Commemorating 9/11 USA

Comment: Controversy, compromise and what might have been

The new World Trade Center site is going to be one very strange and unpleasant place, over-scaled and aggressively bereft of humane meaning

"At Ground Zero, the melding of memory and profit will, in fact, be the 'theme' of the site," says Michael Sorkin

I live downtown and go to the Ground Zero site at least once a week. It’s a hive of activity, cranes and construction everywhere, crowds of tourists and vendors: bustling. Projects are shaping up, too. One World Trade Center—the erstwhile “Freedom Tower”—has risen halfway, the memorial’s nearly done, and the Maki tower at the south-east corner is about one-third framed. Although Calatrava’s bony, $4 billion confection (the subject of increasingly scathing commentary for the huge expense to serve an estimated 65,000 commuters a day) has yet to emerge from the ground, it is still the only piece of architecture with any real ambition on the site.

The Foster tower remains on hold, awaiting word from the market. But the papers were recently filled with the news that the Condé-Nast publishing empire is moving from Times Square to number One, and those of us in the neighbourhood surely look forward to flocks of queuing limos and many delirious new places for lunch.

As the two skyscrapers receive their hermetic skins—harbingering hyper-bland architectures that will never exceed the default of corporate design—it’s clear that the scale will be huge and the effect glassy. Because of their load-bearing walls, the original twin towers were read as opaque, solid. The new buildings will be shiny, reflective, thin-walled, veneered, smooth. Their ensemble will be a M. Hulot confusion of mirrors, of uniformity—an infinitely regressive back and forth, trying to pick up the reflection of something actually authentic. (Already, Ralph Walker’s beautiful, noble Barclay-Vesey Building of 1927 has been reduced to a dwarf by the looming towers that now surround it.) This blinding misdirection is the architecture of paranoia. By obliterating their own interiority, by concealing their structures, by an endlessness of gasketing against the foreign gaze (and substance), by laying in a monster infrastructure of surveillance and “security”, this is going to be one very strange and unpleasant place, over-scaled and aggressively bereft of humane meaning.

The concealment offered by this nominal transparency has also been pointed up by the recent announcement that the base of number One will not receive the coating of special refractive glass originally intended. This veneer was meant to conceal the fact that the massive base of the building is, in fact, designed as a bomb-proof bunker. Apparently, the fancy ornamental glass envisioned as camouflage proved technically impossible to produce and so the skin is currently planned to be more conventional, but will presumably still efface the difference between the more vulnerable upper storeys (with their actual windows) and their impregnable footing, all in service of an uninterrupted visual ascent up this Everest of bad architecture.

To be sure, one is grateful that what’s being built has been largely pared of the overwrought semiotics of the original masterplan. The one remnant of Libeskind’s manic cloak of angularity is the almost-completed little building by the otherwise excellent Snøhetta that will serve as entry, gallery space and ventilation for the subterranean memorial museum. Can’t say what it will be like inside, but outside it is shaped and decorated in homage to the otherwise vanished spirit of skew. Along with several extremely obtrusive service structures along West Street, it seems cruelly placed in relationship to the horizontal serenity of the monument—carbuncular, disruptive, needless.

The controversy that is raging this summer concerns the cost of admission to the 9/11 Museum, which, it has been announced, will be about 20 bucks [although the families of victims are expected to get in free]. Here’s a small reprise of the crisis at the root of the development: the nature of the split between public benefit and private aggrandisement it represents. One of the hallmarks of American polity is the increasing pervasiveness of so-called “public-private partnerships” and with them the idea that public space must pay for itself, that a park must have a café or a condo to cover its costs. At Ground Zero, the melding of memory and profit will, in fact, be the “theme” of the site. Legible in the disproportion between the gigantic exclusionary skyscrapers, the hemmed memorial and the pay-to-enter museum will be a record of much that is wrong and ungenerous about American culture today.

As someone who advocated that the site remain unconstructed, I think wistfully of what might have been, the development elsewhere in the city, the creation of a magnificent and useful civic space, and an expansive act of reverent commemoration.

The writer is founder of Michael Sorkin Studio and professor of architecture and director of the graduate programme in urban design at the City College of New York

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Comments

15 Sep 11
3:9 CET

CHRIS SAMUEL GRAYSON, AMD

I find this article to be highly irritating, odious and tactless. After watching the names of the departed being read aloud this morning, I was convinced our nation still mourns. To suggest the 9/11 design lacks integrity is appalling and inexcusable. What does the callous Sorkin wish for? He claims the site must remain an unbuilt decrepit void in the city. Fortunately, this argument has been publically dismissed ten years ago. He complains about the glass quality, image, performance and aesthetics of the buildings. Does Sorkin believe the architects of this site are really faking it? Everyone involved has made an enormous effort on the various complex projects. Don’t offend these good people with the angry outburst of an ignoramus.

13 Sep 11
23:6 CET

JON ZELLWEGER, RALEIGH

The history of this site has been about compromise. At a time when the site's leadership could have risen above the typical culture/capital seesaw and put honoring those who perished above all, they failed. By failing to promote ideals beyond the almighty dollar, they thrust the superficiality of image and commerce in the face of solemn respect for the dead. Sorkin does an excellent job in calling b.s. on the pomp and the huff that HAS been and WILL be pedaled as these projects are completed. If there is anything I take away from this editorial it is this: we have created a site SUFFICIENT for memory of what occurred there, but nothing that can truly resonate with the soul with the cacophony of business-as-usual beating on the gates.

12 Sep 11
14:9 CET

AUGUSTUS FIRESTONE, MELBOURNE

I was in Montreal when this terrible event happened and saw it live. I did drawings for the new buildings in my own vision. One building would be the shape of an angel and the other a crystal. I didn't bother sending it because I knew what they wanted was something that is currently being built now, done by architects with a history of producing such large scale projects. I look at the designs of what is to be and I think they are okay looking. No art or architecture can do justice at reflecting the feelings of 11th of September 2001. Augustus Firestone

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