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A towering challenge Add to ...

Something has clicked in the consciousness of New Yorkers. After lying down in the waters of sorrow, New Yorkers are standing up to speak about the florescence of an idea. Architecture matters. The gaping wound of Lower Manhattan could never be healed by the conventions of real-estate development, in which parcels of land are arranged like slabs of meat on a plate. They see this now with a sanguine clarity even while the grief for their hometown still lingers. What the post-Sept. 11 city needs more than ever is architecture by the world's most intelligent creators -- that is what New Yorkers have demanded and that is exactly what is about to be dished out.

One of the world's most remarkable think tanks on architecture has been unleashed. Yesterday, the invited architects met for the first time for a briefing held at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC). If you listen hard enough, you can hear the sounds behind the thinking: the sometime slow, sometime furious scribbles on paper, the roar of airplanes bringing team members together, the screeching of chairs on hardwood floors and, rising over the rest of the noise, a cacophony of voices in design studios in London, Tokyo and New York.

Many of the appointed architects are already household names in Canada. Lord Norman Foster is the elder statesman of high-tech architectural marvels such as the remodeling of the Reichstag building in Berlin and the precisely engineered Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. tower in Hong Kong. The London-based Foster and Partners recently won a competition to design the $70-million Leslie L. Dan pharmacy building for the University of Toronto (with Moffat Kinoshita Architects).

Daniel Libeskind came to New York as a 14-year-old immigrant from Poland. His Jewish Museum in Berlin catapulted him to architectural acclaim because it provokes sensations of loss and celebration of Jewish culture. He was recently appointed architect of the $200-million redevelopment (with Bregman + Hamann Architects) of the Royal Ontario Museum in downtown Toronto.

Libeskind has just arrived for meetings in London from his base in Berlin, a city he adopted with his Torontonian wife Nina several years ago. Libeskind -- like the other architects -- has been thinking about the problem of the site long and hard. "This site has a very important role not only economically but spiritually for the world . . . I think you have to acknowledge in a profound way the murder that took place there and the attack on democracy and what the place represented, the freedom that people had, the way of life that was there." Libeskind is speaking with urgency now. "Architecture is an act of optimism. The site can't turn into a funerary area."

While Foster and Studio Libeskind will operate solo, the other four teams are artful assemblies of architects from around the world. United Architects, for instance, represents the experimental fringe of professional practice with participants such as Reiser + Umemoto and Greg Lynn, acclaimed for his amoeba designs for houses generated through sophisticated computer software. Foreign Office Architects, formidable intellectuals based in London who have designed the startling Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan, give extra clout to that unit.

Another team includes Steven Holl, generator of luminous churches and museums as well as Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey -- old friends and founding members of the New York Five, the United States' modern, white architecture movement. Since then, Meier has designed the extravagant Getty Center in Los Angeles and Gwathmey the subdued addition to the Guggenheim Museum in New York -- Eisenman is the crusty provocateur of architectural discourse who designed the deeply disturbing Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

The New York office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, maker of pretty but nostalgic commercial and residential towers, leads another more unseemly collection of practitioners. The conventional thinking of SOM could be offset by the important landscape practice of Field Operations and a host of cutting-edge video and public artists -- but that's a guessing game right now.

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.

For most of the new participants, the problem of the WTC has haunted and inspired them long before being handed this latest assignment. For months, Schwartz has been drawing rough sketches of the site in an attempt to imagine its profound reconfiguration. He worked on the problem intensely with Canadian architect Taizo Yamamoto, a recent graduate of McGill University. When Herbert Muschamp invited Schwartz to participate in a bold rethinking of the site for a special September issue of The New York Times Magazine, the architect contributed an idea that would become seminal to the magazine's design forum: Move commercial development off the WTC site entirely. Retain the devastated site as a sacred, open space. Then stagger commercial and housing towers along a newly created West Street promenade.

Some of the contributions to the magazine angered Libeskind. He regrets that the invited architects relied on a conventional master plan and the dropping of signature buildings along the major axes. "You can have a master plan like Potsdamer Platz but produce a mediocre city," he says, referring to the redevelopment of Berlin's central plaza and the disconnected contributions of star architecture produced by designers such as Helmuth Jahn and Renzo Piano. What's more, Libeskind took the gloves off at a recent symposium at the Venice Biennale where he publicly criticized Muschamp for indulging the fantasies of some of the world's star architects. "I thought there was too much sarcasm, too much sardonic gestures. Rem Koolhaas and his upside-down skyscrapers," snaps Libeskind during our telephone conversation. "I don't think it's a funny project. Architecture is an art of cities. It's about the spirit and human beings."

Nobody would pretend that the right solution for the World Trade Center and its surrounding neighbourhood is about to be revealed within the next six weeks. It requires an average of two decades to build out the most ordinary of large-scale real-estate developments in the most ordinary of circumstances. It has taken more than 50 years for cities such as Berlin and Hamburg to rebuild after the Second World War. In Dresden, where 135,000 people died in the Allied firebombing of 1945, the Church of Our Lady was left as a ruin in the centre of the city -- only recently have funds been gathered enough to imagine its reconstruction.

For New York, the recent announcement by the LMDC that six visionary design teams had been selected to contribute their ideas to the rethinking of the World Trade Center site is just a beginning. But it's a luminous beginning, one that follows the earlier false start. A cynic would suggest that those dumbed down master plans were necessary foils required to engage the public and delay the process. Perhaps, too, the public will shoot down the schemes that emerge from this new process. That's the risk inherent in tackling the most charged site ever to be considered for redevelopment in the United States. Schwartz puts it simply: "You need to start."

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