In New York

Hal Foster

In November 2001 the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was set up to guide the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. It hired the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle to draw up various schemes, which were presented last July at a large town meeting, where they were trashed as bland by focus groups. This was a triumphant moment for a quasi-democratic New York urbanism: ‘No more business as usual,’ the people declared, ‘give us vision’ – though whether they meant memorial pathos or urbanistic insight (or somehow both) was not clear. To its credit, the LMDC then arranged an independent jury, which recommended a roster of architects. Seven of these designers – five teams, two solo studios – were selected, and last December with great fanfare they unveiled new designs at the Winter Garden on the western edge of the WTC site. So far so good: these schemes were far bolder than the previous ones, and some were indeed visionary. Two major problems remained, however.

First, who is the client? The LMDC? It commissioned the proposals. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey? This large agency, which runs the transportation hubs of the metropolitan area, owns the site. The developer Larry Silverstein? His group still holds the lease to the Twin Towers, which remains valid. The city? The state? The Federal Government? The families of the victims? Lower Manhattanites? All New Yorkers? Americans in general? Citizens of the world? Who counts in the process, and in what way exactly? Cagily, the city – in the form of Mayor Michael Bloomberg – attempted to trade properties with the cumbersome Port Authority in order to gain control of the site, and to offer Silverstein air rights to other buildings in exchange for the lease. Neither strategy worked, however, and the Port Authority remains the client by default, though Silverstein wants to call the shots – and no doubt, in part at least, he will. (Right now he is involved in a suit with his insurers, who see the terrorist attack as one event; Silverstein is claiming for two separate attacks on two separate buildings, and so $7 billion in damages rather than $3.5 billion. The outcome will affect the extent of commercial construction, at least in the short term.)

The second problem follows from the first: what is the plan? Again to its credit, the LMDC invited expansive visions for the site, with only sketchy guidelines. But this very openness also allowed for proposals that were too ambitious to be tested realistically, and too diverse to be evaluated comparatively. As a result, even more emphasis than usual fell on presentation, campaigning and, after the two finalists were selected, on publicity-hounding and trash-talking. Within the sketchy programme lay a third problem, conceptually the most difficult of all: how to resolve the apparent contradiction between reconstruction, which is driven by the demands of the market in this capital of capitalism – that is, by forces of change oblivious to history – and commemoration, the demand that the site be treated as the ‘hallowed ground’ of the victims. Can mercantile New York be crossed with mausoleal Washington, say, or the World Trade Center be turned into the World Trauma Center? Should it be?

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