burial Ground at the GSA. NPS knows monuments and memorials. They're taking the lead on this.. Dennis Montagna of NPS agreed. The GSA ran the competition much like its arts and architecture program, which primarily contracts design and construction services and commissions works of art for federal buildings,, he said. At a certain point the competition just ground to a halt.. NPS got the ball rolling in May, facilitating two small public workshops as a prelude to five larger, if under-publicized, forums held at schools, churches, and community centers in each borough in mid-June. The forums in turn set in motion a six-week revision process to be followed by final submissions and the selection of a winner, though the GSA has not set dates for those milestones. The memorial is slated for completion in December 2005, according to the GSA.
The African Burial Ground project fell into the GSA's hands in 1989 while it was conducting a cultural site survey for a federal office building at the corner of Broadway and Duane Street. The study, mandated by the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, uncovered 18th-century maps depicting a forgotten African graveyard occupying 6 acres just north of City Hall Parkkknown in colonial times as the Commonsscutting through the south side of the GSA's building site.
The find reversed centuries of hidden history for New York's African-American community. The African Burial Ground proved that Harlem is not the only black New York,, said Eustace Pilgrim, director of graphics at the Department of City Planning and one of the memorial finalists.
Preserved under 20 feet of landfill, the African Burial Ground occupies what was once a desolate ravine outside city limits. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and English settlers denied Africans permission to bury their dead in church graveyards within the city proper, forcing them to use this out-of-the-way, undesirable strip of land. Archaeologists estimate that approximately 20,000 Africans, both enslaved and free, were buried on the site from the late 1600s to 1794, when the burial ground was closed. Memories of its existence slowly faded after Dutch-Americans brought the site to grade in the early 1800s. In 1991 the GSA began archaeological site testing. The African-American community, already frustrated at its exclusion from the process, became enraged when The New York Times reported that the GSA planned to excavate the burial ground with the so-called coroner's method, a technique consisting of digging up graves with a backhoe. Waging a grassroots campaign, activists campaigned for increased oversight. In December 1991 Senator David A. Paterson established a task force to supervise the project. Soon thereafter, the GSA signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission outlining its responsibilities to the African Burial Ground, including the construction of a memorial on the site.
|The African Burial Ground Memorial's five finalist designs attempt to tread lightly on a site many consider sacred. |
At left & below: GroundWorks proposes greening the site, save a small clearing for a lanternlike spirit catcher,, a chamber for contemplation and mourning.
Below to bottom of page: Eustace Pilgrim and Christopher Davis have created a sloped berm with a curved wall adorned with Yoruba-inspired terracotta faces;
McKissack & McKissack's slave ship tells a literal tale of suffering;
Joseph DePace's proposal refers to African burial practices;
Rodney Leon draws from African architecture with its spiral path leading to a libation chamber.
The GSA completed construction of its $276 million building at 290 Broadway on a piece of the site deemed by archaeologists to contain no human remains in 1995. The memorial project was a mitigation of our responsibility for constructing a building on the burial ground site,, said GSA's Dremel. The MOA also required the GSA to fund a research project to study human remains removed from the site. Dr. Michael Blakey of Howard University led the research team whose findings have provided new insight into the brutal conditions of slavery in colonial New York City, which was the second-largest slave port in the U.S. in the 18th century, after Charleston, South Carolina. At the time, 10 to 20 percent of the city's population was of African descent. To date, the GSA has spent $30 million on archaeological and anthropological research. Dremel blamed the memorial competition's holdup on the lengthy research being conducted at Howard. But many wonder why the memorial project could not have gone forward at the same time as the research, as was originally planned. The initial RFP asked us to accommodate a future reinterment of human remains and artifacts,, said architect and finalist Joseph DePace. Reburial of the remains on the site took place at a ceremony last October. Now that the remains are back in the ground it's unclear whether further construction on this site poses the possibility of some kind of disrespect,, said DePace.
Tender treatment of the site, which many community members see as sacred, was a hot topic at the June forums. But dialogue was repeatedly bogged down by questions that were more suitable for a GSA delegate than the newly appointed NPS representative and designers who were present at the meetings. Community members also expressed disappointment at the forums' poor attendance, claiming they had not been well organized. Forums drew between 20 and 80 people in auditoriums capable of seating hundreds.
At the June 14 forum in Brooklyn, attendees debated whether building on the site would be sacrilegious. Ollie McLean of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground asserted, We don't build on a sacred cemetery. We want a green, landscaped space with an eternal flame on that land.. As an alternative, McLean suggested seizing abutting properties by eminent domain, one for the memorial and the other for a museum dedicated to African-American history. In Brooklyn, we're displacing thousands for a ballpark. It's the least GSA can do..
Rodney Leon, a finalist and principal of AARRIS Architects, looked at the issue differently. There's a difference between an occupied building and a memorial. The real question is how do you create a gravestone for 20,000 anonymous people? How do you undo their anonymity?? Leon derived his design's sequence of monumental formssa spiral ramp, a circular gathering space, and a triangular tapering towerrfrom West and North African architecture. The forms create a visible contrast against the grid of the city,, said Leon.
Other forum participants supported building on the site, arguing for the use of references to African burial practices. Said one, If you're looking for the place where we put buildings on our dead, then you'll find it in Africa.. The same speaker cited Egyptian pyramids and Dogon burials within the walls of houses as examples. DePace agreed, arguing, Paradoxically, [the Descendants' proposals] are referencing European burial practices.. DePace's project uses African symbols and materials like a pyramidal perimeter fence woven from copper strips and a groundcover of crushed white oyster shells, used to decorate graves in West Africa to symbolize the spirit living on the sea. Our design is respectful of the site's sacred nature, touching lightly on the ground,, he said. Eustace Pilgrim and Christopher Davis, a team of artists, also emphasized a light touch with a design that features a curved pathway dividing a landscaped berm from a reflecting pool.
Herbert Wilson, III, of McKissack & McKissack, one of the finalists and principal of the oldest minority-owned architecture firm in the nation, defended his team's plan to put a more substantial building on the site. We need to mark the site with a symbol that stands out for years and is emblematic of lives lost.. His firm's project references the middle passage with a ribbed structure in the form of a slave ship surrounded by reflecting pools, waterfalls, and a sound installation of screams meant to recall the terror of slaves flung overboard.
Constructive public design dialogues notwithstanding, the projecttnow in its seventh yearrremains crippled by lack of managerial continuity. Consistency has been an issue,, conceded Dr. Sherrill D. Wilson, director of the Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground (OPEI), an informational center funded by GSA. We're the only functioning part of the project that's been here from the beginning..
Adding to the confusion is the issue of the project's budget, which, according to the GSA, may get a boost from its initial cap of $1 million to account for inflation. But GSA has not released an estimate of the exact increase, forcing finalists to guess for themselves. As it stands, some hope for $2.5 million while others are attempting to stay within the original budget. Mabel Wilson sees the project's delays as unsurprising continuations of the site's history of invisibility. Slavery is the blind spot in America's eye,, said Wilson. The government and the general public don't see this site as visible and relevant..
Wilson intends to combat the site's invisibility by greening the memorial site as well as the landscape surrounding the buildings on the entire burial ground. The centerpiece of her team's project, a glowing, tapered glass shelter, appears in a clearing within the larger grove. Wilson said, Though the plan goes beyond the scope of the competition, it's a relatively feasible way to make visible an area of the city whose history has been systematically erased and forgotten..
With no date set for the announcement of the winning design, no jury publicly named, no clear budget, and no disclosure of what the remainder of the memorial-building process would entail, it remains to be seen whether the GSA and the NPS will give the African Burial Ground Memorial the visibility it deserves.
Deborah Grossberg is an assistant editor at AN.
The Stealth Designers
For years, avant-garde darlings Diller + Scofidio have kept fresh with art projects, technologically innovative media installations, and paper architecture. However, writes Andrew Yang, what's propelling the firmmnow with partner Charles Renfrooare two major urban planning projects that may transform the face of New York City.
|In contrast to the explicit directives of their work for Lincoln Center, above, Diller Scofidio + Renfro's (with OMA) master plan for the BAM Cultural District, is a conceptual framework for development. The early site plan, below, which has evolved with the needs of BAM, shows how different programs can be interwoven. The urban beach, and vertical garden, describe an attitude toward the public realm more than any actual building proposal.|
According to Rebecca Robertson, the executive director of the Lincoln Center Redevelopment Corporation, there was a moment in 2002 when she was really doubtful that she could get Diller + Scofidio on the final list of competitors to redesign Lincoln Center's public spaces. The others were all major players with several large public projects under their belttNorman Foster, Cooper Robertson, Richard Meier and Santiago Calatrava. At that point, Diller + Scofidio had a handful of installations and a much-loved restaurant interior, the Brasserie. That summer, their conceptual architecture-cum-art piece, Blur, a mist-filled cloud-making apparatus over Lake Neuchhtel in Switzerland opened to the public. While Diller + Scofidio clearly had the intellectual acuity to go toe-to-toe with these architects, their lack of built projects meant the firm would be a tough sell for Lincoln Center's board.
Robertson had worked with the duo in the early 1990s, when she was the director of the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation. As part of a plan to animate the closed theaters and other dead spaces in the district, the corporation worked with the public-art organization Creative Time to commission projects from the likes of Jenny Holzer, Tibor Kalman, and Diller + Scofidio. She knew of the designers' knack for multidisciplinary design, and the strong element of performance and surveillance in their workksuch as the monitors at the bar of the Brasserieeand knew they would be a good fit.
>For us, Lincoln Center was about more communication between the arts,, said Robertson. By focusing on that element of Diller + Scofidio's work, she was able to get the firm on the list, and the rest is history.
Now renamed Diller Scofidio + Renfro, to reflect the addition of partner Charles Renfro, the firm still shows up on the shortlists of major competitions, but they are no longer the long shots. Two of their recently completed projectssthe redesign of Lincoln Square's public spaces and a master plan for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural Districttre-envision two of New York's cultural epicenters, and put the designers in a position to shape not just the buildings of New York, but aspects of the city itself.
It's like they've absorbed Lincoln Center into their DNA, and the outrageousness of what they have done is subtle,, said Robertson.
The most drastic and controversial part of the plan calls for the eradication of the Milstein Plaza, a raised platform designed in 1965 by Harrison & Abramovitz, and which covers much of 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. Their plan also calls for slicing through a corner of the hard, brutalist Pietro Belluschii designed Alice Tully Hall, also home of the Julliard School. Along with an elevated lawn in the plaza behind Avery Fisher Hall, the firm aims to integrate the different topographic levels of Lincoln Center into a public space that's more transparent and functional. If subtlety is the mark of this project, then the designers' masterplan for the BAM Cultural District may be so subtle it's downright invisible.
When the BAM Cultural District, designed in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas/OMA, was completed in 2002, very little in the way of fancy renderings was released to the press. That's because there weren't any. According to the firm, the masterplan really isn't a masterplan at all. It is a series of programmatic and building recommendations for a network of systems and spaces that will maximize the dynamic interplay between the district's different cultural institutions. We wanted them to understand that the project [had to be implemented] in phases, and could change, and affect what followed,, said Scofidio.
The plan for BAM, unlike Lincoln Center, is more of a conceptual schematic for the buildings in the district, and less of a stringent plan for buildings. While it recommends spatial programming like artists' live/work lofts, retail, administrative offices, residential buildings, and a hotel, its salient feature is a plan for acculturation.. Because the area is several blocks away from still-gritty downtown Brooklyn, a period of reinvestment and renewal could make the artistic aspects of the neighborhood more visible. The plan recommends installing temporary public art projects and even an urban beachh in order to draw in passersby and raise interest in the area. By incorporating the BAM ethos into the very sidewalks, it would attract more foot traffic and other cultural organizations, thus encouraging a more organic type of development.
>The essence of this plan is mixing,, said Jeanne Lutfy, president of the BAM Local Development Corp-oration (LDC). The streetscape will be the connective tissue that ties the district to Fort Greene,, she said, noting that the programming of visual art into the public infrastructure is already happening.
And the chips are falling into place. Enrique Norten's Library for Visual and Performing Arts, which was unveiled in 2003, will fill out a triangular block south of the BAM Opera House. The Manhattan-based Theater for a New Audience recently announced that Hugh Hardy and Frank Gehry will design a 300-seat, $22 million theater adjacent to the visual arts library. In between the buildings will be an open public space, which follows the Diller Scofidio + Renfro plan. Twelve new cultural organizations, including Bomb magazine and the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Art, have just recently been announced to fill 80 Arts, an eight-story building that will be renovated by the BAM LDC. Because of the sharing of various amenities by the different groups, 80 Arts is in many ways a microcosm of what this district is going to be about,, said Lutfy.
Just as ideas of performance, technology, surveillance, and the public domain are central to Diller Scofidio + Renfro's conceptual work, they are proving to be a trademark of the firm's public planning projects as well. We didn't think of it as a masterplan as much as There is a performance on the inside of the building and we want to bring that quality out,'' said Scofidio. And we wanted to add the aspects of street performance and bring them in.. None of the blocks in the district as proposed are solid, but instead composed of varied units with public spaces cutting through.
By the time this long-term process is complete, the entire cultural area may be eclipsed by developer Bruce Ratner's proposed new Frank Gehryydesigned basketball arena a block away. Its monstrous proportions and planning are the antithesis of OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro's delicate, piece-by-piece, neighborhood-building strategy. The invisibility of the BAM Cultural Districttand how it unfolds over the next several yearssis just how the firm wants it.
Our interests are really broad and not about an image,, said Renfro, who is a generation younger than his partners and has witnessed the transformation of the office since he arrived seven years ago, after four years with Smith-Miller + Hawkinson. Brasserie was their first permanent work in this country,, he said. That project really changed the way people think about the firm. And it helped promote the development of the work into larger and larger scales,, he says.
Just as Lincoln Center is a dynamic interplay of buildings designed by heavyweights like Philip Johnson, Belluschi, and Wallace K. Harrison, Diller Scofidio + Renfro's intervention is subtle and respectful. And the BAM district is also proving to be a fruitful collaboration of architectural visionaries, the public can take it as a sure sign that the built reality will finally match the imaginations of the firm guiding it.
Andrew Yang, an editor of 306090, contributes to Wallpaper, Men's Health, and Surface.
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, to the solid edges that enclose it. The basic envelope is fundamentally sound and includes many superb and historic structures, including 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 peripheral 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 of both 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 yet another "world's tallest building"-- a title the Trade Center held only briefly, an equally likely result for any successor. To me, 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 $18.3 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.