What Will Rise At Ground Zero?


Politics, Architecture,

and the Rebuilding of New York

By Paul Goldberger

Random House; 273 pp; $24.95

For most of us grappling with the enormity of September 11, the question of what should arise where the World Trade Center once stood had a simple answer: We wanted something big, something beautiful, and something that would reflect the vibrancy of New York while still respecting the nation's memories of that fateful day. Now that a master plan for Ground Zero has been adopted, designs chosen for its memorial and transit hub, and symbolic ground broken for its signature skyscraper, the Freedom Tower, those desires could actually come to pass.

But don't count on it. In his deftly written narrative of this massive project, Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York, Paul Goldberger warns that the public may not get what it wants. What happens at Ground Zero will have as much to do with the wishes of dealmaking politicians, revenue-hungry bureaucrats, and entrepreneurial-minded developers as with the taste and desires of the populace. And that's true even for a populace that took the time to educate itself and make its voice heard in innumerable ways in the aftermath of the Trade Center's destruction (see also this BW Online Video Q&A with Paul Goldberger).

As you would expect from the architecture critic for The New Yorker and formerly for The New York Times, Goldberger devotes much of his book to an evaluation of the plans of the architects who hoped to put their stamp on Ground Zero. The presence of such luminaries as Daniel Libeskind -- who won the competition for the design -- Rafael Viñoly, Norman Foster, and Santiago Calatrava, among others, may have marked a high point in New York's design history. In a city where aesthetics usually takes a backseat to commerce, the intense interest of politicians, businesspeople, civic activists, and ordinary citizens helped ensure -- at least for a while -- that "architecture was given a seat at the table that it had never before had," writes Goldberger. The author details many of the symposiums, exhibits, and town meetings that took place after September 11, as New Yorkers struggled to figure out the next step for the sadly empty 16 acres a few blocks from Wall Street. Should the area contain a replica of the Twin Towers? How about a community in the Jane Jacobs mode, with a lively mix of offices, stores, and apartments? Or, as the final resting place of thousands, maybe it should contain nothing at all?

But with the stakes so high, it seems that art was in no position to trump commerce. At best, Goldberger believes, the two have come to a draw. He reminds us that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the agency that owned the Trade Center, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the New York State unit founded to oversee rebuilding, never promised that any of the wonderful designs paraded before the public in 2002 would actually be built. Out of what was dubbed the Innovative Design Study, the authorities really wanted only a master plan -- a layout of where skyscrapers and other elements would go. Crucially, that plan was driven by the Port Authority's need to recreate 10 million square feet of office space lost in the attacks. And the Trade Center's leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, is still on the hook for $120 million in annual rent.

Through some crafty political maneuvering, Silverstein's own architect, David Childs, ended up modifying Libeskind's design of the Freedom Tower in a bid to make it more commercial -- so much so that it scarcely resembles the proposed building that dazzled the world two years ago. "As a complete work of design, the Freedom Tower had all the defects of an unnatural hybrid," writes Goldberger, who holds Libeskind's original in high regard. "It is certainly not a retrograde piece of aesthetics, but it hardly seems to break the new ground that was hoped for, either." Meanwhile, in a development subsequent to the book's completion, relations between Silverstein and Libeskind have fallen so low that Libeskind has sued for $843,750 that he claims he is owed for design work.

Although the entire site will probably not be built out for decades, Goldberger leaves us with a fairly depressing picture so far -- of mediocre design and lackluster urban planning. But nobody knows what the effect will be when construction is finished. Even Goldberger admits that the Twin Towers, unloved and nearly empty at first, wormed their way into New Yorkers' hearts. The dramatic Windows on the World restaurant, the King Kong remake that featured the buildings, and daredevil Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the towers, all helped to humanize a work originally perceived as cold, monumental, and out-of-step with the city's traditional architecture. Perhaps the lesson here, which Goldberger only hints at, is that what makes a building memorable and important are the uses -- silly or sublime -- and the feelings that people finally attach to whatever gets built. And that is something yet to be seen.

By Robert McNatt

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