Strange Bedfellows

A media advisory arrives in my e-mail in-box from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC): “Daniel Libeskind, the chosen designer of the new World Trade Center site” is going to ring the opening bell at the American Stock Exchange. There are instructions for members of the media wishing to attend, for broadcasters wanting to tap into a fiber-optic feed, and for print outlets needing photos from Associated Press.

I guess it’s normal now that Libeskind, the highly intellectual designer of difficult, convoluted buildings and the newly anointed architect of Lower Manhattan’s reawakening, would be ringing a stock market’s opening bell. A lot of things are normal now. Think about it for a moment: prior to September 11, 2001, who would have foreseen a circumstance in which one of the world’s thorniest architects would have scored any commission at all in the relentlessly conservative developer-driven environment of Manhattan? It would have been unlikely that he’d be hired to do a small cultural institution—even something town-house scaled, like Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art Museum or Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Institute. But 16 acres? The most significant, highly contested site in the city’s history? Impossible.

Of course, after 9/11 nothing will ever seem impossible again. Most of the events unleashed by the attacks that day have been bad things, hellish things. However, there is something about tragedy that cracks open the possibility for positive change. Back on December 18, when the seven architectural teams chosen by the LMDC presented their concepts for the site to the public, I began remembering things about Libeskind that allowed me a glimpse of possibility.

A decade ago, in an auditorium near the center of the former East Berlin, I watched Libeskind make a presentation. He was one of five finalists in a competition to rebuild Alexanderplatz, the enormous open plaza best known for Fernsehturm, the 1,200-foot-tall concrete television tower topped with an object that looks like Sputnik. The audience was filled with East Berliners, who after the reunification of the two Germanys were witnessing the redevelopment of their neighborhoods with Western money. The West Germans had little respect for the symbols of the DDR and seemed eager to tear them all down. The East Germans felt as if they were being colonized anew and quickly developed a sentimental attachment to buildings that, before the fall of the Wall, they largely despised. Now Alexanderplatz, one of the more dizzying examples of 1960s socialist urban planning, had been targeted for renewal.

The other architects on stage that evening were from West Germany, and all of them blithely presented plans that called for acres of new Western-style skyscrapers. Their elaborate renderings showed no trace of the old Alexanderplatz. Even the Fernsehturm had vanished behind glass-and-steel office towers. Then Libeskind—the American architect—spoke. He told the audience that Alexanderplatz was pretty much okay the way it was; it just needed a shot in the arm to blossom into a good capitalist neighborhood. The existing train station, hotel, and department store would need face-lifts; other businesses would inevitably follow. Alexanderplatz would be the same, only better. That night Libeskind won the audience.

He didn’t win the competition but came in second to a Berlin firm’s proposal to build half a dozen skyscrapers in the square. Had audience response determined the outcome of the competition, Libeskind would have easily won. He was the only architect who demonstrated empathy, who understood how the East Berliners were feeling and effectively incorporated that emotional knowledge into his proposal.

Living in Berlin at the time, I was constantly amazed at how much space was given over to architecture in the daily newspapers. Every day there were renderings: Helmut Jahn’s early plans for rebuilding the Potsdammer Platz, Peter Eisenman’s proposal for a monumental arch, an urban-renewal project by Aldo Rossi. But even in an environment in which architects had the name recognition of rock stars, Libeskind stood out. He was the only architect I’d ever seen woo a crowd, not with a glib sales pitch but with insight. While his work—all unbuilt at that point—suggested that he was a high-minded formalist, someone too abstracted to exist in the real world, he displayed the instincts of a natural politician. Most architects are gifted at looking at a site and seeing what could someday be there. Libeskind knows how to do that, but he also has a skill that eludes most of his fellow practitioners: he can look at a site and see what is already there.

Libeskind demonstrated this extraordinary power—the ability to see what is right in front of our eyes—in December at the media event at the Winter Garden, when he began talking about the significance of the slurry wall, the last remaining remnant of the old WTC, the piece of infrastructure that kept the Hudson River from inundating Lower Manhattan. He built his concept around the symbolic beauty of this wall. In doing so, he communicated more pure emotional understanding than anyone else who took the stage that day.

The competition was the outgrowth of a fiasco in which the public flatly rejected a series of plans rendered by Beyer Blinder Belle in July. The program represented by those plans—replacement of as much as ten million square feet of office space, rebuilding of the underground shopping mall, incorporation of a memorial and public space, and restoration of the street grid that predated the WTC—is virutally the same brief that was given to the architectural teams that presented in December. The difference was that the all-star teams drafted for the competition were expected to adhere to the program but encouraged to run wild with their design concepts. Although Alexander Garvin—the LMDC’s vice president for planning, design, and development—insists the competition was about the program requirements, the results tended to obscure those mundane business-as-usual strictures. The real point was to produce a symbol that would galvanize public sentiment so effectively that the process of rebuilding could proceed apace.

Instead of focusing on whether the site should accommodate nearly 900,000 square feet of retail, a hotel, a host of tourist-oriented amenities, and all that office space, the press was fixated on the horse race. Who would win? Would it be the Think group’s Eiffel Tower-inspired latticework superstructures, the “Twin Towers of Culture,” or Libeskind’s “Memory Foundations” featuring the slurry wall, the Wedge of Light, the Park of Heroes, and a 1,776-foot-tall tower? Clearly the two plans became finalists because they offered the public strong symbolic images while giving the developer—whether it’s Larry Silverstein, the site’s leaseholder, or some future set of builders—maximum flexibility in the design and phasing of the revenue-generating office towers. After days of reports that said the Think team was favored, Governer Pataki weighed in (although the crucial vote may have been cast by Mayor Bloomberg), and Libeskind was officially named the winner in late February.

At this writing, the political fight over who controls the site and what will actually be built there is ongoing. The city wants to wrest control of the land from the state-controlled Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) and force Silverstein out of the equation. This might happen through a land swap (the site in exchange for the two airports, which the city owns but the PA operates). Or a political deal might be struck putting the city in control of the LMDC (instead of sharing it with the state). Or it might not happen at all. The PA built the World Trade Center, was headquartered there, lost 84 employees when it fell, and has an emotional attachment to the site that may be stronger than the mayor’s will.

In late March it was announced that Libeskind would work for two clients: the LMDC, which would oversee design of the memorial and the so-called “cultural district” (including an “interpretive museum,” a piazza, and some sort of theater); and the PA, which would handle transportation and infrastructure. The Port Authority is the massive interstate agency formed in 1921 to eliminate endless squabbles between New York and New Jersey over the states’ shared waterways and freight transportation fees. It has architects of course, but its design culture is dominated by engineers, the ultimate pragmatists. If Libeskind’s buildings are essays, polemics in concrete and steel, then the PA builds uninspired conduits—structures designed to move as many people as possible. Although Libeskind is sensitive to the beauty of the quotidian, the PA puts the quotidian in place. “Both are entering a new world,” Garvin observes.

The PA has become the standard-bearer of the status quo, protector of the old WTC program: the office space and shopping mall (which, because of some horse-trading when Silverstein leased the site in July 2001, includes an additional 450,000 square feet of aboveground shopping). And they’ve been busy doing what needs to be done, constructing a “temporary” PATH station that’s due to open later this year. They had plans for a bus garage in the bathtub—the hole where the old buildings stood—to accommodate the tourists that a memorial will someday attract. The notion that a bus garage in the middle of what many people regard as a burial ground would be abhorrent to the relatives of 9/11 victims apparently didn’t dawn on the agency’s planners.

In fact, the Bloomberg administration, relatives of 9/11 victims, and any number of the civic groups that have formed around the redevelopment regard the agency with suspicion. “Principally the idea of creating the Paramus Mall at Ground Zero makes sense to nobody except the Port Authority,” comments Robert Yaro, the head of the Regional Plan Association, a formerly low-key policy group that emerged in the months following September 11 as the organizer of the powerful Civic Alliance.

Yaro is one of many civic leaders who believes that the PA has not been entirely forthcoming about its plans. There is an almost universal fear that the agency is right this moment building infrastructure that, more than the selection of Libeskind, will determine the shape of what rises above the ground. “We need to know what’s in the ground,” comments architect Hugh Hardy, a key player in another civic group, New York New Visions. “The Port Authority has signed up for a giant generator, a bus garage, the PATH sta-tion, a concourse with moving sidewalks…all of that’s drawn somewhere.”

Although a number of secret plans are rumored to exist, what we have seen thus far are two sets of renderings: one by Libeskind, the other by the PA. Libeskind’s drawings show a greensward sheltered by the top 30 feet of the slurry wall (since his initial presentation at the Winter Garden, 40 feet of the wall appear to have vanished from sight). To the north and west are several lower crystalline-shaped buildings; one presumably is the transit hub, the other a museum. The spiraling 1,776-foot-tall tower is actually a 70-story office building crowned with a largely uninhabited superstructure that might support restaurants, gardens, a cultural institution, a viewing platform and a very tall television antenna. Oddly Libeskind’s tower is beginning to blend, conceptually at least, with the Think team’s Erector-set towers.

The PA’s renderings are stolid and rectilinear. They depict interiors of a supersize PATH station, sunlit and multitiered, filled with floor after floor of retail, and topped with the sort of upturned roof favored by airport designers. They also show a lot of passageways designed to move commuters from one place to another. Neither set of drawings can be regarded as literal representations of what will eventually be built. They establish for now two ways of thinking.

In a public presentation of plans for infrastructure at Ground Zero, Tony Cracchiolo, the PA’s director of priority capital programs, showed a slide of commuters exiting the escalators from the old WTC commuter-rail station. He remarked on the ceaseless flow of commuters shown in the photo. “It was called,” he noted, “the human hose.”

There is something oddly engrossing about Cracchiolo’s presentation. He has none of Libeskind’s rhetorical skills. He is somewhat plodding and low-key but obviously proud of the agency’s ability to restore the flooded PATH tunnels between the WTC and Jersey City, rebuild the Exchange Place PATH station, and realize a new downtown transit hub. By virtue of the fact that the PA is actually working in the hole every day, the agency has a grip on the rebuilding process that will be hard to loosen. Even Garvin unintentionally acknowledges this when he speaks of the need to “adjust Libeskind’s vision to [the PA’s] realities and those realities to Libeskind’s vision. It goes in both directions.” Indeed it should. The trouble is that Garvin speaks of the PA’s renderings as “realities” and Libeskind’s as “visions.”

New York today reminds me of Berlin in the 1990s. After reunification of the divided city, Berlin embraced architecture and planning as a way to heal the physical and psychological wounds inflicted by history. Architecture was viewed as a sort incantatory craft. The same is now true in New York, where heretofore architecture has mostly been a handmaiden to development. We have chosen architecture—as others have chosen warfare—as the form of alchemy that will make us once again whole.

In Berlin Libeskind managed to build an unprecedented structure, a museum so expressive that the public flocked to see it before any exhibitions had been mounted. “The Jewish Museum,” Libeskind said in 1998, “is a building that, for reasons of good luck, has eluded authorities who would do anything not to have it look like that.” I think that there was clearly more than luck involved.

During the period when Libeskind was working on the museum, Dr. Hans Stimman was building director of the Berlin Senate. He had a tremendous influence on the way large parts of the city were rebuilt and argued that Berlin was not actually destroyed by allied bombs but by the postwar actions of Modernist planners. “The result is a disaster,” Stimman said. His aim was to reconstruct portions of East Berlin by working from plan books of the 1930s. He wanted to use historic documents to recreate the city as if World War II had never happened. In a way Stimman is like those who would rebuild the World Trade Center as if 9/11 had never happened.

Libeskind’s Berlin years provided a valuable education in politics and diplomacy. When asked what he learned there that would be applicable to the redevelopment of the WTC site, Libeskind replies: “You have to be very patient. You have to be very firm. You have to work with everybody. You have to be open-minded and make the kind of changes that are necessary without compromising the project. And you have to have the stamina. It is a marathon race.”

Indeed Libeskind has embarked on a marathon, but it’s one in which the runners are not going in the same direction. The rebuilding has created its own crazy set of alliances and fissures. Garvin, who has spent a great deal of time in the past year making public and private presentations, puts this insanely messy situation in the most noble light: “It’s a collaborative effort by a democracy responding to an attack on its way of life.”

I’m willing, on a trial basis, to buy into Garvin’s optimistic view. There is a wonderful symmetry in the unexpected collaboration between Libeskind and the PA—assuming that it is allowed to grow into a true collaboration. Forgetting for a moment the unending political drama, which will likely have as long a run as Cats, there is an elegance to the idea of a dance between Daniel Libeskind, the builder of poetry, and the Port Authority, the builder of human hoses.

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