DESIGNS FOR THE WORLD TRADE CENTER 2003
On Tuesday 13 January I went to the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center to inspect
the designs for the World Trade Center by seven teams of architects.
As many critics commented, I did not think either that any of the designs fully thought out the requirements for the design. This is forgivable in so far as they had only twelve weeks to work on their design. Still, the proposals were remarkably interesting to examine first-hand. I found especially interesting not only the designs of the constructions themselves but also the different ways the teams designed their elaborate presentations.
When the designs were presented by the architects themselves on 18 December, I was in my apartment and listened to the first few of the verbal presentations. I heard Daniel Libeskind, Sir Norman Forster, and someone, probably Rafael Vinõly (or was it Shigeru Ban), for the group THINK. Since I had not seen the designs before that, it was fascinating to listen to the descriptions of the projects and to imagine what they might look like. Among the speakers that I've heard there was no question that Sir Norman stood out as the most articulate in the way he had made architectural design understandable to the lay audience.
It was no surprise, therefore, to find his visual presentation also the most attractive at the Winter Garden. Examining his design in relation to the others exhibited, I began to think on the towers as the central and most crucial element in the project and how it should be read. I thought that the twower element must fulfill three requirements. It must, first, serve as a landmark from the distance, both from Manhattan and from across the river. But, secondly, it must also have a visual impact on those who stand below and look up at it. Finally, the pedestrians at the foot of the tower element must be provided with a setting that, serving as a memorial, must be memorable.
Among the presented designs, I found Sir Norman's Kissing Towers -- a catchy, suggestive rubric, indeed -- most successful as a landmark both visually and iconographically. It recalls the Twin Towers but lovingly lean toward each other. Multiple tower designs lack the simple clarity of this tower design. It is also perhaps exciting enough viewed from below the towers. The United Architects, a team of younger architects, showed a photograph of stunning upward view of the glass towers, the effect of which I wonder owes more to the photography than to the architecture.
There is no question that the most exciting environment on the pedestrian level was created in Libeskind's design. It is, in its irregular tilting of roofs, reminiscent of his Holocaust Museum in Berlin; but this is more complex and even festive. No environment like this is known in New York; it is unique. It has a stamps of the architect, a secondary consideration to be sure; but the fractured roofing and the floating, tilted, irregular polyhedron over the "grave" is stunning and appropriate to the meaning of the site, the remembrance of the destruction right on that site. The tower is a totem pole rather a true tower, too slim to be a strong visual focus from a distance, and the towers for occupancy are lower than those of other teams.
The ground level gardens or parks in most of the projects seemed to me very pedestrian (pun
intended). They are for the most part enlarged versions of the parks we are familiar with -- Bryant,
Battery, Riverside, etc., consisting of lines of trees, planting boxes, and pathways. They have to be different to carry the weight of its function as a memorial.
THINK, the group led by Rafael Viñoly, two ghost towers of open framework, recognizable from the distance but uneventful in a distant view. The openwork is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower; but this has an interesting shape -- a giant stride -- whereas the THINK towers are mechanical and uninspiring. The promise of the group of Richard Meyer, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, and Steven Holl were in their names. The structures were clearly underdeveloped as though none of the team members could or wanted to assert his vision or, else, all withdrew with an unresolved compromise. The SOM group looked like they went overboard in creating rentable spaces, whereas Peterson-Lttenberg produced a Beaux-Arts design, a weak second-generation Rockefeller Center, or rather, as a friend so aptly put it, the Dakota-on-Central-Park.
So far as I am concerned, the entire reconstruction project is a Catch-22. With so many concerns and factions with conflicting proprietary, economic, and public interests, it is unlikely that anything substantial architecturally would ever be achieved. We are doomed to end with a watered down compromise solution, if at all. In that regard, the designs by the seven teams of architects are an academic exercise. Still, the exercise has done a tremendous valuable service, and that is in the education of the public about architecture in general. No other time has architecture stirred the imagination of the public at large; the presentation, visual and verbal, has demonstrated how to look at architecture, comparatively and evaluatively, and how to describe them verbally. By engaging the public to this extent, we might yet get a decent architecture with the educated public behind us.
T. Kaori Kitao, 01.12.03