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
By Michael Sorkin. Features, Issue 227, September 2011
Published online: 08 September 2011
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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