Back from a long weekend, there’s lots of fabulous new stuff I want to blog
about, but first I want to get the last of the WTC stuff off my chest. My last
post, on the design revisions, got a lot of inbound links, largely, I think,
because the mainstream media isn’t giving this story the detailed coverage it
deserves. Part of the problem is that the news trickles out slowly, and there’s
no real news hook to hang a big WTC story on.
Anyway, the excellent World New York linked
to me on Thursday, and pointed me back to some questions
he’d asked back in January. They’re good questions, so I’m going to try to answer
them here. He’s particularly keen on what he calls the "six-foot view,"
something he says which seems to have been overlooked in the site plan so far.
Never mind what the buildings are going to look like from the Statue of Liberty,
he says: what are they going to look like from six feet away?
This is a very good question, and one that no one can answer, largely because
none of the buildings have been designed yet. The site plan is basically just
that – a master plan for the site as a whole – and only two of the
buildings even have architects: Santiago Calatrava for the train station and
David Childs for the Freedom Tower. I’m a much bigger fan of Calatrava than
I am of Childs, who’s responsible for the AOL Time Warner monstrosity currently
being constructed at Columbus Circle. But I’m also cautiously optimistic about
the six-foot view in general, and can answer some of the questions posed in
When you stand a body’s length from the skin of the building,
what do you see? What is happening at the street level? Are there windows to
peer in? Are there newsstands? Benches? Bike racks?
At street level, the office towers are going to read largely as retail space.
The idea is to surround the core of the buildings with shops, which enhance
street life. The towers themselves are largely set back from the street, so
they’ll be very hard to see without craning your neck. Obviously, shops nearly
always want as many windows as possible, so yes, there’ll be lots of those.
And as for street furniture like newsstands, benches and bike racks, I’m sure
they’ll be there too. Libeskind is adamant that this become a vibrant new residential
neighborhood and not a soulless central business district. The absence of things
like bike racks is usually a result of no one taking responsibility for such
things. In this case, contrariwise, everybody from the Port Authority and the
LMDC to the city and state of New York is falling over themselves to make sure
that the district works as a pleasant place to live, work, and visit. You’re
much more likely to get bickering over the kind of bike racks to install than
you are to have their necessity overlooked entirely.
Can five tourists walk abreast and still leave room for accelerated
New Yorkers watching their Bostonians?
Insofar as this is possible anywhere in Manhattan, it will be possible here.
The new streets – Greenwich and Fulton – are first and foremost
for pedestrians, with wide sidewalks and lots of trees. There’s a lot of greenery,
too, on the revamped Liberty Street. Even West Street will be great if it gets
buried, although I have to admit I’m not holding my breath on that one.
Are there shops visible from the street—local shops, preferably?
The first part of the question is an easy yes, but the second part is tougher.
The WTC site is not going to grow organically like most of the rest of the city:
it’s going to be built by developers who are going to market it as a hot new
retail destination. Westfield America, the mall operator who ran the shops in
the World Trade Center, is no longer involved, but someone else will surely
take over responsibility for the retail part of the site as a whole. And given
that there’s going to be 600,000 square feet of retail to fill, I have a feeling
that the chain stores we had there before are likely to come back, maybe with
a big department store anchor. The new site won’t feel like a shopping mall
in the way the old one did, but it probably will feel like a shopping mall in
the way the Upper West Side does at the moment. I think that a large number
of national chain stores is an inevitability, if only because – obviously
– there can’t be any small local shops who have been there for generations.
Judging by the World Financial Center, there might be a few independent restaurants,
but the shops are likely to be pretty bland and corporate. Still, Century 21
is still going to be right there on Church Street, and a walk up Fulton Street
to Nassau Street will bring you back to the realm of unique New York retail.
Have piss corners been avoided? Piss corners: you know, those uncomfortable
places where the grand façades come together like wrinkled wallpaper
in a room’s corner, barely hidden, but magnets for dirt, like derelicts
and drunks and trash itself, corners which are inevitably doomed to become pissoirs.
Have windowless and doorless walls been avoided?
Since virtually all the street frontage is going to be retail, I think you’re
ok on the piss-corners and blank-walls front. While you do occasionally see
rubbish in a storefront’s doorway, the kind of thing you’re talking about usually
happens in business districts without a retail presence.
Have delivery bays and trash areas been made as small as possible,
and placed on the least active side of the building? Better, have they been
placed inside the building, in a courtyard or basement?
They’ve been placed underneath the buildings, off a subterranean road
which can only be accessed by trucks which pass a special security area to the
south of Liberty Street. The solution is pretty much ideal from a street-life
perspective: there should be no trucks on Fulton or Greenwich at all.
Have the trees been given room to grow? Or will they forever be saplings,
replaced in their tiny basins when they grow too large? What does the space
look like at night? Is it dead? Is it safe? Or does it become just another passing-through
area for those who have to be there rather than want to be there?
I’m sure the trees have been given room to grow: the LMDC has the best consultants
in the world on such matters. At night, the idea is that the area is going to
be a cultural center, with a performing arts center, restaurants, and all the
other things which will make people want to go there in the evenings, rather
than simply get out of there once the work day is over. The financial district
always has been pretty bleak at nights and weekends, but I’m hoping the new
WTC plan will change all that.
Are the public spaces contiguously external and internal?
Yes: Cortlandt Street, which becomes a pedestrianised internal shopping precinct
when it crosses Church Street, is a good example. There are multiple levels
to the plan, and a lot of what you call contiguousness between external and
internal: for instance, you can walk from the World Financial Center through
to the new train station along wide pedestrian pathways which continue all the
way up to Broadway and beyond. It’s hard to say for sure, because much of the
detailed design work hasn’t been done yet, but the idea is very much to have
a light-filled and pleasant walk around the non-memorial areas of the site which
makes it very easy to get to, say, the World Financial Center or the various
PATH and subway lines. The 600,000 square feet of retail is on many different
levels, from below ground to above it, and no one has any interest in recreating
the fluorescent nightmare that was the original shopping mall. The retail presence,
indeed, is likely to provide another easy way of getting from the below-ground
areas to street level and back, just as you used to be able to walk from the
subway to the street through Borders rather than going up the public staircase.
Are the memorial areas level with the street? Are all the public areas
entered through wide, welcoming gateways?
The memorial competition is ongoing, and no one will know for sure what it’s
going to look like until the results are announced. But at the moment, the memorial
area is sunk about 30 feet below street level, so that it’s separated from the
bustle of the street life. The slurry walls and a new waterfall will give it
auditory isolation, so that you don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city
while you’re there, and people on the street will probably be able to go about
their business without feeling that they’re intruding on an important spiritual
experience. As for the gateways, again, that’s unclear. They won’t be there
at the beginning, but as the site plan progresses and more of the buildings
get built, they should start appearing.
It’s certainly the case that architects like thinking big, and that if you’re
designing the world’s highest building you might not spend quite the optimum
amount of time thinking about whether people are going to be able to chain their
bikes to lampposts. Some people are mistrustful of all grand plans, and are
much happier if neighborhoods are just left to develop on their own, but that’s
impossible in this situation, and the LMDC is surely the next best thing. For
the time being, I’m confident that these questions are being asked and that
we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results as they begin to appear. The problem
is one of timing: since everything can’t be constructed at once, what will the
streets be like when they first open? My fear is that they’ll be a little too
pristine, too much like the new piers in the Hudson River Park, without any
New York City grittiness. I don’t want to see the suburbanisation of downtown
New York spread from Battery Park City to the WTC site, but I have to admit
I don’t have any bright ideas about how to prevent that.