Looking for the Light

So this is what it feels like to be duped—dark, empty, cynical. I hate feeling this way. The cause for my malaise is the public showing of the winning scheme for the World Trade Center memorial. No, I’m not depressed because the design is bad or ugly or insensitive; far from it. Michael Arad, the modest young architect who designed it, and Peter Walker, his equally low-key landscape architect collaborator, rendered an elegant, modern memorial to loss and renewal, which they call “Reflecting Absence.” What depresses me is the missing information that’s at the core of their design.

I was among the many who embraced the Daniel Libeskind plan, mostly because of how the architect talked about a piece of my hometown. He went down into the pit at Ground Zero, felt the resonance of the place, and came up with a plan that would respect the slurry wall, which was engineered so well that it held back the Hudson’s waters during the cataclysm. He exposed the tortured wall and imagined a ramp leading down to the full depth of the bedrock (70 feet), which would forever remind us of our great and hopeful capacity for ingenuity and survival. In the winning memorial design the exposed slurry wall is gone, with no comment from anyone about its disappearance, and the ramp is gone. It appears that the entire site has been moved up to grade. The cultural building that hung over the site—the most memorable form in Libeskind’s scheme—has been relegated to the corner of Fulton and Greenwich Streets, exposing the memorial park to the bustle of the city. The only remaining part of his original plan—and its weakest element—is the humongous Freedom Tower, designed by David Childs of SOM, not by Libeskind. But my malaise goes much deeper than the corruption of the master plan.

Here’s what I see in the drawings for the memorial park: two huge reflecting pools (the footprints of the Twin Towers) drenched in sunshine. But at exactly what time of day will those life-affirming rays make the waters sparkle? Will it be a brief moment, and then the shadows come? What happens to that luminous space when the Freedom Tower looms over it? And further into the future—the governor and mayor like to talk about future generations coming to the memorial—what kinds of shadows and wind tunnels will be produced by the mammoth office buildings planned for the periphery of the park? There is nothing more depressing and gloomy than gray pools of water occupying a dank, windy urban plaza where flora is condemned to struggle for life. Would such a place be a fitting memorial? We owe it to those who died, as well as those who come after us, to examine how sunlight can animate Ground Zero. We have the computing power of the twenty-first century to do this. Let’s not dupe ourselves further and think we can design anything of significance without understanding the natural world.

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