Debating Ground Zero


Debating Ground Zero Architects, planners, ideas

Anthony vidler

The story of architectureʼs role following the destruction of the World Trade Center (WTC) in September 2001 is on the one hand long and extremely complex, and on the other brief and simple. The long version involves numerous groups including architects, engineers, planners, developers, public officials at the national, state and local levels, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the newly appointed Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), public interest groups including the families of the victims, and many more. The short version, confirmed by recent events, has held true throughout the difficult and extended process of planning and design.

The short story is that just before the tragedy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, under whose auspices the World Trade Center had been built and managed, had leased the buildings to a developer, Larry A. Silverstein, who in turn had appointed the architect David M. Childs, a principal of the office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York to study the renovation and upgrading of the buildings. As the story stands at present, Childs is still Silversteinʼs architect and adviser for planning the site, has redesigned Building Number Seven, which is now under construction, and has released his design for the tallest structure on the site, named at some point during the long story ʻFreedom Towerʼ. This design is officially credited as an ʻideaʼ provided by architect Daniel Libeskind, ʻgiven formʼ by David Childs. Childs will probably remain the architect of record for this building, which will be built if Silverstein recoups enough insurance money. Meanwhile the Port Authority has efficiently reopened transit stations on the site, and has pushed ahead in reconstruction below ground level. Other buildings on the site will be designed, and possibly constructed by architects like Santiago Calatrava, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and others. This is the story that many critics had assumed would prevail from the outset.

The long story, which will not be fully documented for some time, offers a different spin on these facts. It runs like this. Immediately following the disaster, George E.

Pataki, the Governor of New York State, under whose jurisdiction the Port Authority lies, together with that of Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York, established the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to coordinate all aspects of the rebuilding effort. The Corporation then commissioned six preliminary planning studies from the New York architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Bell and others, including architects Peterson/Littenberg. At the public unveiling of these plans in July 2002 there emerged an unexpected groundswell of public opposition, supported by architects and critics disappointed by the apparently lacklustre nature of the designs. It was at this moment that it became clear that what was needed was, rather than a ʻdullʼ plan, an image of inspiring architecture, one that would be fitting to the momentous task of rebuilding, memorializing, and responding heroically to the attacks – or that was certainly the tenor of the reaction. Accordingly an ʻideasʼ competition, dubbed an ʻInnovative Design Studyʼ, was launched in October 2002 by the LMDC, which called for teams of architects, engineers and planners to put forward their notions of what a reconstructed WTC would look like. Following a call for proposals, some six teams were selected by an independent jury out of 406 submissions. To these, the LMDC added a seventh team, that of Peterson/Littenberg, the original consultants. The six teams comprised single firms – Norman Foster and Partners, Daniel Libeskind Studio, and (interestingly enough) Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) – as well as dramatically new collaborations fabricated for the occasion with names like THINK Design, United Architects, and the ʻHome Teamʼ with New York architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman,

Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl. The results of this second stage were unveiled in December 2002 with great fanfare in the World Financial Center Winter Garden adjacent to the site, and public debate began to assess their merits.

The projects were distinguished among themselves by their identification with one or another modernist avant-garde architectural language, with the exception of Perterson/Littenbergʼs, which was formulated in a ʻthirties-somethingʼ style favoured by the New Urbanists. Norman Foster proposed twin high-tech towers leaning towards each other at the summit – the ʻkissing towersʼ as they were dubbed, as if the original WTC were engaged in a love-fest.

Meier–Eisenman–Gwathmey–Holl proposed a large-scale grid building, which was variously described as a waffle-iron or a griddle, but which in its incompletion also resembled the shards of the WTC façade as they had come to rest on the ground. This was perhaps the only project seriously to consider the ground plan of the site, through to the river, as well as refusing, in its sober abstraction, the high-volume rhetoric of ʻaspirationʼ and memorialization common to the other schemes. The Skidmore team proposed a virtual forest of towers, each slightly warped with respect to the other, as if a large-scale cornfield were blowing in the wind.

United Architects designed what they described as a ʻcathedralʼ with four huge towers bending towards each other above Ground Zero, to form a Gothic-style crossing in glass and steel. The THINK group proposed several different schemes, later edited into one, the central motif of which was an open-lattice tower with various cultural institutions inserted at different levels. Unkind critics dubbed it the ʻskeletonʼ. Finally, Libeskind designed an expressionist complex around the ʻbathtubʼ or concrete foundation of the WTC towers, with the retaining ʻslurryʼ wall revealed as a memorial site. Just before the final judging, the Skidmore Owings & Merrill team pulled out of the competition, no doubt fearing a conflict of interest with David Childs, Silversteinʼs architect.

In the event two projects were selected by the LMDC for further development – the THINK Design groupʼs ʻWorld Cultural Centerʼ tower and Libeskindʼs dramatic ice palace called ʻMemory Foundationsʼ. Rumour has it that the committees of the LMDC favoured the THINK groupʼs solution to the end, recommending it to the Governor with near unanimity. The Governor, however, perhaps mindful of the victimsʼ familiesʼ need for memorialization over renewal, preferred the insistent narrative of memory propounded by Libeskind, and proclaimed him the winner. No doubt his adoption of a Caligari-style language, with angular and crystalline surfaces spiralling upwards towards a new tower – the Freedom Tower as he called it – proved especially symbolic of destruction and trauma.

The issue then arose as to what precisely the role of Libeskindʼs dramatic design was to be in the process of rebuilding. After all, the competition was for ʻideasʼ regarding the planning of the site, not for the eventual architect of the reconstruction.

Silverstein still had his architect, and made it clear that he intended to keep him; the Port Authority had already begun work to shore up the foundation walls of the site below ground, work that was already negating Libeskindʼs notion of revealing them for perpetuity. After much legal wrangling and public and private negotiation, Libeskind was appointed ʻMaster Plannerʼ for the site, and asked by Pataki to collaborate with David Childs on the design of the tallest tower indicated in the Libeskind plan. The difficulties of this ʻspiritedʼ collaboration, as the architects themselves called it, were enthusiastically documented in the press as the architects wrangled over the form of the tower. Following various highly publicized battles, a solution was brokered by Governor Pataki, and released on Friday, 19 December 2003.

The unveiled tower is markedly different from that originally envisaged by Libeskind, and takes the form of a torqued structure, conceived in collaboration with the engineer Guy Nordenson, topped by an open lattice containing an energy-producing wind farm, and a spire that somehow tried to add a Libeskind stamp to the final effect.

Libeskindʼs guidelines, in his role of ʻMaster Plannerʼ, had been adhered to, but it was Childʼs architecture that finally prevailed. The final design was, indeed, remarkably similar to that suggested to Childs immediately after the collapse by architect Richard Dattner, and later elaborated by Nordenson for a group project sponsored by Herbert Muschamp in the New York Times Magazine in September 2002. The only remaining question is whether Pataki will be able to fast-track the construction process in time for President Bush to lay the foundation stone at the Republican Convention in August 2004.

Thus, despite all the architectural hype surrounding the process, and the real (and passionate) involvement by the public in the discussion of architecture over the last few months, business is as usual in New York. In this sense, the shortest story of all would tell of the destruction of two gigantic towers, already in 1964 the all-but extinct dinosaurs of the modern skyscraper age, and their subsequent rebuilding forty years later, even taller than before, a rebuilding unthinkable outside the context of the emotional and financial response to the tragedy.

What, then, of the extraordinary publicity and apparent public interest accorded architecture during this process? Prepared by the ʻBilbao effectʼ, and by other signature buildings used to rekindle interest in cultural institutions, the press, followed by the public, seized on the symbolic role of architecture as an easy way to image and respond to the difficult post-9/11 conditions. And it is true that architecture, at least for the moment, has had an unprecedented position on the front page. The more than 100,000 who flocked to the Winter Garden to view the seven proposals, glittering and translucent behind their vitrines, like so many mannequins in a department store window, were truly interested; and certainly public expectations for the winning design to be built were raised high. Perhaps too high if it is now perceived that the design as conceived by Libeskind bears little relation to his chosen scheme; if all the rhetoric that surrounded it, rhetoric of memory, memorial, freedom and light – supposedly embedded in its forms – were seen to disappear beneath the pragmatism of developerʼs architecture.

To this point Libeskind has played (publicly at least) his part and backed the scheme, but it is evident that if he had harboured any hopes of emerging as the architect of record, these are now dashed, as are any remnants of his original idea. With the ʻWedge of Lightʼ having proved unfeasible, the bathtub filled by transit structures and reinforcement, the ʻspiralʼ of towers looking more and more truncated each day, and the only remaining expression of his angled and chamfered Freedom Tower an easily detachable ʻspireʼ raised solely in order to make this (for a moment) the ʻtallestʼ building in the world, he emerges actually and legally as the ʻMaster Plannerʼ he was appointed to be, rather than the Master Architect he aspired to be. The loss for architecture is not so much that the final tower will be without qualities – as a single building it will demonstrate all the elegant efficiency characteristic of SOM – but that the coherence intimated by Libeskindʼs original design will vanish.

And therein lies the debate: should architecture continue, as in the past, to give form to single ʻmasterpieceʼ objects, or is there a role for the architecture of urban design that might, as also in the past (witness Rockefeller Center), give shape to neighbourhoods? The conclusion of the WTC experience would seem to reinforce the former role:

the disappointment would lie in its having, for a brief moment, offered the possibility of testing the latter. Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy 7th Annual Conference

Continental drift?modern european philosophy in britain today

Friday and Saturday 14–15 May 2004

Gustav Tuck/A.V. Hill Lecture Theatres, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1

Speakers include

Christine battersby


Miguel de beistegui


Andrew bowie

(Royal Hol oway, London)

Howard caygill

(Goldsmiths, London)

Simon critchley

(New School, NY)

Peter dews


Alexander garcía düttmann


Joanna hodge

(Manchester Metropolitan)

Stephen houlgate


Kimberly hutchings


Peter osborne


£25 waged; £15 students/unwaged Inquiries: Ray Brassier, Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, White Hart Lane, London N17 8HR. Email:

Further details and forms for advance registration: [archive]

Continental drift?What is the future for modern European (or ‘continental’) philosophy in Britain?What are its projects?What can be done with its canon today?