I went to the unveiling of the new plans
for the World Trade Center site this morning, and they’re miles ahead from the
vague and unimaginitive plans we saw
five months ago. There are nine plans in total, from seven architectural teams,
and between them they have a lot of excellent ideas.
There are some definite surprises, chief among them that the dream team of
Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl – New
Yorkers all – should have come up with the worst design of the lot. SOM,
as well, the most experienced skyscraper-builders in the world, fell flat on
A notch up in quality are the teams who had some but not all of what was needed.
The urban planning duo of Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg came up with
a very workable but completely unimaginative design. The team calling itself
Think had no fewer than three ideas, all of which are quite clever, but none
of which stand up to much scrutiny. And Norman Foster, although he does have
a wonderful skyscraper, has little else.
The best designs came from Daniel Liebeskind, who stunned with a coherent,
realistic and highly imaginative plan; and United Architects, with an idea which
reimagines just what urban design can be all about.
The one thing which everybody did, however, was present skyscrapers as public
spaces. Something’s going to go up on the site, and whatever it
is will have much more public access than any other tall building in the world.
That’s certain, now, and it’s welcome, too.
At the risk of getting blogged down, so to speak, I’m going to run through
each in turn, since I think it’s important to point out the bad things as well
as the good.
et al first, then. Richard Meier was very cocky in his presentation:
"We’re the New York team," he said. "Some say we’re the dream
team." But what this team came up with looks like a classic case of design
by committee. They put reflecting pools on the footprints of the twin towers,
which let light through to a memorial space below – so far, so normal.
Then they took the shadows which the towers cast (to the west) on September
11, and planted them with trees. One of the shadows went into the river, so
that area becomes a "floating memorial plaza" which 5000 people can
fit onto should they so desire. It’s one of dozens of different memorials which
they’re dotting around Lower Manhattan, in a kind of distributed remembrance which I don’t think really works. You don’t want to keep on bumping unexpectedly into another memorial as you go about your daily life.
The main problem with the design is the skyscraper portion, however. The Lower
Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), as part of its excellent brief, told
all the competing architects that "a restored skyline will provide a significant,
identifiable symbol for the residents of the metropolitan area". Well,
this symbol looks like nothing so much as a pair of tic-tac-toe games set at
right angles to each other. Peter Eisenman tried to liken the buildings to "the
fingers of two hands embracing the site," but they aren’t. Rather, they
block off the site (and Battery Park City) from the rest of Manhattan, reading
more as barriers than as entry gates.
Skidmore Owings & Merrill, who teamed up with four artists,
including Jessica Stockholder, to create what they call "a dense grid of
vertical structures that support multiple strata of public and cultural spaces".
What that means in practice is a set of no fewer than nine more-or-less-identical
skyscrapers shoehorned into a very small area, with the occasional sky bridge
connecting one to another. They all have sky gardens on the top, which is nice,
but no matter how airy they are, street level will become dark and permanently
in shadow, and it’s not going to be a nice place to be.
There’s also an element of the Jetsons in the way that SOM has designed the
transit hub with two roads as well as the 1 and 9 subway trains running straight
through it in glass tubes. The whole presentation, in fact, feels much more
like the conceptual projects we all saw in the immediate aftermath of the disaster,
and far from anything which could ever be constructed in reality.
odd team out of the seven is Peterson/Littenberg Architecture and Urban
Design. It’s a small partnership which impressed the LMDC with its
approach to the site and somehow made it, as architects, to the final round.
It’s one of the few teams to break the rules: while the LMDC said that it didn’t
want to build on the footprints of the original towers, Peterson/Littenberg
put an amphitheatre in one of them.
This team was also one of the prime movers beind opening up West Street into
a tree-lined promenade which stretches all the way down to the Battery. It’s
a great idea, and one which the LMDC has adopted, but it was specifically exluded
from this particular brief. Again, Peterson and Littenberg ignored the brief.
As urban planners, rather than architects, this pair spent a lot of time designing
a lovely garden, and constructing a pedestrian-friendly street grid. They’re
the only team which not only extended the original streets into the World Trade
Center site, but also added a brand new street as well. The final plan is certainly
a nice place to be, but it shows very little in the way of boldness or imagination.
And the new skyscrapers aren’t imagined at all, beyond the fact that their height
is limited to 55 stories (roughly the height of the existing American Express
building). Two of them will have 35-storey campaniles on top (one a hotel, the
other residential); these will serve to replace the lost elements of the New
York skyline. There’s very little mention of public access to the new buildings,
something that is at the forefront of the other schemes.
a huge team including Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Viñoly, Shigeru Ban and
David Rockwell, couldn’t come to any decisions at all, and instead presented
three different designs. The first, called Sky Park, floats a 16-acre park into
mid-air, with various buildings huddled in the darkness below. The last, called
the World Cultural Center, is a crazy idea to build a latticework around the
footprints of the original towers, and then slap various cultural institutions
(schools, theatres, whatever) inside the latticework at various different
heights. At the exact points in midair where the planes flew in to the World
Trade Center would be a memorial linking the two structures. Whatever. This
is a flight of fancy, it could never happen.
Think also proposed what they call a Great Room, which basically comprises
enclosing most of the site in a huge 30-storey glass plaza. The roof would be
held up by office buildings around the perimeter, as well as by another pair
of latticework columns surrounding the footprints. Next door to the site, where
the Deutsche Bank building currently sits empty, the tallest building in the
world would be constructed to help out on the skyline front. The whole thing
is less bad than the other two ideas, but I’m not sure there would be too much
demand for offices which front straight on to a memorial, or even for any new
structure of this magnitude.
and Partners is definitely an improvement on the previous four. Lord
(Norman) Foster knows his onions when it comes to monumental architecture, and
he’s designed a beautiful twisting "twinned tower" which would be
a welcome addition to any city’s skyline. He calls it "the most secure,
the greenest and the tallest in the world," and there’s no reason not to
believe him. It will be filled with high tree-filled public atriums at various
levels, which will provide stunning views over the rest of the site as well
as far beyond. There could even be funiculars sweeping us all up the side of
the building at high speed – what an attraction, and not just for tourists.
Foster has kept the footprints as voids, and placed high walls around them
to set them apart and intensify the memorial experience. You can’t go into them,
but you can go around them, and then up a ramp into a huge green park which
stretches over the top of West Street and all the way to the river. (In this
way, Foster avoids the huge expense of burying West Street, freeing up those
funds for other transportation or infrastructure projects.)
keeps Foster out of the top two, however, is a certain lack of imagination.
His plan is workable, and strong, but it’s not really bold. Daniel Liebeskind,
however, has a wonderful central idea (you can read his statement here)
which he’s managed to turn into a compelling architectural concept.
It all starts down in the dirt, by the huge slurry walls which stop the Hudson
River from rushing in to the site. These were and are true engineering marvels:
as Liebeskind says, they "withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destuction
and stand eloquent". He keeps them exposed, 70 feet below ground, and then
spirals up and out, into the rest of the site and beyond.
At the bottom is the museum and the memorial; at the top is a vertical "gardens
of the world", rising in a glorious spike well above the rest of the skyline.
The buildings in the rest of the site are extremely strong as well, especially
the ones which border on what Liebeskind rather unfortunately calls the "wedge
of light". This is a triangular plaza which will have no shadows each year
on September 11 between the hours of 8:46am and 10:28am. It’s mirrored by the
Heroes Park, one of three or four green spaces in the plan. Finally, symmetrically
opposite the gardens of the world is the transit hub, a center not only for
PATH and subway trains, but also the point to which the "paths of heroes"
– the routes taken by the fire and police forces on September 11 –
converge. Everything, down to the parking area for tourist buses, has been carefully
thought out and put in what feels like exactly the right place.
there’s United Architects, a group including Foreign Office
Architects, Greg Lynn, Kevin Kennon, RUR Architecture, and UN Studio. Somehow,
they’ve managed to transcend all the problems which faced the other large groups
in the competition, and come up with a very strong, simple and new idea.
United Architects, just like Liebeskind, go down to bedrock and build vertical
sacrosanct areas around the edge of the footprints. Looking up from the bottom
of their voids, however, one sees not just sky but skyscrapers too: "the
memorial and the development are not divided, but linked," in the words
of Greg Lynn. The effect is a cathedral-like space, where the buildings carve
out a volume of light.
One enters the space walking down a sprial from Greenwich Street, passing various
cultural institutions on the way; to go back up, there are elevators back to
ground level and higher still, up the sides of the new buildings.
There are five of them altogether, each at least 65 stories tall, and each
touching on the next at least once. At street level, there will be huge gaps
between the buildings, maintaining street grids and view corridors. But 60 stories
up in the air, they converge onto a minimum of five stories of contiguous space:
a whole new public area, 200,000 square feet in all, high in the sky.
The buildings would all be self-standing, and could be designed by different
architects, within the basic constraints of the overall plan. But they would
all support each other, too, both architecturally and structurally, creating
an incredibly strong and safe set of skyscrapers. They would have 29 exiting
cores between them, all accessible from any building, and 43 areas of refuge,
combining to create thousands of different exit routes. The tallest of the buildings,
at 1,620 feet, would be the tallest in the world, but would also be much safer
than the twin towers were. (Liebeskind’s tallest tower, by comparison, is a
more symbolic 1,776 feet. Its top, however, is filled with plants rather than
The way the five towers link to each other would create, in the words of the
architects, "a new symbol of unity and interdependence"; it would
also be a very impressive addition to the skyline.
Of all the plans, it seems to me that the last two are easily the best. It’s
hard to choose between them: they’re both bold and exhilarating, but in different
ways. Liebeskind creates an exciting new area of New York City; United Architects
limn a whole new way of living, based as much in the air as on the ground. Of
course, neither of these two visions is going to make it into reality: there
will be committees and compromises and revisions galore before anything even
starts getting built. And a lot of them will be for the better. But at least
now, unlike five months ago, I can hope that what we will end up with at Ground
Zero will be a truly wonderful piece of first-rate architecture, something the
rest of the world will envy us for generations to come. Those who died on September
11 would want nothing less, for us and for them.