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A towering challenge Add to ...

Another group calls itself Think. Frederic Schwartz, who designed the new Staten Island Ferry Terminal (currently under construction) leads the team. He invited his Lower Manhattan neighbours -- who also happen to be internationally acclaimed designers -- to join him: architect Rafael Vinoly, landscape architect Ken Smith and, from Japan, Shigeru Ban. They've worked intensely together before, occasionally sharing offices to hammer out their schemes for design competitions. Ban worked for Schwartz years ago before returning to Tokyo. He later rose to fame following his construction innovations with paper tubes; his community centre in Kobe, following that city's devastating earthquake in 1995, is a powerful testimony to the way architecture can heal communities.

Schwartz was a social activist at Berkeley, Calif., in the late 1960s. Besides designing the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, he's redeveloping the Martin Luther housing complex in Manhattan's Harlem. From his office, he can look up to the open sky where once the twin towers once stood.

"You can't get excited about this," Schwartz says. "You have to keep remembering. This has to be architecture of content and meaning and memory -- not architecture of imagery."

How this remarkable combination of individuals and teams came about cannot be reduced to one event or one lobby group. It's a combination of many forces. It's because of the tenacity of The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who has pushed hard for months for an open process that would engage "the world's most accomplished architects." It's because of the exhaustive consultations and recommendations of New York New Visions, a coalition of 21 architecture, engineering, planning, landscape architecture and design organizations, that was organized following the tragic events of Sept. 11. It's because of the countless exhibitions and university symposia held throughout North America, including Laboratoires, a major think tank and exhibition at the Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture earlier this year.

And, especially, it was the protests from 5,000 people gathered at the Javits Conference Center in New York that convinced the LMDC to open the site's dilemma to the world's brightest. Average people had gathered that hot day in July to review six different memorial schemes worked out by a team led by Beyer Blinder Belle: Architects & Planners, in association with Parsons Brinckerhoff. Beyer Blinder Belle is an established New York firm acclaimed for its redevelopment of Grand Central Terminal. For this assignment, in part because of the enormous pressures from the client to accommodate 11 million square feet of commercial space on the site, 600,000 square feet of retail, and 600,000 square feet of hotels, the resulting master plan turned out to be a piecemeal ordering of properties with only a half-hearted nod to architecture.

One of the consultant's boards for a memorial plaza located at an extended section of Greenwich Street recommended: "A tall, freestanding mixed-use tower is located on the northwest corner of the site, with an antenna or sculptural top that marks the skyline." That is not architecture, that is a real-estate development.

The response from the 5,000 gathered was swift and direct. Thousands of letters and e-mails poured into the offices of the LMDC. Within one month, overwhelmed by the public's outcry with no choice but to wipe the egg from its face and forge on, the corporation announced it would work together with the New York New Visions public lobby group. A total of 407 submissions, representing designers from 34 countries, participated in the open call put out by the LMDC. A distinguished jury was assembled -- its members specifically selected by the New Visions professionals -- and recently six teams were chosen to participate. The firms will spend the next several weeks studying the WTC site and its adjacent areas.

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