Book Casts WTC Redevelopment as Modern Epic

Since much of Philip Nobel’s early writing about the World Trade Center appeared in Metropolis, I can’t pretend to be objective about his forthcoming book, Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (Metropolitan Books). Still, I’ve read most of the recent literature on the subject and feel qualified to offer an informed (though biased) opinion: Sixteen Acres is the first WTC book to rise to the level of narrative.

The redevelopment of Ground Zero is a planning story. For journalists these sagas are fraught with difficulties. Every damn point needs to be placed in context. This often results in huge blocks of explanatory exposition. Nothing kills drama faster than exposition. Nobel avoids this pitfall by turning public figures (Daniel Libeskind, Larry Silverstein) into characters and historic events into epic scenes. Sixteen Acres is both a smart piece of critical writing and a good read. Recently I talked to Nobel about the new book, lessons learned at Ground Zero, and what it tells us about the current state of architecture.

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Martin C. Pedersen: Is the redevelopment of the WTC so unique that it doesn’t tell us much about architecture, or does it tell us more than we want to know about how it’s made, the compromises struck, the politics involved?

Philip Nobel: It’s interesting how after the rhetorical dust settled, it became clear that it was a typical New York development project involving politicians, bureaucrats, corporate architects, star architects. It was all sort of writ large on this gigantic, media-saturated scale, playing out as it did, at times, as caricature. Suddenly the role of star architects became apparent. Though it was cloaked in smoke and mirrors, Libeskind’s role was nothing more than when Architectonica gets dragged in to put a face on a developer’s skyscraper.

One of the major threads in the book is the changing—and diminishing—role of the Libeskinds. How did your view of them change?

Just yesterday I was talking to an architecture reporter, who had recently spent time with Danny and Nina [Libeskind] and was very charmed by them. I started off in the same place. They’re charming, wonderful people. They also seem to feel that they can do whatever it takes to succeed in any given political arena. My impression of them evolved, and once their sway on me lessened, I could look more clearly at what he’d actually done, because there is this giant rift between the rhetoric and the work.

You wrote a Metropolis profile in 1999 that was largely sympathetic to Daniel Libeskind. Was there a moment in the WTC process when you began have doubts about him?

If you look at that piece closely, it’s neutral critically. All of the criticisms I’ve subsequently made are embedded in there—about how talking and building are different ideas for him. But the turning point was around the time of the naming of the Freedom Tower. I come from the perspective that buildings are buildings, and buildings—particularly commercial buildings—don’t have meanings beyond, “I’m standing here, I’m holding offices, and I’m presenting an image of civic dignity.” So I grew increasingly skeptical of the smorgasbord of themes and symbols that he was pasting onto his work.

Around April 2003, Danny was saying, “This 1776-foot-tall tower will stand as a symbol of freedom and beauty, reinforcing the world’s understanding that we’re rising from the ashes, and moving boldly into a glorious, optimistic future.” In a subsequent speech, Pataki condensed that and simply referred to the building as “Freedom Tower.” When that happened, it became clear that what Libeskind had done was shrewdly, brilliantly, and cravenly produce this symbol that could be used as a cudgel by right-leaning politicians, during the war and during the build-up to the war in Iraq. That seemed inexcusable and ironic, given Libeskind’s political leanings.

There’s an interesting analysis in the book about Andrew Cuomo’s early campaign stumble and how it affected development downtown.

I think of Cuomo as the first domino of what became the active process. In early spring 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation [LMDC] was still forming and hadn’t put out its first policy papers. Already there was a lot of clamoring about inaction, but Pataki was doing a good job of staying in Guiliani’s patriotic glow and had not actually said anything himself.

At this point Cuomo, in this John McCain-esque gambit, invited the press onto his campaign bus. It was the second day of his campaign, and someone asked him about the governor’s performance in the days after September 11, and he said, infamously, “He wasn’t a leader; he just held Guiliani’s coat.” It was a slow news day—and there was a giant uproar.

His campaign imploded. It was essentially over from that moment on.

It began and ended in two days. But as he tried to dig out and get the press back on his side, he started saying things like, “Oh, no, what I really mean is that he’s mishandling downtown.” When Cuomo firmly politicized the redevelopment, the Requests-For-Proposals (RFPs) magically started to appear. That set in place the pace and terms of the process.

You can see it as one continuous forward fumble from there. Because that accelerated first round of planning begot the Beyer Blinder Belle plans and others that were presented that summer, and then shouted down in the one moment of common shared effort. Then the Innovative Design Study, which was never meant to be a competition, evolved almost exclusively to clean up that mistake and try to get out of the political swamp the process had gotten into. Without Cuomo stepping on the gas panel, the Innovative Design Study may never have happened. You can do all sorts of alternate histories from that point.

Had Cuomo not uttered those fateful words, we might not have broken ground for the Freedom Tower yet, or had a final memorial design?

Or more importantly, we might have actually had planning and then architectural design, as two different things. This is a controversial point. There may be visionary architects and planners who could do it as it should be done, as one crystalline vision, but that wasn’t the way it was going to happen here. Beyer Blinder Belle was brought in to define the program. Had they been allowed to plan with a broad scope, looking at all of Lower Manhattan the way they were originally asked in the accelerated RFP, there’s a chance that the program might have gotten more nuanced than this idea that Silverstein’s lease and all of the numbers therein are sacrosanct, and then peppering onto the site all of these other things which never really had any debate.

I mean, you want a train station but it doesn’t have to be a downtown Grand Central. You want access, but you don’t have to reintroduce the street grid. You need a memorial, but it didn’t have to be in the footprints. All of those things, during this accelerated phase in 2002, just became true.

It’s widely believed that Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) didn’t do good work during that initial round of planning. Your book gives John Belle a chance to refute those charges. Talk about their early role.

BBB just got f***ed. They were victims. The initial response to them was colored by this Muschampian idea that there are good architects and bad architects, and that good architects make fancy shapes and bad architects are contextual. John Belle says that they showed up at the first meeting and the Port Authority said, “We know we asked you to do planning, but it turns out we can’t do that, because the nature of Silverstein’s lease doesn’t permit us to widen the scope of inquiry.” That was posturing on their part, because they didn’t want to open up questions about use of the site. The Port Authority couldn’t question Silverstein’s lease because all of their revenue streams were grandfathered into it.

Here’s another interesting point I tried to make clear in the book: the demands on the site, the perception that it had to provide symbolic answers, were firmly ensconced in the public’s imagination because of the Max Protetch show [which featured artists’ ideas for a rebuilt WTC] and the grand media tour it took, because of all the amateur designers and this outpouring of vision. Everyone was talking from day one about architectural form. So the idea that you would take a step back and plan, discuss the context, and do simple space planning and then move onto architectural form—no one was ready for that. Everyone was looking for symbols and they got floor plans.

BBB was hired to do planning. But because they were asked to focus on the sixteen acres, they ended up getting more into architecture than they might have if they had looked at everything below Canal Street or Houston Street.

Former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp is a major character in the book. What affect did he have?

The conventional wisdom is that Muschamp did a wonderful thing in fall 2002 by getting this group of international stars and local architects together to do the New York Times Magazine’s “masters plan” issue. That the LMDC saw Herbert gathering these forces for a “visionary” plan and countered him by doing the innovative design study. Never mind that last summer Muschamp flip-flopped, saying, “I actually think the best solution would be to just rebuild the twins as they were.”

I think his role has been overblown. The LMDC needed to do something, and having done the boring corporate thing, the only architectural option left was to bring in the stars. That’s the biggest lesson to take out of this.

To read an excerpt from Philip Nobel’s Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (Metropolitan Books), click here.

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