Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Subsection: News Review
Pride of place
The world’s best architects face the challenge of replacing New York’s twin towers with a place that respects the past and embraces the future. Architecture Writer Elizabeth Farrelly critiques the contenders.
FEW buildings can have been called upon to symbolise a starker polarity than the reborn World Trade Centre, whatever it ends up being called.
Transcendent optimism and faith-shattering despair make curious site fellows, and the world’s top architects overendowed with the former, bewildered by the latter don’t seem to know quite how to make ends meet.
Still, the brief is the brief. And this one enshrines that dualism, setting space requirements that only towers can fulfil while also quarantining as a memorial the twin towers’ original footprints unnaturally square and vacant on that bleak smudge of a site. The question is: how to mark the event without putting an abiding absence at the centre of the World Trade Centre site?
The seven architectural teams, culled from a field of more than 400 after public outcry at the round one proposals in July, are an odd mix. Included are some wunder-stars such as Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind, some relative unknowns such as United Architects and THINK Design (yes, but do they?), scholarly types such as Peterson/Littenberg and two consortiums which, for reasons of their own, choose to bury their stars mid-constellation. SOM’s team, for one, includes Kazuyo Sejima (cult winner of Sydney’s first-round MCA comp), while the team tagged “Richard Meier” also includes Peter Eisenman, Gwathmey Siegel and Steven Holl, all global names in their own right. No prizes for guessing the dominant hormone round that meeting room.
And OK, Osama’s a hard act to follow. Plus there’s a natural tendency, no doubt, to fist-shake in the face of evil. Or at its cowardly back. But you can’t help wondering, confronted with a website full of these testosterone-fuelled standing stones, whether a more thoughtful, sombre response might not have been possible. Even in downtown Manhattan.
All the schemes show two or more towers; four include a “world’s tallest” and five show towers that lean, twist, touch and/or interconnect in the modern manner, “protecting” the centre. Most fantasise a memorial within the WTC footprints, but 20 metres down, at bedrock ground zero? although this will be subject to further international design competition. And all propose ground-level cultural uses with special emphasis on parks, gardens and luxuriant eco-rhetoric. Most abstract of the lot, and most muscular, is the Meier team’s scheme, a defiant L-shaped grid of five cross-linked towers wrapping the site’s north-east corner. “Screens of presence and absence,” is the Meier-speak, “encouraging reflection and imagination.” The WTC footprints become square, glass-bottomed pools, filtering light to the memorial rooms below; next to them are trees “planted to mark the [twin towers’] final shadows”. (Well, that’s what the man said.)
Foster’s scheme is, according to The Guardian, already unofficial crowd favourite. “The iconic skyline must be reassembled,” declared Foster, who had the luck to be in town on The Day. Pandering to Manhattan’s superlative habit, he claimed his triangulated, kissing-twin towers as “the most secure, the greenest and the tallest in the world”. Twice as high, anyway, as the nearby World Financial Centre and tolerably elegant, they have “layered” facades designed to obviate air-conditioning for 80 per cent of the year (yeah, right) and leafy parks-in-the-sky to purify air. The ground level is disappointing, coloured in by the office junior with “20 acres of trees, roofing, water, cafes, and pavilions” while m’lord focused on what he likes best railway stations and tricky building systems.LIBESKIND begins well. Architect of Berlin’s renowned Jewish Museum, he articulates the difficulty of memorialising death while symbolising hope, viewing the problem through his own, teenage immigrant eyes like saucers at “the Statue of Liberty and the amazing skyline of
Manhattan. I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for,” he said. “This is what this project is all about.”
And there are some beguiling ideas. At ground level, for instance, Libeskind’s Wedge of Light marks forever the precise period between 8.46am on September 11 (first plane hit) and 10.28am (second tower collapse); a “perpetual tribute to altruism and courage”. His half-dozen crystalline high-rises attesting the public-relations truism that architectural models increase greatly in charm and efficacy if rendered entirely white and translucent rise from the ground of death like angelic stalagmites. A 600-metre “Gardens of the World” obelisk standsby. Gardens as “a constant affirmation of life”, says Libeskind, and skyscrapers to reassert “the pre-eminence of freedom and beauty creating an icon that speaks of our vitality in the face of danger and ouroptimism in the aftermath of tragedy. Life victorious.”
So far, so enchanting. On the ground, though, and reduced to real-life colour, the scheme’s broken-bone angles and jagged forms give the uncomfortable impression that the ground zero clean-up never happened. At this level it reads as some kind of homage to Melbourne’s Federation Square, although the truth is the other way (Libeskind being the architect’s mentor and one of the competition judges). THINK Design proposed three schemes. One, Sky Park, proposes three towers up to 700-odd metres, 25 per cent taller than the record-holding Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur. You’d be old before you reached the top. Adjacent, a 6.5-hectare park, 10 storeys above the street. The Great Room, scheme two, covers the entire space with a vast glass roof. The World Cultural Centre slots a number of museums and cultural institutions in two see-through glass towers, with eight mid-rise office buildings around the edge.
United Architects not to be confused with the airline is an American team that includes the heretofore promising Foreign Office Architects.
Its dozen or so leaning, interlinked and occasionally fused towers stand tipsily around an undistinguished ground plane that is labelled “sacred space” but doesn’t feel it.
And the SOM/Sejima’s “vertical city” (ah, that ’60s jargon!) is similar, really, only with Libeskind’s angel-wings model trick added.
The Peterson/Littenberg proposal, unlike the rest, works from experiential thoughtfulness on the ground, up. Instead of vice versa. Its Beaux Arts planning (a boulevard here, an etoile there) and 1920s-Manhattan skyscrapers imply a dusty Daniel-Burnham-meets-Hugh-Ferris historicism.
But down where the people are, it feels just like being in New York, early fall, after a fecund summer. So sure, it’s nostalgic. Dated even. But maybe, under the circumstances, that’s not such a bad thing.
Tell you what, though. None of them’s great. Politicians don’t get it, but eight weeks just isn’t long enough to design the world’s most telling contemporary symbol, however much star power you point at it.
If I were John Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, I’d suggest they all go have another wee think.
SEVEN ILLUS: Making ends meet …
seven proposed designs for the world’s most telling contemporary building.
FOSTER; SOM; THINK; MEIER; PETERSON; LIBESKIND and UNITED ARCHITECTS.