The Design Public Speaks

Metropolis editors surveyed notable people in and around New York City, including architects, designers, politicians, and writers, to hear their reactions to the December 18, 2002, plans for Ground Zero presented by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey). This is what they had to say.

Alexander Gorlin, Alexander Gorlin Architects
After paying the transportation and planning consultants $3 million the first time around, somebody at the LMDC realized that media architects would work for virtually nothing. Architects, it seems, are cheap dates.

“This was a brilliant move by the LMDC and associated real estate interests to dress up the original square footage in architectural garb to make the bulk look less offensive. But it’s still far too much for the site. Most of the schemes have the nine- to ten-million square feet in the same location: to the east and north of Greenwich Street, and where else could it go? The water is to the west and you can’t build on the footprints of the Towers.

“It’s an architectural circus. I live five blocks away and I’m moving as soon as possible.”

Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune
“The first set of plans was an embarrassment. This new set of ideas is an embarrassment of riches. But even when some of these plans fail—and many of them do, because they’re impractical, unbuildable—they fail in fascinating ways.

“Some of the new plans are even worse than the initial schemes. But there are some gems. And the new ones really sharpen the choices. They provide choices about the skyline. They provide choices about the street. They provide choices about the memorial. They provide choices about culture versus commerce. Most dramatically of all, they provide choices about megastructures.

“There are a lot of megastructures here. And in terms of planning and flexibility, phasing buildings in over time, megastructures will be problematic economically and aesthetically.

“But still this was a fascinating intellectual exercise. It strongly articulates choices for political leaders. It also raises expectations. And it would be a huge tragedy if, after raising these expectations, the developers went with the same old, same old.”

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association
“We saw some great architecture today. It was the Super Bowl of urban design. And it was extraordinary theatre.

“There’s no question we saw some brilliant ideas, some of which might make it into the final plans for the site. But the fundamental question is the program behind these schemes. That hasn’t changed. So we’ve had, including last summer’s six plans and the nine today, fifteen plans based on the Port Authority leases.

“One of the big messages from the public at ‘Listening to the City’ [held July 20, 2002; see Metropolis coverage: ‘Who’s Listening to Whom?’] was that the program was wrong. It was overly commercial. It had too much retail. That seems to be a message that the LMDC isn’t hearing.

“I think Mayor Bloomberg was right last week when he said, ‘Look, everything about the old World Trade Center wasn’t great. The trade center sucked the life off the streets of Lower Manhattan for 30 years.’

“So the question you have to ask is, why would we want to do that again? Behind the wonderful architecture we saw today, we still have ten million square feet of highly subsidized office space. What’s the next step?

“There has to be robust debate. And this process doesn’t do that. It’s a monologue, not a dialogue. They’ll simply have a suggestion box at the exhibition. The LMDC set the bar high with ‘Listening to the City’ and this doesn’t begin to meet that.

“Why are we rushing into this? We’re going to have to live with this for the next 300 years, what is an extra three weeks in the process? As inspiring as the architecture we saw today was, those plans just looked at the 16-acre site. We’ve said from the beginning that we have to think broader. This site has to serve as a catalyst for the whole neighborhood and ultimately the entire region. So the question ultimately becomes, how do we divorce this process from the real estate deals?”

Michael Wolffe, media columnist for New York Magazine
“To me everything looked astoundingly hideous. I liked none of it. Everything was just big and vulgar. It may have been the size. It may be that anything at that scale comes off looking vulgar. But it was just too-too. This was the most embarrassing case of architects crying out for attention, which gave me the creeps. I’d say this was the worst collection of public architecture I’d ever seen. There was that thing with the boxes [the Meier/Eisenman/Gwathmey/Holl scheme]. What are you supposed to do with that? Put Whoopi Goldberg in one of those things?”

Milton Glaser, graphic designer
“I haven’t studied them in depth yet. They all seemed to be great improvements over what was proposed before. But the schemes still seem confined by the constraints of the brief. So they all looked conventional. My feeling was the response of the architects was still shaped by the brief, so that the chance for a breakthrough—for something truly startling—didn’t occur. So in that sense, they were a disappointment.”

Michael Bierut, partner, Pentagram
“I just had a conversation with an architect friend of mine about this. He said the frustrating thing about this sort of moment is that, inevitably, it turns into being about the iconography of building form.

“Urbanism is about so much more than that. It’s not just about the symbolic form of a building, it’s about how people live on the sidewalk and how they live their lives in urban spaces. Every one of these plans describes a large, involved urban space. Yet at this moment, at least_with the cake still cooling_the conversation is all about the form.

“That’s true, but on the other hand, this challenge exists because of guys that pointed high-jacked airplanes—not at urban experiences, but at iconic architectural forms. I think somehow this is one of those cases where there’s just this universal craving to replace iconic forms perceived in the most abstract symbolic way with other forms that are similarly abstract, symbolic, and viewed at the mega scale.

“The challenge is going to be how you reconcile that yearning with the actual reality of people holding Starbucks cups and people talking on cell phones and punching elevator buttons and sitting at desks and instant messaging each other in these spaces that, one way or another, will come to exist in some form.

“I think that overhanging everything is the fact that the LMDC and the Port Authority have been very vague about what these plans and events are meant to be for and what really will happen to them as the process goes forward.

“I bought The New York Times and I also bought the tabloids today, and the tabloids are very blunt about it. They say one of these plans will be selected at the end of January. The Times is much more ‘realistic’ about it; they say it’s unlikely any of these plans will be built at all. It will be motivated by commercial concerns, they say, though they’re unclear about the process.

“That’s all true, but once you put these things out in public, the reception to them, particularly at this moment at that site, given what it is and what the site’s history is, as much as people want to control the process, it really does become truly participatory. Every news organization is running a Web site to pick your favorite, and people will not be picking complex urban experiences.

“Call it pretty pictures if you want, but a postcard of the Manhattan skyline is a pretty picture. For a lot of people this project is no more or no less about creating that.

“To me that’s rather unprecedented. I think with every other building in New York, the public has taken varying degrees of interest, but it’s always been the developer’s building or the corporate tenant’s building. Certainly those people can be great patrons of architecture or can be careless about it, and various public voices can come out for or against these things. But this is one case where it seems like anything can happen. The pessimists on the public side assume the worst will happen—commerce and politics will win out. I wouldn’t place a bet on that side anymore than I would on the other side.”

Alexandros Washburn, W Architecture
“I was overall pretty impressed by the designs, by all the work that went into them (pro bono, for the most part). I do wish that someone would have challenged the program. But these designs give a glimpse of how good we can be. The hunger for greatness has returned.”

Beverly Willis, director of Architecture Research Institute and co-founder of Rebuild Downtown Our Town (R.DoT)
“The architects were retained to come up with ideas. They weren’t retained in a traditional fashion. So it was not a competition, as we understand competitions in architecture.

“Given their assignments, the principle focus was on ideas and not so much on the broader interface with the community, with the exception of Peterson-Littenberg, whose urban design was excellent; their building design was uninspiring, but their urban design was well thought out.

“So my reaction to the plans was that they are like froth on beer—a lot of froth and not much beer. There was very little discussion about the square footage. I walked away not really sure what I saw. There were some exciting forms, but it wasn’t clear to me what the forms were for. The bottom line is I’m not sure what I was looking at.

“There was a disconnect between the forms and how those forms might function. And given that, it makes it hard for me to respond to questions like: ‘Was there something that stood out? What did you like?’

“We are told that some of the ideas from December 18 might work their way into the final plan. How will that work? How can you create a single design with so many pieces of the pie cut up in a way nobody understands?

“This brings up the question: who exactly is the client here? Who’s the decision maker? Is it the LMDC? The Port Authority? Where’s the governor? The governor has to come out of his cave in Albany and provide leadership. You can’t have great architecture without a great client. And he’s got to step up and become a great client. If he doesn’t step up, the process will become even more chaotic and get bogged down in lawsuits.

“I feel I’ve seen some exciting ideas by some great architects, but given what else is going on, what does it all mean?”

Frank Sanchis, executive director of the Municipal Art Society
“You know about our Imagine New York project? The Municipal Arts Society was out there getting the public opinion about what important criteria were to be included in the program. I am, of course, colored by this.

“I was actually very heartened to see that a lot of things that the public said had to be important considerations for anything that occurred at Ground Zero was picked up. Probably the most obvious was that everybody came in with a tall building, or a tall something. Restoring the skyline had come out right away in our Imagine New York discussions. That’s something that the public really wanted to see down there, and everybody had it. That’s terrific.

“Also, a lot of them had linked green spaces connecting to the water. People felt there should be a progression of green spaces and plenty of them scattered throughout this development and that these should somehow get people over to the water. That was a predominant feature of the schemes too.

“The easy one that has been all over the papers is that there should be excellent design. The LMDC got a stellar group of architects to submit proposals and they came back with some stunning ideas. It was very heartening to see that level of design in many of the solutions.

“I was surprised that a lot of the designs went as far as they did in creating the memorial as opposed to just designating where the memorial would be and letting it be part of a competition.

“Other things that came out of our Imagine New York sessions—a mix of uses, economic stability—were less obvious in the solutions that we saw. But I think that derives from the fact that the program the architects were given was fairly vague and was not really based on a careful planning analysis of the needs of downtown now.

“The LMDC simply has not done that. That’s something that the Municipal Arts Society has said before. We still think that there needs to be a careful analysis of the planning needs downtown and what demand there is for this use and that use and how many square feet there should be. At some point somebody, presumably the LMDC, is going to have give that information to the architects. Otherwise they won’t get beyond concept into reality.”

Jean Gardner, Department of Architecture, Parsons School of Design
“I went to a local restaurant to watch the press conference so I could hear what anyone who happened to be there had to say. It was the best three hours I have spent in ages: ‘Show me what it’s going to look like!’ yelled the young man next to me as we watched the unveiling on the television. ‘Why can’t those guys speak to me? I live here, too. Are they out of their minds? Do they think I want to spend my life with my mouth hanging open in awe as I wander around in their sky towers? Come on, give me something real!’ A waiter leaned toward me, quietly asking, ‘Why do they want to build so fast? When someone in your family dies, you don’t rush out and get a new one. How is this any different?’”

Micheal Manfredi, Weiss/Manfredi Architects
“Right now we’re looking forward to letting the rhetoric settle. We want to look at the schemes and separate them from the hype, both good and bad. I thought some of the schemes looked really good, but one of the things missing from the debate is what I would call the ripple effect. What is the impact of the site? And what kind of impact will it have on adjacent sites? How does it, for instance, relate to the harbor?

“The other danger that I see is that people will be seduced by image. Far more important is the connection the site makes with the surrounding area. That will be critical.

Marion Weiss, Weiss/Manfredi Architects
“I think what’s happening here, which is extraordinary, is that the public is being presented with a whole new vocabulary. It’s really the first time in this country since the creation of the United Nations that there’s an awareness in the general public about the power of architecture.

“Design now is of consequence. That sort of awareness is unprecedented. In fact in this country we’ve seen an increasing awareness of the designed world. We drink better coffee, eat better food. It might be a leap to say, but can you imagine if that vocabulary could be applied to the making of our cities? It would lift us up to the level of cultural appreciation that Europeans have long had for their cities.”

Hugh Hardy, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates
“Consideration of the plans proposed by the LMDC raises several different questions. One: will the process by which this work is being advanced lead to a successful result, in relation to both urban planning and the creation of public consensus? Two: what kind of places and experiences will these schemes produce? And three: how do these schemes relate to the rest of the city?

“The schemes suggest an enormous range of possibilities can be achieved on this site, whether set apart from the city or integrated into its existing structure and character. Because September 11th caused an unprecedented wound, it seems natural to make that scar part of the rebuilding effort with an approach like Libeskind, who reveals the guts of the foundations and transportation systems. It is also possible, Norman Foster proves, to make the site a great park, interrupted by two giant shafts representing the bedrock footprints of the original towers.

“However, the ‘best’ scheme depends upon its relation to the rest of the city at many different levels, both physical and conceptual. ‘Visionary’ suggests something apart from everyday and therefore a visionary scheme must set itself apart from the city as we know it.

“The original site plan for the World Trade Center was ‘visionary’ in its adherence to the idea of a super block separate from the city. Several of the schemes present this concept with a new identity and suffer the same problems of at their edges that bedeviled the former World Trade Center. How does ‘visionary’ relate to a site plan, the goal of this exercise?

“One answer lies in the topography of the site which is specific to this place and specific to the disaster of 9/11. Unlike Manhattan, which is currently planned as if it were flat, this site offers special opportunities to create a three-dimensional city, one in which the layers of activity that distinguish New York can actually be made visible and connected to the surrounding city on grade level at many different elevations.

“For some, ‘visionary’ also suggests a single authorship, and it is interesting to note which of the schemes depend upon the talents of a single architect. But no uniform aesthetic consciousness prevails in New York. Even Rockefeller Center was designed by a group, and no two of its buildings, except for those that form the promenade, are the same.

“Any of these schemes will take many years to achieve and must be responsive to changes in program, financing and aesthetic judgment. Which one best serves the realities of urban real estate development requires careful study. Finally, it should be observed that New Yorkers have never had an opportunity to consider the planning of their city at this scale before. It directly raises questions about what kind of future we see for New York. This imponderable must be answered by faith in our future and that requires a process of exploration that can unleash our basic optimism.”

Alan Gerson, City Councilman, District One, covering Lower Manhattan
“I think this was a gigantic step forward. We saw a lot of creativity in these schemes, but there’s still a need for more community input, more give and take.

“I don’t have a favorite at this point, but there were a few elements missing in all of them: a greater connection to the river, an architecturally significant home for culture, an area and architecture that’s geared toward children, and a commitment to planning for a range of disabilities. But all of these can be added to subsequent plans.

“I would have also liked to see an architectural alternative that didn’t just emphasize height. But this is exactly why we should not have a cut off date of January 31st. I think the period of public comment should be extended for two or three months. We should allow sufficient time for follow up. Because once we settle on something, it will be forever.”

Categories: Cities

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