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?

The presentations in December made for terrific theatre: two parts The Fountainhead, one part Gangs of New York. On the one hand, the willingness of prestigious architects to collaborate was impressive, especially in the case of the ‘Dream Team’ of Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl. On the other hand, to be in the running one had to be a designated über-architect, presumably with the technical expertise required of grands projets: stock in the Dream Team, Lord Foster and the Skidmore Owings & Merrill group went up, while stock in Daniel Libeskind and others fell. But also, implicitly, one should be an echt New Yorker, and here Foster went down (maybe out), Libeskind up a bit, while the Dream Team, SOM and the ‘Think’ group led by Rafael Viñoly, a veteran of big buildings who works out of downtown Manhattan, held even. On the matter of New York birthright, Peter Eisenman pulled out all the stops: of the entrants, Eisenman declared, he alone was present as a child at the visionary origin of modern New York, the 1939 World Fair, where the spectacular tower of the Trylon and the vast interior of the Perisphere were established as the ur-forms of skyscraper New York (of ‘Manhattanism’, according to Rem Koolhaas). Eisenman is not often trumped rhetorically, but he was at the Winter Garden. Libeskind was the first to speak, and he told the tale of a Polish boy, aged 13, the son of Holocaust survivors, who in 1960 steamed into New York harbour on a ship, the SS Constitution no less, full of trepidation and hope, and gazed up at the Statue of Liberty. The image of her raised arm with the bright torch never left the boy-become-architect, and it now reappears in abstract guise in the signature element of his design, a spire 1776 feet high. Libeskind laid it on thick even by Scorsese standards, but the immigrant story is never too thick for New Yorkers: an empathic connection was forged with many families of the victims, and Governor George Pataki, perhaps the biggest fish in this particular pond (he controlled the selection of the LMDC), also swallowed it, hook, line and sinker.

Eventually, two finalists were announced: Libeskind and Think (Viñoly, Frederick Schwartz, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban). Criticisms were made of each design, and the two studios went back to work. The ground had also shifted beneath them, literally: the rebuilding of the subways at the site and the PATH railway to New Jersey had begun, and the Port Authority had decided to place a transportation hub on the site as well. Think had proposed two lattice towers of forged steel with structures suspended within them; now the team had to switch to stainless steel so that the towers might be light enough to stand on top of the new underground terminal, and to lower the structure originally planned to span the two towers, from the 85th floor to the 30th. These changes left little time to elaborate on public spaces and retail stores at street level. Libeskind did not have this problem, though he was forced to move his memorial park higher up – it was originally designed to be at bedrock, with the retaining walls at the foundations of the old towers left exposed (they hold out the Hudson River, though even now they have begun to leak). Libeskind also made some of his commercial buildings less angular, more user-friendly for developers and tenants, and he replaced the ‘Garden in the Sky’, the greenhouse conceived for the spire, with a more conventional ensemble of restaurant and observation deck. These are typical moves in an architectural competition: go for broke against the rivals, pull back as the client approaches.

The campaigning got fierce as the decision neared: interviews, appearances on Oprah, publicists hired and fired, mud-slinging. Libeskind dissed the Think lattices as ‘two skeletons’, a tag that damaged Viñoly and company: rather than recall the towers, we might be reminded of the corpses, and the families would not stand for it. It was also suggested, in another ugly literal reading, that the structure suspended across the towers resembled a plane crashing into them (apparently Think had scrapped this element in the meantime). Not to be undone in the battle of symbols, Viñoly called the retaining walls, which Libeskind declared a symbol of the ‘heroic foundations of democracy for all to see’, the ‘Wailing Wall’. Two weeks before the decision Bloomberg and Pataki let it be known that they preferred the Libeskind proposal: Bloomberg largely because of its retail spaces (in this new age of massive deficits he has commerce on his mind), Pataki partly because of the sentiments of the families (perhaps he has political ambitions: if Bush can be President, he must think, I can too).

The plot thickened during the week before the decision. On Sunday, 23 February the New York Times ran a piece by an architectural historian that trashed the Think design in the most ideological terms: Marvin Trachtenberg labelled it a Modernist ‘Frankenstein monster’ based on ‘a model taken from the realm of totalitarianism, the famous Monument to the Third Communist International proposed in 1920 by the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin’. Distantly, the Think towers do evoke the Monument, a lattice spiral in which were to be hung different structures for different functions of the Soviet people, but this is to its credit: the Monument was a dynamic utopian project (it never got beyond model stage), not an oppressive totalitarian hulk. On the Tuesday the site planning committee of the LMDC surprised everyone when it voted, non-bindingly, in favour of the Think design, even though the committee was packed with representatives of the Mayor and the Governor. And the New York Times bet on this pony, too, when on Wednesday its architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, came down strongly on the Think side. ‘The two lattice towers are symbolic containers in which our hopes for the future can be crystallised by the uses that will be clustered within,’ Muschamp wrote. Its ‘platformed urbanism’ proposes ‘a new way to imagine the public realm’. This is right, I think, but it is not new: this kind of ‘transportation system turned upward’ is crucial to the skyscraper density of ‘delirious New York’ as we know it. In any case, on Thursday the entire LMDC selected the Libeskind design.

This is what Libeskind envisages (much is subject to change). In the centre of the 16-acre site is to be a 4.5-acre park on the footprint of the original towers, 30 feet below ground level, with a memorial area at bedrock, 70 feet below – the ground zero of Ground Zero. Five towers of various heights are to ring the park to the south and east, with 10 million square feet of office space and 880,000 square feet of retail space (half above ground and half below). To the north-east will be a transportation hub (perhaps with links to train stations and airports), a large museum and a small performing arts centre, as well as a great triangle of open space. And, finally, to the north will rise the highest tower, with offices on the first 75 floors and the spire above. For its advocates this scheme is anchored in Ground Zero, from which it arcs out boldly to the structures to the south and east, and rises dynamically in the spire to the north. It is also symbolically charged: the spire not only echoes the Statue of Liberty, but its height also inscribes the year of Independence on the skyline; the triangular plaza is oriented so as to be bathed in sunlight from 8.46 a.m., the time of the first attack, until 10.28, the time of the second collapse, each year on 11 September; and Libeskind has given his primary elements loaded names: the exposed bedrock is ‘Memory’s Eternal Foundations’, the memorial plaza is ‘Park of Heroes’, the museum ‘Edge of Hope’, the open triangle ‘Wedge of Light’ and the spire ‘Life’s Victorious Skyline’. Again, for its proponents, this marking of the site will allow for deep reflections on the tragedy, while its spiralling upward will represent the vigorous rebirth of the city: Libeskind, they believe, has resolved the difficult demands of commemoration and commerce. For its critics, however, his scheme talks out of both sides of its mouth, and much of its stagecraft is hoakum or worse. The Eternal Foundations and the Wedge of Light might be effective figures of tragedy and remembrance, but the foundations will also house a garage for tourist buses, and the wedge will be a kind of mall. The real pessimists glimpse a Trauma Theme Park in the making, with Libeskind a contemporary cross between Claude Lanzmann and Walt Disney, the perfect maestro for an age when historical tragedy can become urban spectacle.

While the faceted towers of the design evoke the glass buildings celebrated in modern architecture, from the Crystal Palace to Bruno Taut and Tatlin and beyond, such architecture used to be utopian in its energies; here it becomes almost cenotaphic. Should urbanism be rethought in terms of trauma? Libeskind seems to think so in the case of Berlin, the home of his Jewish Museum: ‘The lost centre cannot be reconnected like an artificial limb to an old body, but must generate an overall transformation of the city.’ But does this thinking pertain to New York? Should the city be remapped with Ground Zero at its centre? How transformative would this proposed reorientation be? The memorial elements of the design – the foundation walls, the open wedge, the symbolic spire – might declare a static conclusion to the urban dynamism of the Perisphere and the Trylon: that is, they might help to fix New York in monumental terms. This is alien to a city defined by its embrace of change (though ‘change’ is often a euphemism for the ups and downs of the marketplace). New York – this is the myth and the reality – is more Nietzschean than Jeffersonian, more about active forgetting than about Enlightenment eternity. Such is the contract signed by most people who come here to live, work and play – to go for it, self-invent, hang on – and, paradoxically perhaps, this contract is also a kind of bond, a form of connection to people who came earlier to attempt these same things.

The victims must be honoured, of course, and the families have insisted from the start that a memorial should drive the design of the site. But, for some critics, the Libeskind scheme does not honour the dead so much as fix in place the terrorist attack for all time: ‘Al-Qaida wins twice,’ a few have said. This is too harsh. The design does, however, express a collective wish to push the terrorist present-future somehow into the past. Historical perspective is often required before memorials can be well conceived, and we should be leery of any precedent that combines the demands of one group with the cult of monuments that is pervasive today, lest we monumentalise only identity politics. Trauma architecture of the sort practised by Libeskind works in his Jewish Museum; it also functions effectively at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. But these are museums and memorials, not entire areas of cities, and they were built at moments when the commemorated events were in the past – that is, when the structures could function in a genuinely mnemonic way. Although this is obviously not a matter of sheer numbers, the losses in the Holocaust, and even in Vietnam, far outscale the dead of the Towers. That ‘our lives were changed for ever by the events of 11 September’ seems true to many Americans, even ones who are not historically challenged, but this statement is also deeply ideological, and Libeskind has adapted its rhetoric to his trauma discourse: ‘From now on,’ he has proclaimed, ‘architecture will never be the same.’ The implication is that his architecture will best register this supposed fact.

This is such a weird time in the United States: one moment we wait for terrorists to drop another shoe, the next moment we expect the same from our own Government, which has many more shoes to drop; one moment we argue over a design for Ground Zero, the next we watch – exultant, enraged or passive – as a ground zero appears about to be fashioned in Baghdad. In this light the towers featured in almost all of the proposals look different. ‘Build them higher than before,’ many said in the city and around the country, as if the problem were penile dysfunction – and, perhaps, imperially speaking, it is. If the hole in the ground symbolises the tragedy for Libeskind, his spire ‘will let the world know that the terrorists have failed’. A large part of the attraction of his scheme is disclosed in this comment: his design gives us both commemorative prop and imperial thrust, both the traumatic and the triumphal. This can be a dangerous concoction; certainly the historical precedents when the wounded have linked up with the hubristic are not savoury (think of the German Right after World War One).

Obviously, many contingencies remain in play, not least at the site. The Port Authority regards the scheme as a land-use plan only, although its placement of possible structures will remain significant. Development will be gradual at best, with office buildings designed by different architects as the market demands; lower Manhattan hardly needs ten million more square feet of office space at a time when 14 million sit empty. And although the Transportation Department has put the site on its priority list, costs will be exorbitant, and budget crises are everywhere. There will be some private funds for memorial parks and cultural venues, but for little else. Moreover, it is not clear whether many people will return to lofty restaurants and observation decks, let alone rent offices and retail space, in new downtown towers. The word on the street is that in five years there will a memorial, a transportation hub, perhaps a museum, and maybe a tower with a spire, but who knows?

The good losers in the competition have said that the process alone was beneficial for all: it produced a large new audience for contemporary architecture, a great new debate about urbanism. On the one hand, architecture has regained much importance in the culture at large; on the other hand, this importance is in part compensatory, with the architect treated as a figure of displaced vision, of imagined agency, of desired autonomy. But a pie in the sky is a more welcome image than many other sights, both recent and likely to come.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences