Goodbye Memory Foundations, Hello Reflecting Absence

The coming-out party for WTC memorial designer Michael Arad, held January 14 at New York’s Federal Hall, was marked with a mixture of anticipation, relief, and deep emotion. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s previous two events—the presentation of the eight WTC memorial semifinalists and debut of the Freedom Tower—had felt curiously subdued, as if process fatigue had finally set in. But the unveiling of “Reflecting Absence”—Arad’s revised memorial design, which had been updated with the help of landscape architect Peter Walker—marked a new chapter in the rebuilding saga, one with serious implications for Daniel Libeskind’s master plan.

All of the principals showed up for this event: Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, as well as site developer Larry Silverstein and Freedom Tower architect David Childs, who sat together in the front row. Most of the 13 members of the memorial jury were also on hand, including Maya Lin and Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, as well as Libeskind, top ranking officials of the Fire Department (in full dress), deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, former LMDC president Lou Tomson, and many of the victims families, including early activists like Monica Ikin, who in the recent past had begun to recede from the public eye.

The impressive turnout was a reminder of what was at stake. All of this political intrigue and insanity—the handicapping of who’s up and who’s down—is the product of a tragedy, a response to the death of three thousand people. It’s easy to forget that while waxing cynical about the machinations of New York real estate. When the governor introduced Arad, and the young Housing Authority architect began his halting, humble, nerve-wrecking speech, I found myself inexplicably moved.

Arad talked about meeting the families, the burdens he faced, and how he’d agonized over the contentious issue of designating fallen rescue workers. “Every way you find to resolve this satisfies some,” he said, “but causes pain and anguish to others.” His utter lack of polish and endearingly geeky manner felt pure and unrehearsed. A similar performance from an experienced architect would have created a credibility problem, but coming from him, here, it felt like a validation of the process. This open, anonymous memorial competition—which drew more than 5000 entries—had yielded an anonymous, unheralded winner.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Arad’s design, which still feels vague and unfinished. But it has made abundantly clear, however, the state of Libeskind’s site plan.

For the past six months, critics have claimed that his master plan, “Memory Foundations,” was being eviscerated. I disagreed. I felt most of the changes had been at the site’s edges. In fact, given the intense and conflicting pressures on the site, I thought the plan had changed surprisingly little. Until this presentation.

The jury, who by all accounts operated independently, chose a memorial that essentially repudiated the master plan. Arad’s original scheme had a long, skinny, awkward structure (it didn’t even look like a building) bordering West Street, which resulted in a sterile plaza punctuated by two huge, 30-foot depressions outlining the footprints of the former towers.

Arad’s revisions were apparently done in concert with the jury and the LMDC—and they’re substantial. Noted landscape architect Walker joined the design team and, judging from the changes, it seems his role involved softening the plaza with trees. “Reflecting Absence” is now a hybrid: part memorial/part “urban forest” (as Walker called it in his remarks).

The current plan reduces Libeskind’s cultural building, which initially cantilevered over portions of the footprints; now a line of trees separates the street from the footprints of the north tower. The above-grade portion of the cultural building has been tucked into the southwest corner of Fulton and Greenwich, while the rest of the program—the cantilevered part—has presumably been placed underground.

After the event, I asked Nina Libeskind, Daniel’s wife and business partner, about the change. “Your cultural building did a good job of hooding the memorial from Fulton Street,” I said. “What happened to it?”

“That’s what the jury wanted—they were the law here,” she said with a shrug, as if the Libeskinds were now thoroughly resigned to secondary roles.

At Federal Hall, Daniel Libeskind—the perpetual optimist, the man possessing that 50,000-watt public smile—looked atypically subdued. When it was his turn to speak, he gave a rambling, three-minute speech that seemed to consist of a single, incoherent run-on sentence, delivered on autopilot.

Later I logged onto the LMDC web site to get a closer look at the memorial scheme. At this point, it’s not entirely clear how it’s all going to work below grade, how the two footprints will connect, and exactly how the spaces will relate to the museum of 9-11 artifacts now part of the plan. The vagueness here, I think, isn’t particularly sinister; the design just hasn’t been figured out yet.

While looking at “Reflecting Absence” images, I stumbled on the slide presentation for “Memory Foundations.” This part of the LMDC site includes 45 images, outlining in detail the master plan created by Studio Daniel Libeskind. In glancing at those slides, it became obvious that the “resolution” between the approved master plan and the revised memorial has resulted in the near-erasure of “Memory Foundations.” Libeskind’s core idea—that ramped descent into the pit and the exposed slurry wall—is gone; currently, the new park/memorial appears at grade.

So if you’re keeping score—and many of us are—then you’d have to conclude that Libeskind was the big loser at Federal Hall. What remains of Memory Foundations are its weakest elements: the 1776-foot Freedom Tower (designed by David Childs) and the massing of the future office buildings (dictated by the lease agreements). There is no guarantee that Libeskind will even design the truncated cultural building.

This long, torturous route to rebuilding has led us practically full circle: back to July 2002 and the universally reviled site plans originally credited to Beyer Blinder Belle. If you look at those schemes on the LMDC web site and then mentally Photoshop in the new memorial design, you arrive in most cases at something close to what we have today—which shouldn’t come as a shock, since the original program of 10 million square feet of office space was never seriously challenged.

As the rebuilding process grinds on, Libeskind’s role has become depressingly clear: Rather than to serve as a visionary, he was brought in to “sex up” plans previously rejected by the public.

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