Gehry Weasels His Way Into Ground Zero Masterplan

By keeping the messy process at arm’s length, America’s most famous architect lands a plum job at Ground Zero—on his own terms.

One problem in writing a book about Ground Zero was how to deal with the clock. The work of finding answers down there, and building them, would necessarily outlast any manuscript deadlines—by decades. So in a few places I had to take an educated guess at what would happen after my account (plugged so often in these pages I’ll spare you another mention) hit cold print. I guessed wrong when I implied that developer Larry Silverstein’s attempt to double his money would fail (hey, I wasn’t the only one who thought his insurance lawsuit would get laughed out of court). But I guessed right that at the end of the day—despite keeping the ugliness of the process at arm’s length, after turning down at least three invitations to join the fray as part of a team—Frank Gehry would find himself with a plum job down there, on his own terms.

And has he ever. That was the big news at a politico-studded press conference called late last year to discuss the September 11 memorial. To promote the message of the day—that all was well, indeed thriving, as that labyrinth of pools and pathways moved ever farther from Michael Arad’s pure notions and toward the camel we knew all along it had to become—the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) carted out yet another model of the current state of play. There was the Freedom Tower, now so clearly free of Daniel Libeskind’s grip, twisting its way up to an exclamation-point finial at 1,776 feet (free, I mean, except for that one-liner). There was Santiago Calatrava’s winged train station, down at the tower’s feet, looking like the bones of a bird interrupted in its migrations midflap (but promising, so promising, if it can be built as designed). And across the street, on the contested ground of the memorial superblock itself, a new iceberg massing for the Freedom Center (the so-called Museum of Freedom) provided by Libeskind’s office as a place holder until the newly appointed architects at Snøhetta (welcome, Norwegians, and don’t leave your Viking instincts at home) can find enough air within the overlapping demands and jurisdictions to come up with something new—and hopefully great—at the center of what one enlightened student of the site has referred to as “an architectural petting zoo.”

No such agglomeration of contemporary talents could exist long without its Gehry—we knew it all along, didn’t we?—but where was he in that new dollhouse representation, as the politicians made their case for progress and demanded optimism from the jaded press? Last fall, at the same time Snøhetta was tapped, Gehry was given the commission for the planned theater building. But on the new model, the site assigned to that feature of the program was empty: no massing, no label, no nothing. It was a telling omission. Where everyone else has been fated to build on top of one another (or, worse, on top of, under, or wrapping the memorial), Gehry had gotten for himself the only blank slate—free of formal preconceptions and obligations to the dead.

Perhaps no one else could have done what Gehry did, but it is instructive to review how he got there. When reporters came calling in the first days after September 11, he said, “No comment.” When other architects, some friends, appealed to him the next year, Gehry said, “No thank you.” When invitations came from officialdom, he demurred—until all the dust had settled, the press was tiring of the story, and the first batch of players (Beyer Blinder Belle and Libeskind) had exited the stage, bloodied. Only then, three years after the attack, did Gehry act publicly on the private interest in the site he had been nurturing since the week of the event, when he had found himself—like so many other international stars—by chance in Manhattan. No other architect could be so sure that demand for his services would survive displays of disinterest. Koolhaas, for instance, played catch-me-if-you-can, participating in and then dissing the process as his affections for America (tested by its empire building) waxed and waned—but Gehry’s strategy nonetheless carried with it the odorless whiff of good taste.

So we will get our Gehry downtown. And we will have an architectural petting zoo in which all but one of the beasts are caged together, while the exception preens in his own free-form pen across the street. Kevin Rampe, the long-suffering head of the LMDC, refers to the intersection of Fulton and Greenwich Streets as the plan’s “100 percent corner.” The danger now, of course, with such a potential for excess—individual acts of expression by (clockwise from the southeast) Calatrava, Snøhetta, Arad, Gehry, and, for an abutting tower, one of four additional stars preselected by Silverstein—is that the corner will weigh in at a much higher percentage. How much architecture can Ground Zero take? Two hundred? Three hundred? One thousand percent? For his own good, Gehry played the process brilliantly, alone. For the good of the site, the master of Bilbao must now prove he can play well with others. Let’s hope he risks showing us some new tricks.

Categories: Architecture, Planning