When seven high-powered design teams unveiled proposals for rebuilding lower Manhattan last December, their leaders stressed the need for bold architectural solutions.
They said the former site of New York's World Trade Center should be reconstructed in a way that would memorialize lives lost in the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and help the city and country move ahead. They called for world-class works of architecture that would show America standing proud once again.
Then, many of them proceeded to present designs for buildings that would do just the opposite.
In one plan, buildings lean against each other as if they need crutches. In another, structures are sheared off at the top like shards of broken glass. In a third, slender towers bend and sway like blades of grass.
British architect Norman Foster proposed twin towers that would be as tall as the former World Trade Center, but with their sides bent and folded like crumpled paper. A New York group envisioned five connected towers with openings big enough to fly a jet through.
Instead of standing proud and tall, many of these structures looked as if they had just been struck by a jet, or blown up in an explosion, or otherwise been maimed or scarred. They wither and writhe, slump and slouch, cower and cringe. They seem wounded somehow, or apologetic for appearing on this hallowed site. And we are meant to feel their pain.
Architecture of angst
Leaving the presentation that afternoon, I wondered: Is it just me, or is there something more than a little unsettling about this architecture of angst? It may make viewers feel sorry about what happened on 9/11, but it's hardly the best approach for rebuilding lower Manhattan.
Still, it's not difficult to see how this came about. To generate ideas for rebuilding the 16-acre World Trade Center site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. asked seven design teams to propose mixed-use communities containing offices, cultural attractions and public space, including possible locations for a separate memorial honoring the victims of 9/11.
The seven teams produced nine proposals in all; one has since been withdrawn. The rest have been on display in New York's World Financial Center since mid-December, and today is the last day for public comment. The development corporation has the option of selecting one plan to guide development or taking ideas from several of them to create a new composite master plan. Decisions about the next steps will be announced later this month.
The designers hired to suggest ideas for lower Manhattan clearly wanted to acknowledge 9/11 and the nearly 2,800 people who died after hijacked jets rammed into the twin towers, causing them to collapse. No one suggested replicating Minoru Yamasaki's 110-story towers, the world's tallest buildings when they opened in the 1970s.
Many of the proposals seem to have their roots in architecture's deconstructivist movement, in which designers set out to create buildings that tilt and lean, as if reflecting the turmoil and chaos of society. They also owe a debt to the "collision aesthetic" of California architect Frank O. Gehry, whose buildings often consist of disparate forms colliding in space.
Gehry's buildings, from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to the proposed addition for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, typically work because they are sculptural objects juxtaposed with a traditional context. Part of the unsettling nature of the designs proposed for the World Trade Center site is that they are not foils set against a larger backdrop. They are the backdrop. Designers have adopted the collision aesthetic and used it to create buildings that would rise to more than 100 stories. They've filled all 16 acres with buildings that bump and grind, twist and contort. At that scale, it's oppressive. Given the events they commemorate, it's also potentially in bad taste.
One of the more extreme cases of architectural angst is the proposal submitted by German architect Daniel Libeskind, whose glass towers have spiky tops. In his presentation, Libeskind spoke of coming to America for the first time as an immigrant, and seeing the sight of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline. He said he deliberated long and hard about the impression he wanted future visitors to have - and how to strike a balance between remembrance and redevelopment.
"To acknowledge the terrible deaths which occurred on this site, while looking to the future with hope, seemed like two moments which could not be joined," he said. "I sought to find a solution which would bring these seemingly contradictory viewpoints into an unexpected unity."
This struggle to find the right imagery has become one of the most difficult challenges in the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.
A plan by Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg called for traditional skyscrapers with setbacks near the top and a conventional network of streets and squares at ground level. Their retro design was pragmatic, but lacking in fresh ideas.
An effort to take a more modernist approach was also less than inspiring. The plan by New York architects Richard Meier, Steven Holl, Charles Gwathmey and Peter Eisenman has five towers, linked by pedestrian bridges at various levels. Their design, which has been likened to everything from a tic-tac-toe board to a giant picket fence, is as arrogant and inhumane in its own way as Yamasaki's twin towers - and just as wrong for Manhattan. In their abstract form, the towers do little to acknowledge the events of 9/11.
That is part of the difficulty of rebuilding on the World Trade Center site. Architects can't wipe the slate clean and pretend nothing happened there. Yet, if they are overly literal in their response, they may end up producing designs that are too raw, too reactive, too much "of the moment." Many of these designers fell into this trap. Their buildings are edgy, stark, creepy in some cases. They would also be dated before they are complete.
Of the seven contenders, the one that best avoided disturbing associations and stylistic pitfalls was Think, which includes Rafael Vinoly, Frederic Schwartz, Shigeru Ban, Ken Smith, William Morrish, David Rockwell and Baltimore's lone participant in the process, architect Janet Marie Smith. The group submitted three proposals. One calls for covering much of lower Manhattan with a giant glass dome; another recommends building a World Cultural Center with twin towers replacing those that were destroyed.
Rather than replicating the solid towers by Yamasaki, however, Think proposed mostly hollow towers. They would be built above and around the footprints of the World Trade Center towers, and defined by an open latticework skin.
Within these soaring structures at various levels would be individual buildings for cultural purposes - a performing arts center, a conference center, a "9/11 interpretive museum." The latticework frames form a double helix, evoking the structure of human DNA.
Modern and flexible
This proposal is ingenious for several reasons. It is the only plan that puts twin towers back on the Manhattan skyline almost exactly where they were. Architects were warned not to build on the footprints of the fallen towers. Because these towers would be largely hollow, they would never actually touch or conceal the footprints. Instead, they would rise above them and span across them, leaving them open to view and accessible to the public.
The hollow towers also represent an acknowledgement that no market exists for the 10 million square feet of office space contained in the World Trade Center. Yet by providing an armature, they leave open the possibility that some of the space can be filled for cultural purposes. That makes it more flexible than most of the plans.
This sort of approach also avoids the imagery problems that beset so many of the other proposals. The towers do not lean or tilt or jut out in an alarming way. Nor do they regurgitate past styles.
"The moral obligation in rebuilding Ground Zero," Vinoly and his colleagues said, "is not just how best to remember those who perished in this tragedy, but how to make their memory the inspiration for a better future."
These open towers do what replacement structures need to do on the World Trade Center site. They add memorable features to the street and skyline without creating a glut of office space. They bring the World Trade Center to mind without being gruesome or macabre. Their imagery is unlike anything else in the city - buildings for the 21st century. They manage to stand tall.
As the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. moves ahead with planning for the 16-acre site, its leaders should draw inspiration from the forward-thinking, open-ended approach shown by Vinoly and his colleagues. Whatever is built in lower Manhattan ought to celebrate the city's strength and resilience, not wallow in weakness and pity.