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Daniel Burnham's legendary exhortation to "make no little plans"
deserves to be trumped by even pithier architectural advice: "First,
get the job." That was the barely suppressed subtext of the seven
public presentations of designs for the World Trade Center site
given in New York a week before Christmas. Despite the problematic
aspects of all the proposals, it was a good day for the idea of
architecture, if less so for the realities of urban planning. Not
since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao five years
earlier has a building project received such extensive media
coverage, or so fully captured the public imagination, or provoked
so much critical discourse, albeit for reasons entirely different
from the purely aesthetic concerns of Gehry's pre-millennial
masterpiece. It was thrilling to overhear the new projects being
discussed by the general public all around town, just as it was to
see the designs reproduced in color on the front pages of all three
of the city's tabloids.Never mind that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC)
had been shamed into this second round of schemes after the
pathetic series of proposals it unveiled in July were roundly
denounced. That debacle in turn prompted the high-style beauty
pageant paraded in The New York Times Magazine in September by the
paper's architecture critic, who by acting as a patron as well as a
commentator placed himself in the indefensible and untenable
position of both judge and jury. The first round of utterly
graceless and greedy LMDC offerings (which attempted to replace all
eleven million square feet of lost commercial space) and the
exhibitionistic Times Magazine chorus line forced the issue that
the gravity of this commission deserved a higher level of
architectural quality. About that, at least, there was unanimous
agreement in all quarters.

As though taking dictation from the newspaper of record, a panel of
establishment experts appointed by the LMDC (including Terence Riley
of the Museum of Modern Art and Toshiko Mori of Harvard University)
dutifully invited no fewer than six of the Times
participants--Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Steven Holl,
Richard Meier, Frederick Schwartz, and Rafael Vinoly--to join in
the subsequent charrette. The omission from their ranks of the
formidable Zaha Hadid, a particular favorite of the Times critic,
who included her among the anointed in his magazine manifesto,
earned the LMDC a sharp rebuke from him. It was yet another
flagrant conflict of interest that seemed not overly to trouble his
paper's moral guardians. What would they say if their movie critics
began sending script ideas to Harvey Weinstein and then writing
about the results?

The live television and radio coverage of the December press
conference, which was held in the recently restored Winter Garden
of the World Financial Center, across the street from Ground Zero,
allowed the general public a rare opportunity to witness how
architects make their pitch. (In fact, the firms had already given
private presentations to the LMDC and other planning officials
during the weeks leading up to the announcements.) An
instructive--not to say highly revealing--experience it was, too,
even for seasoned architectural observers, who savored the telling
details that can subliminally influence a client's selection of an
architect. There was a touch of comedy: here were some of the most
self-important alpha males on the planet (only one of the day's
dozen speakers was a woman) in the unaccustomed, imploring attitude
of Fuller Brush men. To witness some of the leading architectural
figures of the day in open contention was an even bigger treat. As
Brian Lehrer of WNYC gleefully put it, the mano a mano event was
"an architecture slam, a battle of the bands."

The day's first supplicant, the Berlin-based Daniel Libeskind,
proved why, with so little built work to his credit, he has been
getting so many major jobs lately. Libeskind's intense, theatrical
proffer quickly cut to the emotional heart of the matter, beginning
with his tale of arriving by ship in New York harbor as the son of
Holocaust survivors, awed by the Statue of Liberty and the
Manhattan skyline like generations of grateful immigrants before
him. It was clear that he took the wanton destruction of the most
salient features of that cityscape personally, and better than any
of his peers he communicated the sense of loss and the urgent need
for renewal that the tragedy of September 11 inspired. Not for him
the rational reticence and the conservative tailoring of the cool
architectural professional. And if in his manic intensity and
head-to- toe hipster black he came across like Dieter in Sprockets,
his heart was in the right place.

Libeskind's project is strongest of all in its memorial aspects.
This is not surprising, because he tends to turn commissions into
commemorative monuments whether he is asked to or not. The Jewish
Museum in Berlin was meant to celebrate the culture of Germany's
Jews, but Libeskind transformed it into a Holocaust memorial, just
as he made his Imperial War Museum North near Manchester into an
implicit military Denkmal. Libeskind is an entrepreneur of
commemoration, a human Yahrzeit candle.

Though all the new Ground Zero proposals in one way or another
demarcate the footprints of the Twin Towers, Libeskind's design is
by far the most dramatic evocation of the disaster. It is easy to
see why it has struck such a resonant chord among the victims'
families. He wants the seventy-foot-deep pits and their rough
slurry walls (the subterranean foundations that kept river and
ground water out of the landfill site) to be preserved intact. This
graphic reminder of the physical enormity of the towers' demise is
very powerful, but it is not very practical: retaining the
grave-like excavations will be difficult to do, not least because a
vast amount of infrastructure must be restored to the site, not all
of which can be re-routed around or submerged beneath the gaping
holes, seven stories below street level.

Rising above it all would be a slender, crystalline 1,776-foot-tall
greenhouse structure. (The numerological symbolism seemed tonally
off, an immigrant's excess.) The spire would contain a vertical
hanging garden with flora and fauna from around the world,
introducing the ecological theme shared by several of the other
architects and echoing former mayor Rudy Giuliani's call for "a
soaring, beautiful memorial." But the rest of Libeskind's multi-
building scheme seems quite sketchy, no doubt because of the great
haste with which the designs had to be prepared in order to meet
the LMDC's ridiculously tight deadline. (Then there was the
insultingly chintzy $40,000 fee that the agency bestowed on each
participant, scarcely lunch money in terms of the enormous outlay
of time and labor involved. That pittance repulsed a number of
heavy-duty players--Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Robert Venturi
and Denise Scott Brown among them--who might have been tempted to
submit had they not been turned off by having to go into debt to do
so. You get what you pay for.)

In any event, Libeskind did not devote the same obsessive attention
that he focused on the mnemonic components to the specifics of the
site's more practical requirements. With all due respect to his
serious artistic ambitions, there seems little likelihood that a
project of this magnitude will be handed over to a late-blooming
Luftmensch, however astute he may be as a cultural salesman and a
prod to historical conscience.

Next at bat was Norman Foster. As could have been foreseen, Foster's
scheme was technologically proficient, environmentally sensitive,
sleekly finished, structurally logical, and more than a bit cold, a
deficiency that he effectively countered with his persuasive
presentation. Purporting with dubious theological accuracy that the
triangle is a symbol common to all the world's religions, Foster
demonstrated how that geometric shape formed the modular basis for
his faceted design, which recalls the folded contours of a Noguchi
paper lantern, ossified and magnified to truly monstrous
proportions.

While our eyes saw two adjacent behemoths chillingly reminiscent of
the lost towers but some forty stories taller, Foster suggestively
described how the resurrected twins "kiss and touch and become one"
at various points on their long way up to becoming the world's
tallest buildings. His handling of the footprints would preserve
them as memorial voids, though much more tidied up than Libeskind's
raw ruins. Access to Foster's elegant minimalist spaces--a cross
between Chase Manhattan Plaza and Yad Vashem--would be apportioned
between the general public on one side and the victims' families on
the other, a hierarchy that no doubt will be comforting to many of
the mourners. But will that VIP-mourner status be held in
perpetuity, and can it be bequeathed to future generations? When
you are talking in terms of eternity, such petty questions arise.

With shameless sentimentality, Foster then led viewers through his
scheme as seen through the eyes of a young child visiting his
completed megastructure with her family, a clever ploy to humanize
a most inhuman scheme. (He even specified that she was wearing an
orange dress, perhaps like the little girl in red in Schindler's
List.) On the observation deck atop one tower, the architect
fantasized, "the little girl realizes, she says, that she can see
forever. But also she is reminded by her parents, as she looks down
into the void, that that is where they started their journey and
where you cannot see any life." This calculating schmaltz brought
to mind Thelma Ritter's undeceived wisecrack from All About Eve:
"What a story! It's got everything except the bloodhounds nipping
at her rear end."

By the end of Foster's maudlin but masterful spiel, it was clear
that he was the man to beat, and that impression has not diminished
in the weeks since the event. His big-time credentials are
reassuring to real estate developers and civic officials alike.
Among his more than one thousand commissions are such
preposterously prestigious jobs as the Reichstag and the British
Museum. His London-based firm commands a staff of six hundred that
can provide virtually every architectural service in-house, unlike
the makeshift cadres of architects and consultants cobbled together
for this competition, in large part because few high-style
practices possess the technical expertise for such a complex job.
Foster and Partners' imposing Thames-side headquarters looks like
the home office of the multinational corporation that it
effectively is, not the arty boutique that it likes to pose as in
the more rarefied circles of the architecture world.

But perhaps neither glossy image nor broad experience alone will win
the day for Foster. Unlike the several schemes that suggest
incremental construction as the market calls for it, his megaliths
are meant to be built in one fell swoop. That there is nothing
remotely approaching demand for multi-millions of square feet of
new downtown commercial space, nor the ready money to build it, is
all beside the point. There wasn't demand when the Empire State
Building and Rockefeller Center were erected at the onset of the
Great Depression, or when the World Trade Center went up during the
protracted recession that encompassed the Vietnam War, the Arab oil
embargo, Watergate, and their aftermath.

Build it and they will come: this has always been the operative
imperative of such overreaching adventures, even if it takes
decades for them to achieve anything approaching full occupancy and
profitability. With the eyes of the world trained on the
highest-profile architectural commission of modern times, the urge
to build--and to build very big--could well supersede economic
common sense, especially if public opinion favors the endeavor.

What is desired here above all is a tangible symbol--of undiminished
American power in a dangerous new world order, of New York's
indomitable spirit, of optimistic faith in the face of a worrisome
future. The symbolic aspects of all skyscraper design from the very
beginning of the form more than a century ago cannot be
underestimated. Though we are taught that the skyscraper inexorably
emerged from the financial pressures of building on land so
valuable that the only place to go was up, the truth is that most
iconic high-rises have had no such economic basis at all.

Foster's brilliantly calibrated design fairly screams "closure,"
that most egregious of contemporary fictions, which Americans seek
so as to evade the forever unclosed realities of loss, grief, and
memory. The public response to this proposal was so immediate and
positive--it won hands down in an instant CNN poll--because among
all the plans that were presented, it most clearly and defiantly
replaced the doomed colossi with something that both evoked them
and surpassed them.; "If one predominant theme emerged from the
December presentations, it was not gardens in the sky or footprints
on the ground, but... "

Foster, like several of his fellow contestants, pointedly emphasized
the escape routes from his structures, not normally the kind of
thing that you would bring up in a twenty-minute prospectus for
anything other than a nuclear power plant. (Where is the escape
route from the plan itself?) Despite Foster's insistence that his
building would be "the strongest, the safest," there was a sense of
whistling past the graveyard in his overconfident demeanor while
discussing emergency egress. Just as Libeskind hit on something
psychologically profound in the need for remembrance in this
commission, so did Foster in his canny replacement of New York's
phantom limbs. We want things back the way they used to be, and he
promised it more effectively than any of the others, foolhardy
though that may be.

If one predominant theme emerged from the December presentations, it
was not gardens in the sky or footprints on the ground, but
immense--not to say insane-- height. Five of the schemes would be
taller than the World Trade Center, and four of them, including
Libeskind's and Foster's, would become the tallest buildings in the
world. This was the return of the repressed. The very thing that
made the Twin Towers such an appealing mark in the first place has
come back to haunt the future.

Despite the irresistible impulse to prove to Al Qaeda that they have
not won, there can be little doubt that a World Trade Center
re-built to such hubristic heights would set up an equivalently
irresistible target to terrorists. (In a recent issue of Private
Eye, a photomontage titled "New Design to Replace Twin Towers"
showed the site with a huge bull's-eye hoisted above it.) Just as
September 11 was not the first assault on the World Trade Center,
the epochal impact of the catastrophe virtually assures that it
will not be the last attack ever attempted there, either. For all
the skilled professionalism on display in the new proposals, one's
gut reaction was "What are these people thinking?"

But what can you do when your client has backed off only marginally
from demanding the replacement of eleven million square feet of
enclosed space, while at the same time public sentiment requires
that the vast sacred squares be kept inviolate? The answer, of
course, is to build onward and upward--the motto, after all, of New
York state, whose incumbent governor (and chief power broker behind
this enterprise) remained irresponsibly aloof from the recent
proceedings while his re-election hung in the balance, and even
afterward.

The alternative to a gargantuan approach was laid out in the concept
advanced by Skidmore, Owings %amp% Merrill (SOM), long the
undisputed arbiter of mainstream modernism but now seeking to
re-shape its identity after its fatal defection to postmodernism.
To emphasize its quest for a new image, the firm's presentation was
made by Roger Duffy, a rising star whose promising design for the
new Skyscraper Museum, housed in the lower floors of a Battery Park
City hotel, is to be completed later this year. Here was a
scatter-site approach, with nine wobbly-looking sixty-story towers
spread evenly across the sixteen acres like so many squared-off,
vertically suspended Slinkys. Duffy was the only architect not to
use up his allotted press conference time slot, and the overly
vague SOM plan gave the unfortunate appearance that there was just
not enough to be said about it even by its authors.

The rest of the schemes offered a comprehensive catalog of current
architectural trends, from the cutting edge to the retrograde.
Adrift somewhere between those two extremes was the design devised
by the team of Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Steven Holl, and
Richard Meier. Amused speculation ran high in architectural circles
as to how these prima donnas would be able to work together, and
the lifeless result of their efforts indicated that they indeed did
not achieve a viable synthesis of their individual talents, varied
though they are. Equally inert was Meier's startlingly hesitant and
inarticulate introduction at the press conference, the antithesis
of Libeskind's and Foster's dynamic ballyhoos. On such things the
history of architecture turns.

The team's design makes stylized references to the destroyed World
Trade Center. The five identical white, square, flat-roofed towers
in an L-shaped ground plan seem like shrunken versions of the Twin
Towers, some twenty stories shorter than their predecessors. Joined
by a grid of landscaped terraces--yet another variation on the
recurrent garden-in-the-sky theme--the composition from a distance
reads like a supersized fragment of the old buildings' metal-
framed outer walls, smoldering sections of which figured in so many
photos of the destruction.

This static proposal is nonetheless preferable to Eisenman's earlier
solo Times scheme for distorted towers that seemed to teeter on the
brink of disintegration. As he explained on The Charlie Rose Show,
"What we tried to do here is to ... express something about the
occurrence as a memorial. And what we did was freeze a moment
before collapse. This is what all Greek tragic sculpture did.
Before death they caught a moment of beauty.... You've got office
towers that seem to have this vibration coming from it a moment
before disaster." This lord of architectural misrule defiled the
memory of all who died there with his sick mimicry of horror.

The international team that called itself THINK Design (one thought
of the old IBM slogan) offered three alternative proposals that
diverge so wildly from one to the next that you wonder where the
designers' true preferences lie. It was an excess of exertion that
brought to mind the recent parricide case in which an opportunistic
district attorney argued opposite sides of the same murder in two
different trials. As unveiled by the Argentinian-born, New York-
based Rafael Violy, there was a choice among a series of banal
rectilinear skyscrapers (one of them an unthinkable 2,100 feet
high, or some 175 stories) surrounding a vast greensward like
Chicago's Lincoln Park. Then there was a humongous space-frame
enclosure called The Great Hall, resembling some Brobdingnagian
convention center. The final option was a pair of cylindrical
double-helix scaffoldings (which many have compared to titanic
Tinker Toys) to be erected above the footprints and to contain a
variety of functions in enclosed modules suspended within each lacy
tube. Among them would be a memorial museum housed in a diaphanous
structure bridging the frameworks at the approximate point where
the hijacked jets slammed into the Twin Towers. The last of these
ideas was unquestionably the most provocative, and showed the hand
of the Tokyo-based Shigeru Ban, who has specialized in such
inventive lightweight structures, of which these would be by far
the largest he has yet attempted. Just as refreshing is the
architects' notion that this scheme should contain no commercial
development, but should rather become the anchor of a downtown
World Cultural Center--the boldest conceptual re-thinking of the
site by any of the contestants.

The scheme by United Architects, an international pickup group
headed by the Los Angeles-based Greg Lynn, one of today's hottest
young Turks, was the most frightening of the lot. Lynn, a leading
exponent of so-called "blob" architecture--freeform,
computer-generated post-Gehry biomorphism--described a semicircular
cluster of vertiginous, angular glass slabs that leaned in on each
other like a band of drunken sailors staggering back to their ship.
The accompanying video simulation of this incremental concept
depicted faceted hulks of facade looming over little St. Paul's
Chapel as though the doughty landmark were about to be stomped
beneath the paws of a glazed Gotham Godzilla. For all his brave
forays into uncharted architectural territory, Lynn appears not to
have a natural instinct for large-scale composition at this point in
his career, and some otherwise talented designers never do.

The kindest thing that can be said about the sad plans drawn up by
the New York husband-and-wife partnership of Steven Peterson and
Barbara Littenberg (the in-house planners retained by the LMDC) is
that they brought into the debate the principles advanced by the
neo-traditional New Urbanism movement. Thus widening the discussion
beyond the familiar roster of avant-garde favorites gives the mix a
more inclusive range, though Peterson and Littenberg in this
instance can have won few converts to their cause.

During their lackluster presentation, the couple defensively
asserted that there was more to this commission than mere
architecture. True enough, but in light of their exceptionally
amateurish designs one can see why they chose to stress their urban
planning experience instead. A symmetrical pair of gradually
set-back Art Decoid skyscrapers just slightly shorter than the Twin
Towers would overlook a park ringed by smaller high-rises. This
tepid blend of Beaux Arts monumentality and conservative early
modernism brings to mind the hollow formalism of postwar East
Berlin, without the kitschig lan of Stalinallee.

The most likely outcome of the competition--deemed a set of "study
proposals" to get the client off the hook of having to select any
one of the schemes in its entirety--is a compromise deal brokered
by Larry Silverstein (who holds the lease to the site and the right
to re-build there) and the LMDC. A probable scenario when a
decision is announced at the end of January would see Foster teamed
with SOM as local associated architects and Peterson/ Littenberg as
planning consultants. Although there is a separate competition
pending for a memorial at Ground Zero, the enthusiastic response to
that part of the Libeskind scheme could well lead to his inclusion
as well.

Silverstein is said to favor the Foster proposal and is reported to
have flown to London to meet with the architect before the public
presentation in December. SOM and Peterson/Littenberg have been
involved with the project for so long that some form of
participation for them might well be deemed the decent thing to do.
But such an outcome would not be mere charity, at least not in the
case of SOM, whose track record in seeing large-scale buildings
through to completion in Manhattan will come in handy even for so
experienced a technocrat as Foster.

Still, the foolhardy persistence of the proud towers is what remains
in the back of one's mind after all is said and done. Never has the
amnesiac cast of the collective American consciousness been more
disturbing than in this mad rush to create a new Tower of Babel. In
its pseudo-Promethean grandiosity, all this seems like nothing so
much as a secular, urbanistic version of the apocalyptic
Christians' fervor to hasten the last days.

"Let us build us a city," the architects of Babel resolve in the
Book of Genesis, "and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and
let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of
the whole earth." To which God answered, "Now nothing will be
restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." The results
of the architectural ambition at Babel are well known. Whether one
construes these ancient words as divine revelation or as mythical
metaphor, they offer a cautionary tale for precisely these times.

By Martin Filler

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