By Gary Weiss
Before September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was roundly criticized by architects -- and many New Yorkers -- as unimaginative, uninspiring, and vapid. They were Class-A buildings in real-estate parlance but ranked considerably lower from an aesthetic perspective. "Most people didn't think they were very beautiful," says John C. Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), the agency overseeing the plans for Ground Zero. "They were, you know, just huge, big square buildings."
By comparison, the nine new designs for Ground Zero unveiled on Dec. 18 are splendid examples of architectural prowess. They would bestow upon Lower Manhattan magnificent amenities in the form of public spaces, parks, promenades, office, and residential space. "What the city witnessed yesterday was a seminar in architectural thinking, a master class in making sense of space, function, civic commitment, and public emotion," declared a New York Times editorial.
And the "seminar" isn't over. The LMDC has asked for public comments. In that spirit, I have a proposal. Put up new Twin Towers. But something very different than what was proposed the other day.
What I would like to see at Ground Zero would be far simpler than what has been proposed. Two towers of gray metal and concrete. One hundred and ten stories each. An observation deck would be on one of the towers, the one to the south. It could even be called the "South Tower." On top of the other building, which I would call the North Tower, there would be a restaurant.
It would be a mediocre design -- unimaginative, uninspiring, and vapid. However, I would argue that nothing else belongs at that particular place on the New York City skyline. Yes, the Twin Towers were ugly monstrosities. I want those monstrosities back. I don't want a better skyline. I want the old skyline.
I'll admit to being sentimental on the subject. Like a lot of other New Yorkers, I'm still coping with feelings of grief. I was one of the thousands of residents of this city who stood by helplessly as plumes of smoke billowed westward on a cloudless day. For weeks afterward, we could smell the aftermath.
Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about those buildings or the people who died, or their faces on the posters of the missing, or how the hospital emergency room in my downtown neighborhood waited for the wounded who never came. Whenever I cross Avenue of the Americas in Lower Manhattan, I reflexively look downtown, toward the buildings that used to be there.
The people cannot be brought back, but the buildings can. I can think of no more fitting memorial to the towers and to the people who worked in them, nor any more suitable act of defiance to the creatures who murdered the thousands of people inside them.
If it seems like an obvious idea, well, it is. The idea of rebuilding the World Trade Center was given serious consideration by the LMDC at one point, but the idea went nowhere. Obviously, safety was a factor. But even if the towers' structural integrity could be enhanced, the corporation would have none of it. "Oh, I think maybe it was considered, but I think it was rather quickly discarded," says Whitehead. "There was a lot of animosity from the real-estate community that [the Twin Towers] were a real-estate problem rather than a real-estate asset."
Whitehead notes, quite correctly, that downtown has a surplus of commercial real estate. Since the original World Trade Center was hard to lease when it was first built in the early '70s, "there was a real reluctance to repeat what was an economic failure." Rather than repeat that "failure," Whitehead says, "I think we can just build safer and better and more economical if we have a chance to do something great, that looks better and is better."
It's hard to argue with Whitehead from an economic perspective. And there's no denying that all of the proposals envision memorials that would honor the dead of September 11. One can also argue that a "better" replacement for the World Trade Center would be a more fitting rebuff to Osama Bin Laden than a carbon copy of the old Twin Towers.
Even so, those two "big square buildings" have a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers. I can't speak for everyone who saw the buildings collapse, only for myself. But I believe the designers should save their terrific ideas for another project, go back to their drawing boards, and work on repairing that hole in the skyline. The new buildings should replicate the towers in a way that is safe, economically viable, and faithful to the spirit of the vanished buildings.
Don't make it better than it was. Put it back the way it was. "We have a duty to repair and regenerate the city fabric," said one of the architectural firms that proposed a design, Foster & Partners of London, in a statement accompanying its proposal. "The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is the most important urban-planning and architectural challenge of our time," said the firm.
Exactly. And that's what must be done. Rebuild the World Trade Center.
Weiss is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht