Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
After the fall
The mangled lives, the spark of hope; they seemed, as architect Daniel Libeskind so eloquently put it, “like two moments that could not be joined”. And yet joined they would be, in whatever finally came to rest on that great smoking hole at the heart of downtown Manhattan. But for anyone who thinks it undignified that the most significance-laden building project in modern history must crawl through the same labyrinth of intrigue and power play as any old downtown standard speculative development, think on this: it’s democracy that we yearn to symbolise, and democracy that makes it impossible.
Libeskind, architect of the impressively angsty Jewish Museum in Berlin, had already won the main design job for the reconstruction of Ground Zero. His masterplan, titled Memory Foundations, was supposed to set out the strategy for the site while leaving the architecture fuzzy.
In fact, it delineated a vast and typically craggy cultural centre, encroaching liberally on the memorial space, beneath a clutch of skyscrapers. Tallest and sharpest was the angel-snagging “Freedom Tower”, which will occupy the northern point of the site and dominate the Big Apple. Assuming it ever gets built.
Aside from the towers, there’s a new $US2-billion ($2.7 billion) underground transport hub from Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava, who was described by The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp as “the world’s greatest living poet of transportation architecture”. That’s the hope part.
Where it gets hard is in commemorating the thousands of deaths, in a way that is heartfelt but not mawkish, dignified but not grim, symbolic but not trite. And yet the winning memorial proposal, Reflecting Absence, by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, looks capable of doing just that, smarmy marketing tag notwithstanding.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was formed jointly by the city and state in the aftermath of September 11. It has $US2.78 billion in federal funding, a thriving donations program and commercial development that is privately bankrolled. Even so, the Reflecting Absence memorial, occupying 1.9 hectares at the heart of the site, is regarded as unfunded and donation-dependent. Wish ’em luck, they’ll need every penny.
The three main parts of the reconstruction exercise – memorial, station, buildings – have to spoon closely together; ground, underground, above ground. Earth, air, water, if you absolutely must. Before the terrorist attacks, 67,000 passengers used the station daily. The rebuild, which will eventually serve 14 subway lines plus a ferry service and new link to JFK Airport, is expected to do for downtown what Grand Central’s revamp did for midtown. Above ground, all the while, it appears as a fabulous winged creature spanning Church to Greenwich streets in perfect congruence with Libeskind’s druidic “Wedge of Light”. This is a pair of crossed imaginary site-lines. If all goes to plan, Libeskind said, “the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage” each September 11 from 8.46 am, moment of the first impact, to 10.30 am, when the second tower collapsed. If all goes to plan. But things aren’t going to plan – not Libeskind’s, anyway. Libeskind’s masterplan was the result of a strung-out and bewildering process that crept from a plethora of bad ideas to six underwhelming concepts, an international competition-of-sorts and a gleaming shortlist (Norman Foster, Richard Meier, Rafael Violy and the rest). At that point, Libeskind won, although “won” now seems way too strong a word.
Soaring to a defiant 541 metres, Libeskind’s plan replaces the 1.34 million square metres of office space lost in six buildings with a million square metres in five new buildings. There is also a further 100,000 square metres of retail, 100,000 of convention centre and a major performing arts complex, still being squabbled over. And a September 11 museum, of course. That’s the plan: the architecture, in like mind, is full-on bumptious, a case study in the spiky up-yours symbolism that has become Libeskind’s signature. Shadowing the Statue of Liberty is the idea. Suck on that, runs the subtext.
So, at least, it seems on paper. Down at Ground Zero, it looks like another story altogether. Libeskind might have won the design, but developer Larry Silverstein controls the site lease. Silverstein commissioned architect group SOM’s David Childs, who designs handsome but deeply conventional towers, as architect for the Freedom Tower. Suddenly, Libeskind and Childs were collaborators; suddenly, Libeskind’s garden-filled spire became a mast atop a 70-storey torqued-and-trellised tube. Kitschy, is the verdict of critic Herbert Muschamp.
It gets worse. Reflecting Absence pretty much sends Libeskind back to central casting. With nearly 14,000 registrants and 5201 submissions from 63 countries (including 39 from Australia), the memorial competition was the biggest ever. The jury, like the job itself, was huge and heavy – 13 seriously distinguished persons chaired by Dr Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, and including architect-sculptor Maya Lin (who, in designing the revered Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC mercifully freed commemorative public art from its figurative bonds), architect Enrique Norten and philanthropist David Rockefeller.
The competition brief, itself a sizeable diplomatic undertaking, required a design that would remember the dead, both individually and collectively, and from the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing as well as September 11. It had to respect the place “made tragic by loss”, recognise the endurance of helpers and loved ones, and reaffirm life. In physical terms, it had to “make visible” the two twin tower footprints, provide a repository for the huge casket of unidentified remains, and expose the slurry wall that once defended the entire financial district against the mighty Hudson River, a warming reminder of the rude material nature of life, even on Wall Street. Gordon Gekko wall, it might in happier times have been named.
The competition’s first stage whittled the multitudes down to eight, all from the US, half from New York City itself. Predictable stuff it was too, clinging on the whole to regulation symbolism (light, water, reflection, standing figures, trees etc). And in fact, although it’s a big site with a loose program, you can see how a designer might be undone by the vast cloud of expectation, sentiment, infighting and political correctness that now engulfs Ground Zero. From the eight, one – the best, in my view – was chosen, then palliated into what we see. That was Stage Two.
Michael Arad is a young architect who has worked in Israel, Mexico, and three years in New York for Kohn Pedersen Fox, who gave Sydney its own quintessential eighties-monument, Chifley Tower. Arad won Stage One. Peter Walker is a distinguished Berkeley-based landscaper who has worked with Helmut Jahn, Norman Foster, Arata Isozaki and even on Sydney’s Millennium Parkland at Homebush.
Arad’s initial scheme was spare to the point of austerity, leaving the entire ground plane, defined only by contrast from the downtown hustle. (Reflecting absence, get it?) All the action – if action is quite the word – was in the footprints. Arad devoted the northern footprint to private contemplation of the unknown remains, freeing the southern void for more communal ritual.
Each footprint contains a large reflecting pool, defined on four sides by water that cascades into the ground to form, as it were, inverted towers. As visitors enter each footprint, ramping down to bedrock, the urban hubbub is gradually obliterated by the sound of falling water. At the bottom, where the visitor may watch, through sheet-water, the pool flowing serenely into the void, the names of the dead appear in a relentless ribbon around a low stone plinth. The names are in no order, reflecting the “haphazard brutality of the attacks”.
Stage Two leaves all this largely unaltered. The two footprints will be linked underground in a manner yet to clarified. There is an interpretive centre at bedrock, showing twisted steel beams, a crushed fire truck and personal effects. And an eight-storey-deep fissure along the slurry wall reveals it “as a symbol of the strength and endurance of American democracy”.
At ground level, though, the proposal has softened into an “urban forest” of deciduous trees, their springtime renewal manifesting rebirth. Populist, yes, but still simple, eloquent, sweetly abstract. Thanks largely to Maya Lin.
For Libeskind, however, the implications may be terminal. Arad’s proposal, as amended and approved, cuts directly across Libeskind’s poetic but much-ridiculed Wedge of Light and wordlessly deletes the large, blocky cultural building with which Libeskind had cheekily spanned the entire northern footprint. You can see why: the building had overstepped Libeskind’s brief, and the Wedge was clearly a little too abstract for popular appeal. And, although angst is what Libeskind does so well, it’s less than compellingly obvious that the best way to commemorate horror is to build more of it.
On the other hand, why bother getting a wayward genius like Libeskind on board if all you really want is obedience?
None of which may matter, in the end, since the push to rebuild the old twin towers as they were seems to be gaining strength for “therapeutic reasons”. These, as explained by New York Post columnist Nicole Gelinas, boil down to a sense that the twin towers “were us: stark capitalism, power and beauty without explanation or apology”. Fair enough, if that’s your gig. But to rebuild the towers would be to kill the most poetic idea so far, namely, the requirement to leave the footprints empty.
These two same-size craters – arranged, as it were, a step apart – imply some absent colossus astride the site, saluting the island, standing for the entire Western world, perhaps, in inverse imitation of Liberty herself.
The insight and subtlety with which Osama bin Laden choreographed his destructive symbolism is breathtaking, but even he cannot have imagined just how powerful would be the absence so created. Which brings us head-on with the dreadful irony that to sustain such emotional impact into whatever is eventually built may prove too hard for democracy, beleaguered as she is by funding nightmares and nuanced political correctness. And that perhaps the overarching absence reflected by the entire exercise is a job vacancy. Any Napoleons out there?
TWO PHOTOS: New beginning … Daniel Libeskind’s soaring Freedom Tower, left, echoes the dynamic twisting form of the Statue of Liberty. Alongside its surrounding buildings, the tower forms the focal point of the new World Trade Centre site. In memoriam … The Reflecting Absence memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, is located in a park next to the Freedom Tower. The names of September 11 victims will surround a pool. Visitors to the site, including family members and friends of the deceased, would be guided by on-site staff or a printed directory to the specific location of each name.