Libeskind wins

It was a close-run thing, but Studio Daniel Libeskind has won the competition

to design the new World Trade Center site. Today was probably the biggest day

of his career, but he got there not through shameless self-puffery, as some

rival architects have been sniping in the press, but rather through a tireless

commitment to New York and its people. No matter what you think of the plan,

there’s no doubt that Libeskind’s heart is in the right place: everybody from

the family members of the 9/11 victims to New York state governor George Pataki

has been impressed by Libeskind’s dedication to genuine dialogue.

Even if the genuinely revolutionary plan was not, in the end, chosen, the process

by which Libeskind’s victory was achieved was exemplary, and will surely set

the standard for any kind of major urban planning commission, anywhere in the

world, for the foreseeable future. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,

which owns the WTC site and which is notoriously opaque when it comes to development

decisions, ended up being an integral part of the most genuinely consultative

and democratic architectural process any major city has ever seen. Given the

very high standard of many of the shortlisted

plans, I think that the ultimate reason that Libeskind won was that he was

most attuned to the process, and most willing to present his ideas as a work

in progress, something which could and should reflect the views of all the stakeholders

in the site, and not just his own ego.

As Lou Tomson, the president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation,

said during the announcement ceremony today, the plan was "born out of

tragedy but forged in democracy". The LMDC painstakingly sifted through

tens of thousands of comments from members of the public, not in lip service

to the ideal of public consultation, but as a necessary part of the process

for deciding what would ultimately happen on the WTC site. New Yorkers now have

ownership of the winning plan, which was definitely one of the most popular.

The fact that so many people really like the Daniel Libeskind plan is surprising

to me, an Englishman who well remembers the furor over his proposed addition

to the Victoria & Albert museum in London. But, of course, this is different:

Libeskind is not destroying anything that anybody loves, and bold new buildings

have much more of a place in New York than they do in London. As mayor Michael

Bloomberg noted today, the construction of Libeskind’s spire will mark the tenth

time in history that the tallest building in the world has been built on the

island of Manhattan.

What’s more, the Libeskind plan is one which repays careful attention to detail

– something New Yorkers have been giving all of the proposed designs.

Look at the way, for instance, in which he neither buried West Street nor allowed

it to interfere with the memorial setting on which it borders: by bringing the

memorial down 30 feet below grade, the cars on the highway are both out of sight

and out of earshot to those in the memorial zone.

Libeskind also understood something which was lost on Norman Foster: that this

was a site-use competition more than it was an architecture competition. Lord

Foster spent most of his presentation in December talking about his new skyscraper

– something that would probably never be built. Libeskind, on the other

hand, concentrated on site use, articulating a powerful area for a memorial

(to be designed by others) and placing key buildings along reconstructed Greenwich

and Fulton streets.

The center of his plan – and the new epicenter of Lower Manhattan, once

the plan is realised – is the crossroads of those two streets. It will

be one a great public space, ranking alongside St Mark’s in Venice, rather than

the grey and windswept Austin Toobin Plaza that most of us remember from the

World Trade Center of old. John Whitehead, the LMDC chairman, called it "one

of the world’s most majestic crossroads," and the Wedge of Light, to its

northeast, "a 21st Century piazza for New York City and the world".

Opposite the Wedge of Light, to the southwest, will be the memorial museum and

the Park of Heroes: something Libeskind has glossed in his plan as green space,

but something which the designers of the memorial have a lot of room to play

with. To the northwest will be a gleaming new cultural center, with a 2,200-seat

auditorium, abutting the great 1,776-foot spire. To the northeast will be a

hotel and convention center, while to the southeast will be a grand new transit

hub, which will eventually link lower Manhattan directly to airports to the

east and west.

The transit hub will be a Grand Central Terminal for the 21st Century: filled

with light, even well below ground. The low ground level of the memorial will

help immeasurably here, as will Libeskind’s ingenious idea of building the memorial’s

north wall out of glass. It might be stained, it might be etched, it will certainly

play a central role in the memorial, but it will also act as an illumination

for commuters on the other side. (To the south side of the memorial zone will

be a second wall, this time opaque, which will also be part of the memorial

competition. And the western wall will be the great slurry walls of the original

World Trade Center, which withstood unimaginable trauma and still prevented

the Hudson River from flooding Ground Zero. Part of them will be excavated to

Libeskind’s originally-proposed depth of 70 feet: bedrock.)


plan is centered on the memorial square. The photo at left, looking northeast

from more or less the Wall Street Journal offices in the World Financial Center,

is of the new model, and shows the memorial museum cantilevered over the "memory

foundations", as Libeskind calls them. A series of skyscrapers spirals

up from the foundations, up the ramp which descends parallel to West Street

(the big road nearest us) and around the south, east and north edges of the

site to culminate in the large spire holding the "gardens of the world".

On its 110th floor (the height of the original WTC) is a restaurant and observation

deck, but the memorial and the museum are down at ground level, where no one

needs to worry about being high up in the sky. Libeskind said he was aiming

for "places with intimacy and places with grandeur," and that’s what

he’s given us.

Most of the skyscrapers, it’s worth noting, are not going to be designed by

Daniel Libeskind. And since the lower floors of the signature tower are going

to have some tenants, there could be a lot of changes made from how the buildings

are envisaged right now. "It is now our task to make sure that the plan

you see becomes a reality," said New York governor George Pataki today

– but of course this plan is not exactly what will be built.

Libeskind said that within four years we should have the major public components

– the memorial site and museum, the cultural center, the transit hub,

and the restored skyline. Personally, I believe all of it except for the skyline:

I just can’t see this economy being healthy enough to support the construction

of the tallest building in the world.

I don’t see the federal government stepping in to help, either: the representative

of the president today was a minor functionary called Alfonso Jackson, the deputy

secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He gave a horribly

tone-deaf speech, wherein he basically tried to claim credit for everything,

as well as to imply that this plan was somehow integrally connected with both

the war on Iraq and Bush’s proposed tax cut. It’s clear that the White House

doesn’t really care about New York, and that the city and state – both

of whom are horribly in debt right now – are going to have to do most

of the heavy lifting when it comes to reconstructing the public areas of this

site. With the best will in the world, I don’t think they’ll quite manage the

skyscraper within four years, although I hope I’m wrong.

But even without the skyscraper, I’m heartened that New York now has a vision

for rebuilding which is both bold and popular. Not everyone will like it, of

course: there isn’t a major new building in the world that someone doesn’t hate.

But this site is going to be a powerful destination, and I predict that it will,

finally, be responsible for turning lower Manhattan into a vibrant residential

neighborhood. People are really going to want to live here!

Finally, a word about the decision. I have to admit I am a little disappointed:

I wanted the Think plan

to win. Where Libeskind is 1990s avant-garde, Think was genuinely futuristic,

with a vision of a vertical city which had never been attempted anywhere before.

But it was watered down over the past couple of weeks, with fewer buildings

inside the latticework towers, and the memorial museum lowered to the 30th floor

or so rather than being up in the 80s. The latticework was also made lighter

and cheaper, which would have meant it would have been much more difficult to

build new cultural elements as and when the funding for them became available.

In short, it was not entirely clear that the Think plan would really work, and

the rebuilding of a large part of the most important city in the world isn’t

the sort of thing which can be embarked upon with less than 100% certainty.

So I’m happy for Daniel Liebeskind, happy for New York, and happy indeed for

Rafael Vinoly and the other members of the Think team, who have surely got as

much of a profile boost from their unbuilt proposal as they could ever have

got from a finished building anywhere else. I can’t wait to see this plan become


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5 Responses to Libeskind wins

  1. geoff says:

    yes it is nice liebeskind won… it certainly does look an exciting project.

    if only we could be assured that he doesn’t talk about ‘concept’ and just gets the damn thing built.

    felix you are almost right in saying that the liebeskind scheme comes from 90s avant garde. it actually comes from early eighties theory… it just didn’t get realized until the 90s.

    and this is why i don’t want to hear a word about the concept, or the derivation of the forms… liebeskind has been using the same tools of formal development since the eighties (thats 20 years for those slow on the math). tools that haven’t advanced, changed, incorporated outside dialogue, or in anyway developed.

    all architecture at some point springs from a vacuum, and the font is either a pure hallucination of a space to be, a latching onto an extant contextual motif, an allegorical interpretation of an idea (literally like las vegas, or sublimely like ando), or a game.

    liebeskind is a game player… he frequently assigns values to arbitrary physical locations, and casts a net of lines that connect elements up… lines become walls (bit of a simplification here, but not much)… and we are all supposed to feel very assured that the correct architectural answer has been derived from the very rules he set out in the first place.

    the only thing worse then tautological academia, is tautological poetics.

    is his plan interesting? yes. would it be different for nyc? yes. would it create powerful spaces? yes. do the people like it? (surprisingly) yes. great… now build it, and please don’t tell me a word about it- because when it is finished, it like all architecture will and should only be judged as a building, not as the transmogrification of some sexy drawings and poetic newspeak.

    as a side note… think was not futuristic… they were actually reinterpreting an idea for skyscrapers that was proposed somwhere much closer to the start of the 20th century. rem koolhaas has a nice picture of it in his book ‘delerious new york’. the picture shows the how the ‘new’ skyscraper can allow everyone to have their own plot of land and house- just vertically stacked. rem elaborates the point further.

    the only thing ‘futuristic’ about think was the pod forms… no wait that was late 90s.

    ok surely the ‘futurism’ must have been the ability to get so far on such a poorly developed scheme… hmmm that was the dotcoms.

    here comes the sarcasm!


  2. Felix says:

    As ever, Geoff has some very, very astute points. At the risk of being seen as wanting the last word, I’ll respond to them, with respect. Basically, I think that Geoff is responding primarily not to Libeskind’s plans for the WTC, but to his pre-existing idea of Studio Daniel Libeskind as an architectural practice. Certainly Libeskind has published more than his fair share of sexy drawings and theory-laden manifestoes. But I think many people, not least in the city and state of New York, have been struck by the way in which he has avoided such mannerism in this plan. Yes, there are overriding architectural conceits, such as the lines of the converging fire companies, or the angle of the Wedge of Light. But Libeskind has been at pains to assure us that he does not have “the correct architectural answer” — if anything, he, of all the shortlisted architects, was the most open to public consultation and what you might call archtictecture of the people. The Port Authority doesn’t want a 70-foot pit? Fine, let’s make it 30 feet. The victims’ families want a space of their own? Here you are, there’s enough space to go around for everyone.

    As for the vertical city, it was futuristic at the turn of the century, and it is futuristic today. It has oft been mooted, but never realised. The reason why I place Libeskind’s vernacular in the 90s rather than the 80s, and Think’s in the future, is because that is where such things are located in reality.

  3. Joseph A. Teper says:

    Where is the model of Liebeskind’s design for Ground Zero being displayed? JT

  4. Felix says:

    The model is being displayed at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center.

  5. Reza Momin says:

    I like to get picture catalog or video presentation, I read in Time Magazine and I think the design is great in total.

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