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In the 12 ½ years since the Twin Towers were destroyed in a ghastly act of international terrorism, the 16 acres known as Ground Zero have stood largely apart from the city. Now, the fences are down on the South and West sides of the site, and the Memorial Plaza is beginning to function as a public space. While Michael Arad’s pools are effective in reminding visitors of the scale and magnitude of the destruction, Peter Walker’s unfolding sequence of trees, benches, lawn, ivy, and pavers softens the plaza and allows visitors to experience it in a variety of ways. Some may not think of 9/11 at all.
The just opened 9/11 Memorial Museum ensures that the horror of that single day will never be scrubbed from the site, even as much of the acreage returns to commercial purposes. Given the subject matter, the architecture of the museum is almost beside the point, which is to say that it effectively frames and backgrounds the artifacts, images, and sounds that viscerally evoke the experience of that day and its wrenching aftermath.
Visitors enter Snøhetta’s iceberg-like visitor’s pavilion, which is light and airy, but marred by a TSA-style security screening station. Large angled windows look out on to the plaza leading to escalators that begin the descent into the below-grade museum designed by Davis Brody Bond.
The descent is a long one. The architects created a deliberate sequence of ramps, stairs, and escalators that take visitors 70 feet below ground, a process that takes between 10 and 20 minutes, creating significant physical and psychological distance from the city above. The effect is purposefully somber. It is hard not to think about death.
A handful of artifacts—like a massive steel beam from the World Trade Center and the so-called “survivors’ stair”—and a few panels of text and discreet video projections are integrated into the 600-foot-long ramp, which the architects call “the ribbon.” The ramps are wide, offering plenty of room for visitors to move at their own paces, either alone or with fellow visitors. “We tried to strike a balance between a contemplative and a communal experience,” said Carl Krebs, the project’s lead architect with Steven Davis, both of Davis Brody Bond.
Wenge hardwood lines the ramp that terminates in a switchback that overlooks a vast space with an expanse of the exposed slurry wall and the steel beam known as the “last column.” As the procession continues, the visitor becomes increasingly acclimated to the experience. Where the ribbon reaches bedrock there is a vast wall covered in a large installation by artist Spencer Finch, comprising nearly 3,000 blue panels in different shades, each representing one of the victims. The panels frame the controversial quote from Virgil, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” A private space for the families is located behind the wall, containing the unidentified remains of victims. Flanking the wall are two galleries, one dedicated to an exhibition about 9/11 (which could change over time) and a permanent exhibition dedicated to memorializing the victims themselves. The bedrock level also includes several other artifacts, such as a half destroyed fire truck and a fragment of an elevator mechanism.
The two galleries sit on the exact footprints of the towers and visitors cross over the line of the original foundations to enter them. The exterior of each gallery, which rises to the ceiling, is clad in foamed aluminum panels. The surfaces are carefully lit (lighting design was by Fisher Marantz Stone), giving them a slightly ethereal, shimmering quality. While following the exact outline of the towers, the design does not attempt to replicate their appearance. The nearly 100,000-square-foot museum is largely devoid of scenographic elements. “Memory, authenticity, scale, and emotion were the guiding principles of the design,” said Davis.
Compared to the expansive spaces outside, the galleries are heavily programmed, filled with thousands of images, videos, and objects. They are overwhelming in both general and highly personal terms. The experience is immersive. The exhibitions largely stick to the facts of that day. Didactic or interpretive narratives are largely absent. There is little to debate or to divide viewers. One possible objection may come in the relatively small amount of space devoted to the Pentagon Attack and the crash of United 93 in Shankesville, Pennsylvania.
As a New Yorker who was in the city on 9/11 and watched the towers fall from the East Village, I can attest that the exhibitions (designed by a team including Thinc, Local Projects, and Layman Design) effectively capture the confusion of that day. The museum is a powerful project of documentation for future generations.
While the museum smartly allows for a variety of responses, many visitors will walk away saddened, disgusted by the senselessness of the attacks, and moved by stories of lives lost. The museum shows humanity at its most depraved and its most noble. Some may be unsure of the purpose of evoking such horror, but few will forget what they have seen.
Rael San Fratello’s signature blend of activism and architecture was forged in the months following 9/11, when founders Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello left New York for California. The pair, who met at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, founded their Oakland practice in 2002. Their first commission, for an adobe house near Marfa, Texas, fell through, but led to other work in the border town, including Prada Marfa (2005). “The post 9/11 political climate and the early work we did together in Texas and along the US Border have been very influential in our work,” wrote Rael and San Fratello in an email. “We consider the political, social, and environmental aspects of design central to our work.”
Matthew Millman; Courtesy Rael San Fratello
The US/Mexico border remains a focal point for the duo. “Because we were spending so much time adjacent to the border we found ourselves crossing it with frequency, walking along it and getting to know the people who live with this strange condition—the border fence—as part of their daily life,” wrote Rael and San Fratello. They had their own experience with border security during the site survey for Prada Marfa, when a group of Border Patrol agents surrounded them and peppered them with questions. Rael San Fratello’s 2009 Border Wall series approaches the issue with a combination of satire and empathy, reimagining the wall between the two countries as a literal fulcrum on which trade and labor relationships are balanced (Teeter Totter Wall); as life-saving infrastructure (Life Safety Border Beacon); and as a space of cross-cultural interaction (Burrito Wall).
Noel Kerns; Courtesy Rael San Fratello
Rael San Fratello’s work is characterized by a combination of natural materials—including earth and straw—and high technology. In 2012, the designers founded Emerging Objects, which develops new materials for 3D printing and aims to create printable building blocks. The firm’s recent projects include byproducts of their research on 3D printing, such as Saltygloo (2013), a dome constructed of bricks 3D printed from salt harvested from the San Francisco Bay. Yet even Rael San Fratello’s most technologically advanced projects circle back to their interest in putting architecture to work for the greater good. “It’s no coincidence that the first materials we started 3D printing with were clay and sand, or that we work with materials like mud brick, address social issues related to homelessness and environmental issues related to water conservation, or build galleries in the middle of Nowhere,” they wrote.
Major urban institutions, like viruses, are hard-wired for survival and growth. The bigger they get, the more determined they are to keep growing, even to the detriment of their host. We see it all the time with hospitals and universities that stomp all over their neighborhoods, simultaneously trading on, and destroying, the local character. And now we are seeing it with a different kind of institution, the Museum of Modern Art.
It is foolish to think you can have a reasoned conversation about expansion with mega-institutions because the issues are always framed by their own hermetic logic. What’s good for the system is all that matters. So, when MoMA Director Glen Lowry and architect Elizabeth Diller make the case for demolishing the American Folk Art Museum, they start with the assumption that growth is a good thing. Expansion, they argue, is necessary to relieve overcrowding in its 53rd Street compound. Huge numbers of visitors requires the creation of a sequence of continuous galleries, so MoMA’s collection can be displayed in a more effective, interdisciplinary manner. The Folk Art building interrupts that continuous flow, and it is impossible to incorporate the structure into the new wing because of what Diller calls its “obdurate” design. (That means, ‘stubborn, unyielding,’ by the way.) Ergo, it must be destroyed.
This formulation turns the teensy, 6,000-square-foot Folk Art museum into the problem, when the real problem is that MoMA’s vast scale has made it an overwhelming, pleasure-less place to engage with art. Making the compound bigger will only degrade the experience even more, no matter how elegantly Diller Scofidio & Renfro refine their proposal for a new east-west circulation corridor. And who believes this will be MoMA’s last expansion? If the plan is realized, the museum and its residential appendages will sprawl across more than two-thirds of its block. Cities thrive on diversity, but MoMA is turning its swathe of Manhattan into a monoculture, a ghetto of extreme affluence.
MoMA keeps comparing its situation to that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another mega-museum that struggles with overcrowding. The Met moves six million visitors a year through its galleries; MoMA handles three million, double the number it saw before the 2004 Taniguchi expansion. The Met’s solution to the increasing numbers has been a series of architectural appendages. Why shouldn’t MoMA add another wing? What gets forgotten is that the Met is located in a park and set back from Fifth Avenue by a broad plaza and monumental staircase. Manhattan can handle tremendous density, but those millions of visitors are surely felt more intensely on 53rd Street than in Central Park. It is not only MoMA that is unbearably crowded now; it is all of Midtown.
Density has become the new urban rallying cry. There is probably not a city in America that would not benefit from higher concentrations of people, but that doesn’t mean all density is created equal or that there are no limits to density. I was once a New Yorker, but when I travel now from my home in Philadelphia (which has densities similar to Brooklyn’s) to Midtown, I am increasingly aware of the oppressiveness of the crowding—on the sidewalks, in the subways, in museums, in public places of all kinds. This is purely anecdotal, I realize, but on my last visit to Midtown I was reprimanded twice by strangers for intruding on their personal space, even though I had no choice in the matter, having been jostled by fellow travelers. The stress level seems way up.
Museums were once places where New Yorkers could go to find an oasis of tranquility and contemplation from the unrelenting city. I can hardly believe that as a college student I would sometimes journey to MoMA’s garden or the Frick’s garden court simply to be alone and do homework. The Folk Art museum was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to provide space for repose. Though some critics have complained about its inscrutable metal facade, the solidity was intentional and—when you consider its purpose—functional. Within the thick armature of its concrete walls, you could feel removed from the world. The domestically scaled spaces might not be perfect for displaying art, but neither are MoMA’s supposedly all-purpose white boxes. You could see the hand of the architects on every surface—the beaten bronze panels, the bush hammered concrete—a personal stamp we rarely experience anymore. Eccentricity is part of its appeal, the antithesis of Taniguchi’s malleable, subservient MoMA galleries. The Folk Art was the first museum, and first serious work architecture, to be completed in New York after 9/11, when the city was reeling from the enormity of the tragedy and reconsidering the predilection for bigness that produced the twin towers. As then, New York is again suffering from a crisis of bigness. It needs to make room for the small.
MoMA perceives the Folk Art museum as a threat to the institution, but it shouldn’t. The Met has found a way to decentralize with the acquisition of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Marcel Breuer building, where it plans to install its growing contemporary art collection. The satellite will be an excellent pressure valve. MoMA, which is more fleet in its operations, more attuned to new ways of thinking about space, could easily establish similar satellites around the city, boutique spaces for shows that get swallowed up in the big house. In an interview, Diller told me that when MoMA hired her firm, they “asked us to make them uncomfortable.” Instead they were suckered in by the institution’s faulty logic. Rather than pursuing ways to chop up the Folk Art building to make it fit into an expanded MoMA, they should have explored ways to invent a new, de-centralized kind of museum. No obsolete albatross, the small, intimate Folk Art may well represent the first inklings of what a modern New York museum can be.
If, as Louis Kahn said, a brick wants to be part of an arch, what does a biopolymer molecule, a block of aerogel, or a slab of metallic foam want to be? The empirical basis for inferring bricks’ intentions is well established, comprising building traditions that have evolved over millennia. For newer materials, the chance of moving from laboratories to construction sites can be a crapshoot. The successful ones not only capture markets but transform behavior.
The most promising approaches, materials specialists agree, emphasize integration rather than isolation. “We don’t just create materials or products; we create information systems,” says architect/author Blaine Brownell, who co-directs the MS in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota and whose most recent book, Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), links innovations in minerals, concrete, wood, metal, glass, and plastics to prominent case studies. Using the term hypermaterial to denote the convergence of materials and information processing, Brownell looks to the management of light, energy, and data as the leading edge of materials research.
Courtesy Jenny Sabin
Jason O. Vollen, associate director of the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE), a joint project of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and SOM, heralds “a fundamental paradigm shift from moving energy mechanically, which is how we do it now, to moving energy materially.” Instead of multiple layers of a structure performing different functions, Vollen says, as in Mike Davies’ concept of the polyvalent wall, “We think one layer should do multiple things; we think a potential solution is the multivalent material. That’s not so far off; it’s speculative fiction rather than science fiction.” Citing the “holy grail” of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Stephen Selkowitz—a material optimizing both daylight and insulation—Vollen says “what exists now won’t do that, but what exists around the corner might.” Nanotechnology, where categories blend and “metals can become more like glasses, glasses become more like ceramics,” he continues, is yielding unprecedented control over properties such as heat flow and daylight transmittance. With high-performance ceramics in particular offering properties that answer climate-change-driven imperatives, he is convinced, “the industry is poised for a revolution.”
Materials research is often a matter of systematic biomimicry, invoking a parallel understanding of natural processes occurring over time on multiple scales, from the nanoscale to the visible to the ecosystemic. “It’s not about translating shape, or a static image of a biological behavior,” says Jenny E. Sabin, assistant professor of architecture at Cornell and a founding member of Cecil Balmond’s Nonlinear Systems Organization. As the architectural member of the National Science Foundation-sponsored ESkin interdisciplinary team, which also includes a materials scientist, a cell biologist, and a systems engineer, Sabin investigates homologies in materials, geometries, and forms. She describes her challenge as “thinking about how those properties could work across scales” and replicating them in “highly engineered, sustainable materials that have very sophisticated responses to environmental cues.”
Generative models based on cellular activity inform her “Branching Morphogenesis” installation at Linz, Austria’s 2009 Ars Electronica (comprising 75,000 cable zip ties in tension, organized according to microscale cellular forces) and her all-knitted myThread Pavilion for Nike’s Flyknit Collective, produced with New Jersey-based fabricator Shima Seiki USA. “It’s not just that we can produce complex organic form,” she continues, but that designers can “directly interact with manufacturing technologies...Working with soft textile-based materials at a large scale is only possible through really cutting-edge fabrication technologies.” Strategies that arise from these investigations include “embedding a more nonlinear lifespan” into a material, so that products pass usefully through multiple life cycles; porosity, allowing lightness and transmissibility as well as strength; geometries that repel or absorb water, a high priority in materials that must endure sea-level rise; and self-organizing properties on nano-to-macro scales.
The technological transition suggested by business consultant David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—replacing the hydrocarbon-based economy, with all its externalities, costly extractive processes, and resource-availability constraints, with an older, cleaner system, “the once and future carbohydrate economy”—calls for more use of lifelike materials, Brownell suggests: those derived from agriculture and those deriving knowledge from living systems. A brick may want to be thick, but contemporary materials want to be smart.
Resource maximizers, beginning with light
Andrew H. Dent, PhD, vice president of library and materials research at Material ConneXion, sees two broad questions driving research in the field: what does Earth have in abundance, and what are we running out of? To the extent that materials and processes based on ample, readily available resources (from sunlight to silicon) replace those with sources in short supply (petroleum, gold, copper, clean air, and water), materials research represents a critical adaptation to emergent conditions.
Much of this work is economic optimization rather than new discovery, Dent adds. Methods of developing biopolymers from a wide range of plants harvested in different regions and conditions (corn, castor, switch grass, sugar cane, potatoes, and others) are already known. “The issue is how to beat out oil,” he says, which “even at a high price is still significantly cheaper.” Tradeoffs of this sort are inevitable. A material may be lightweight enough that its production and transport save energy and yield an admirable overall ecological footprint, but its components pose toxicity concerns, as with ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE, the transparent insulating “pillow” material seen in the 2008 Olympic Water Cube and other buildings worldwide). Biopolymers for construction, consumer products, or fuel, likewise involve edible crops and thus compete with food production. “Back in 2006 and early ’07,” Brownell recalls, “when there was so much excitement about biofuels and ethanol...states like Iowa were promising all kinds of fuel-making capacity without taking a hard look at how a lot of this corn that we make goes to developing countries in order to feed the world.” Vollen frames this starkly as “a political and regulatory issue: ‘if we replace oil with corn, what do we eat?’”
In this regard, viewing solar energy as the ultimate free resource, Brownell is particularly enthusiastic about products that harvest and manipulate light, such as Sensitile’s light-piping panels, embedding optical channels in concrete and resin substrates, or a recent breakthrough at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, scattering silver nanocubes on a gold film to “help the substrate absorb virtually all the light...so incredibly efficiently that nothing leaves the surface” and improving the efficiency of sensors. Another promising use of multiwall carbon nanotubes, he says, is field-induced polymer electroluminescent (FIPEL) technology, which generates a warm, nonflickering wavelength resembling sunlight—“that spectrum that clearly influences human behavior and productivity in workplaces and learning places.” These flat lighting panels offer a distinct improvement over harsh compact fluorescents and heat-inefficient incandescents, with efficiency approaching that of LEDs. Developed at Wake Forest University and licensed for commercial development to CeeLite Technologies, the panels can be integrated with flexible substrates and incorporated into windows or even textiles.
Brownell also cites the engineer/designer Akira Wakita’s work with “conductive threads to make thermochromic and photochromic textiles that can act as computer monitors.” The importance of lighting in the developing world, he emphasizes, makes it a promising field for leapfrogging technologies that address “the good but tough 99 percent question” about new materials’ relevance to global populations, as well as a generally fertile field for disruptive technologies. “I’m still marveling at how LEDs have transformed the whole lighting field,” Brownell says. “It wasn’t that long ago [that] it was kind of hard to find an LED.”
Concrete, the most widely used construction material on Earth, is ripe for innovation. Its Portland cement component accounts for an estimated 5 percent of the global carbon footprint; by weight, concrete is environmentally friendlier than metals or polymers, Brownell says, but its sheer prevalence means that improving its performance has considerable ecological effects. Strategies include reducing cement volume with additives like blast furnace slag or rice husk ash (practiced by the Canadian firm EcoSmart). Then there is Calera’s carbonate mineralization by aqueous precipitation, which diverts preheated flue gas into seawater, combines energy production, cement manufacture, and carbon sequestration, and enhances CO absorption by using magnesium silicate, iron carbonate, or other alternative components. This process is done by TecEco in Tasmania, Novacem in London, and CarbonCure in Nova Scotia. (“Concrete strikes me as something like molé,” Brownell comments: “Every family has their own recipe.”)
Tensile strength is a concern with any concrete; among various high-performance crack-resistant concretes that use silica fume, superplasticizers, ground quartz, or mineral fibers, Victor Li’s work at the University of Michigan with fiber-reinforced, bendable concrete stretches the category’s definition altogether. Lafarge’s Ductal is another high-performance concrete that bridges the border between concretes and composites. A novel self-repair strategy developed at Newcastle University, BacillaFilla, programs a Bacillus subtilis strain to create calcium carbonate and a “microbial glue” when it is injected into cracks; it then cures to the same strength as the surrounding material (finally stopping, thanks to a genetic “kill switch” that keeps the bugs from surviving once they detect a surface; this feature relieves hypothetical sci-fi concerns about an uncontrollable Bill Joy-style gray goo).
The prospect that concrete could move from carbon-positive to carbon-negative strikes many commentators as an achievable goal—provided the newer variants gain market share, despite contractors’ comfort level with current recipes. “What we need,” suggests Dent, “are some high-profile architects to use some of [the new] material and show its advantages by being part of a high-profile, near-carbon-zero building.”
Untested novelties face market resistance, particularly in areas where suboptimal technologies are entrenched, easily available, and (as Vollen points out) insurable. The factors that add up to successful technology transfer are far from systematic; for some materials, decades passed between their invention and commercialization. Dent hails Gorilla Glass, the ultra-strong, scratch-resistant surface that allows durability and interactivity in smartphones, as a transformative material that could also be useful in architecture. Yet when Corning developed the similar Chemcor glass in the early 1960s, it mothballed the product after about a decade, only to revive the idea on request from Apple in the mid-2000s. Serendipity and a suitable niche among related technologies appear essential for promising ideas to migrate from laboratory R&D to the Sweets catalog or the shelves of Home Depot.
One of nature’s recurrent strategies for economizing on material bulk—porous forms—characterizes several materials whose properties have drawn attention. Metallic foams, often aluminum or zinc, combine strength with lightness and thermal resistance; one such product, an aluminum foam marketed by the Canadian firm Cymat as SmartShield, was originally developed as a blast barrier on the undersides of military vehicles that encounter roadside bombs. “An individual at Cymat who had an architectural background recognized that, in addition to having the extreme technical properties, the material was aesthetically interesting,” reports Kelly Thomas, spokesperson for its distributor, Stone Source. Slightly altered in cell structure and slab thickness, rebranded as Alusion, the foam (80 percent air by volume) is now available to serve as walls, partitions, decorative fixtures, acoustic drop ceilings, or exterior cladding. Currently a specialty material, Alusion could conceivably gain increased prominence after the opening of the 9/11 Museum, where it will appear on the undersides of the twin fountains.
Courtesy Lefarge; Courtesy Cymat
A class of even more ethereal materials, aerogels, has existed since the 1930s: they are exceptionally light (often called “frozen smoke”) and highly rated as thermal insulators. Brittleness limits their practical uses, though one aerogel, Kalwall+ Lumira, has found use as a translucent wall and skylight material. Recent work at NASA’s Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland, however, has generated polymer-based aerogels robust enough to resist crumbling and flexible enough for use in building insulation, clothing, autos, and elsewhere. About 500 times as strong as silica aerogels, with R values up to ten times those of polymer-foam insulation, NASA’s polyimide aerogel has attracted about 70 commercial inquiries since last August, reports GRC technology transfer specialist Amy B. Hiltabidel, with five possible U.S. manufacturers currently negotiating to license it.
It is too early to tell whether initial costs will drop enough for this material to catch on commercially, but Hiltabidel reports that on the GRC’s Technology Readiness Level scale, where a basic-research project rates a 1 and a 10 is already on the space shuttle, polyimide aerogel, “one of the first materials that has attracted such a varied interest” outside the aerospace/defense sector, is currently about a 6. “Because it’s more developed” than the average, she says, “it will have a faster time to market, and I would say well within five years, probably closer to two to three.”
Conceivably, either of these materials could become what every product wants to be: a market-maker that changes people’s expectations. Or both could end up in narrow niches. With any new technology, Vollen suggests, “what you probably want is not to bet on one horse; what you probably want to do, which is what nature has done, is bet on many horses. Within the larger ecosystem of material ecology and construction ecology, there will always be a place for new things to survive, and the longer each one of these things survives, the more fit it is, and the more it’s going to solve the problem, long-term.”
He analogizes commercial ecosystems to earthly ones: “In the ecological model, you think about what fills the void when something leaves: there’s always a gap... We think they’ll all find a place in the ecosystem, and we should encourage them. What’s really critical, I think now, is to encourage the process by which we use each building as an experiment, as a demonstration site, and see which one is going to be the model of fitness in the future.”
On September 11, 2012, no politicians spoke at Ground Zero. That absence contrasted with 2011’s tenth “Tin” Anniversary event, when Michael Arad’s Memorial Plaza opened, with speeches by Presidents Obama and Bush, governors Christie and Cuomo, former mayor Giuliani, and former governors Pataki and DiFrancesco. What came next, however, was considerably less uplifting: the freezing of funds for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, marking the continued dysfunctional normal for the World Trade Center site, which has been rebuilding since the attack in 2001.
Now, after seeing the intelligent documentary 16 Acres, which opens with Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken,” we come to understand what is behind the saga of building at Ground Zero.
The film was shown at the Architecture & Design Film Festival, in New York in October. Our main guides through this feckless roundelay are two journalists, Philip Noble, author of Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (2004), and Scott Raab, who has written about the site for Esquire since 2005. With a wicked sense of humor and resigned irony, these keen observers analyze and synthesize the actions, decisions, and motivations of a parade of characters. Interviewees include George Pataki, Larry Silverstein, Danny Libeskind, Roland Betts (Lower Manhattan Development Corporation-LMDC), Janno Lieber (WTC Properties), Kenneth Ringler (Port Authority), David Childs (SOM), Michael Bloomberg, Rosaleen Tallon (family member), Chris Ward (Port Authority), and Michael Arad.
It’s an impressive collection, but obvious omissions include Paul Goldberger, who wrote his own book, Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York, (2005) about the same subject; John C. Whitehead, chairman of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and chairman of LMDC; and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.
Telling this story in film brings these personalities and their motivations to vivid life and shows their true colors (Pataki as a political opportunist and obstructionist, Silverstein as a sometimes tone-deaf-but-earnest businessman). Then there are the made-for-the-camera, fig-leaf media events like the laying of a cornerstone on July 4, 2004 (an irrelevant act, as cornerstones are not used in modern skyscrapers). That event had been prompted by Pataki’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Convention.
Subsequently, the cornerstone’s siting drew objections from the New York Police Department as too vulnerable, and was moved. As a result, the Freedom Tower scheme had to be scrapped and redesigned. (The irrelevant cornerstone was finally removed and now sits behind the engravers’ headquarters on Long Island. Raab, meanwhile, fantasizes a scene of dumping the rock on Pataki’s front lawn, ringing the doorbell, and racing away as fast as possible.)
Along with fantasy, the film lets us steep ourselves in the site itself, via reminders of the fits and starts of building at Ground Zero, the alphabet soup of stakeholders, the complicated rebuilding efforts. In contrast, 7 World Trade, also designed by David Childs and sited directly across the street, involved only Larry Silverstein and the Port Authority and was completed in 2006.
After the destruction of the twin towers, an immense architecture and planning opportunity arose for the city on what Raab called “perhaps the most valuable 16 acres on the face of the earth…at the center of the cosmos and fair game.” But the ensuing saga can now be viewed only as a series of scrambled opportunities and mixed messages.
These skeins are effectively sorted out in this smart film. Nobel highlights that these yet-to-be-built office buildings were being asked to embody the nation’s collective response—defiant renewal, a symbol of vengeance, and a symbol of healing. But as Paul Goldberger said in his book, “The greatest conflict was not between those who wanted to build and those who wanted the site to remain empty but between those who saw the priority of new construction on the site as primarily commercial and those who saw it as primarily symbolic and cultural.” Rather than void the pre-existing agreement with the leaseholder and rethink the use of the 16 acres, the arrangement remained, thus dictating that the rebuilding utilize the equivalent space for the same designated purposes.
A prime example of the zig-zag trajectory is the competition for the master plan (largely interpreted as the design of buildings themselves), which turned out to be a charade. First, the LMDC, created by Pataki and Giuliani to oversee the rebuilding, chose a design by THINK (Shigeru Ban, Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith, Rafael Vinoly). Pataki, however, disregarded the agency’s choice and instead selected Libeskind’s proposal.
Yet neither THINK nor Libeskind had the chance to realize their schemes, since leaseholder Larry Silverstein, who was paying for the rebuilding (as well as $10 million per month in rent to the Port Authority whether any buildings existed or not), wanted his own architect, David Childs. A shotgun marriage between Liebeskind and Childs didn’t work. Nobel tells the story of how SOM staff removed the large illuminated model of the Freedom Tower while it was being displayed at yet another Pataki press conference, this one at Federal Hall.
The last Libeskind remnant—a “stick on top,” reaching to the symbolic 1776 feet—was even lopped off as the model exited the hall, never to be seen again.
Michael Arad, who had to make his own compromises on the memorial, said, “It’s easy to think about all of the strife, all the disagreement, to focus on this didn’t go right, that didn’t go right…Actually, in the big picture, something did go right, really right.”
At present, four towers are in various stages of completion on the 16-acre site: 1 World Trade (no longer called the Freedom Tower), by David Childs; 2 World Trade, by Norman Foster; 3, by Richard Rogers; and 4, by Fumihiko Maki. As Philip Nobel said, “It’s an incredibly healthy thing that the city responded to September 11 in classic New York fashion by beating each other up, and grandstanding, and political manipulation. And you can say, ‘Oh, that’s awful,’ or you can say, ‘What a wonderful thing that New York healed this big wound with more New York.’” Let’s hope that it’s worth the wait.