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