Tuesday, August 5, 2008


The reason we are so taking so long to replace the World Trade Center is because the design of the original Trade Center was so poor. Its been almost seven years since the Trade Center was knocked down and we are behind schedule and over-budget replacing it. The New York Times “Rebuilding at 9/11 Site Runs Late, Report Says” (Charles V. Bagli, July 1, 2008) reports we now even have a new 34-page government report to confirm this to ourselves. We can tell ourselves some things that are true; that the original schedule was unrealistic, that the job to be done is extremely complex, that too many agencies are involved, but the real reason we are behind schedule is that the original World Trade Center was poor design. Don’t get confused by nostalgia; If the original design for the Trade Center were good or close to it we would be speeding to replace it tweaking it, in perhaps only minor respects. We would have our bearings and our reference points and we would know what we were about. Instead we are significantly redesigning what was there, adding streets and reconfiguring the transportation hub.

The “Human”

“Man on Wire,” a film in the theaters right now documents Philippe Petit's famous 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. In the Village Voice article on the film (Wednesday, July 23rd 2008) Anthony Kaufman quotes World Trade Center president Guy Tozzoli as saying, “Philippe did me a great favor. From that time on, people embraced the towers more than any other time; it made them very human.” How amazing to think what an incredible feat it took `humanize’ the Center! Such daring and ingenuity were used that we are going to see a movie about it 34 years later. Conversely, how unfortunate that something so large as the Trade Center desperately needed to be humanized. It was, in size, virtually a city district unto itself. Charles Bagli wrote that replacing the Trade Center involves “roughly as much office space as downtown Atlanta.” Think that so vast a place should have been uncomfortably inhuman to the human beings occupying it. As A. O. Scott reminds us in his New York Times review of the film (July 25, 2008), it is “worth recalling that the trade center inspired more love posthumously than while it stood.”

No one can detract from the “wow”factor of the original Trade Center. By definition a litany of superlatives apply because the Trade Center was simply so gigantic. Its technical achievements were recognized even in criticism of it: Lewis Mumford referred to the “technological exhibitionism. . . . now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city." It was flawed because it gigantism did not relate to humans living at a human scale. Unlike the Chystler Building or the Empire State Building, both large and tall buildings, the Trade Center did not greet and establish scale with its occupants. Crossing the windswept central plaza between buildings on a cold winter day or hot summer one was an unbearably interminable experience. You kept walking, but like a far-away bridge, the buildings did not seem to draw closer. Quickening your steps and bored with bleakness you might wonder if you had left time enough to get to your appointments as you contemplated the multiple elevator rides still ahead of you. On such a day, you would likely find many more of your fellow pedestrians driven underground in the vast low-ceilinged artificially-lit concourse. In urban planning school I made the World Trade Center’s underground concourse a private-study project precisely because it was a challenge in confusion and unintelligibility. It was not easy to find your way.

When the Trade Center went down human life was lost but I also felt a pang for something with which I had been so intimate. I had been everywhere in the Center. I used its subways, I had met in its upper floor offices to plan city housing. There were repeat visits to the observation deck: No matter how many visits you made you always felt annoyingly trapped and as if you were getting less than you paid for because of the weirdly-designed windows; as you shifted from one to the other, they would dash your hopes for a better view only letting you look out straight ahead to see one narrow strip at a time. Events were celebrated at the Windows on the World restaurant- (I just missed joining friends there the night that Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong was pushed off the roof to rush down past the windows.)

Putting the Trade Center Behind Us

When the Trade Center went down, people who think that way immediately recognized the opportunities to replace it with something far better. Groundbreaking for the construction of the World Trade Center was in 1966, but the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Towers was April 4, 1973. The majority of the complex was only 28 years old when it was destroyed. Though it was only 28 years later almost nobody wanted to see the same complex rebuilt.

When I look at the pictures of Mr. Petit on his tightrope I can’t help thinking of it as a metaphor for where we are now. Once we stood with the Trade Center we knew firmly underfoot. Now we have moved out over an abyss, dealing slowly, cautiously with vast implications. We are moving slowly to the new design that will replace the Center. Until we get there the wind whistles and we feel the sway of the rope, wondering what will happen. We look to find an important balance.

Mayor Bloomberg quoted in the Bagli article says, “We want to have a design for the World Trade Center site that we will look back on 50 years from now and say that they did it right.” He is no doubt aware that after only 28 years we all looked back and decided that we “did it wrong” the first time So he is aware that we can make mistakes and hopes not to repeat them. Isn’t it extraordinary that such vast resources can be mobilized and committed by the public with the work of so many talented people involved and yet the results should fall so far from the optimal? It should be a cautionary tale whenever we engage in big development.

Unfortunately, as we walk this highwire of profound change the metaphorical tower to which we are headed is too much a twin of the past we have left. Fashions change. Fashions change and then, if you wait long enough, old fashions can come back. This is true not just with respect to the worn-out clothes we easily discard; the same thing is true in the architectural world where buildings with 40-year mortgages can actually last centuries. I sometimes wonder if architectural professionals attune themselves more attentively to cycles than the public itself. How ironic then that the Trade Center should have lived long enough for its flaws to be appreciated but that its destruction came just at a time when the pressure of cyclic fashion is to repeat some of its most significant flaws.

Battery Park City- When the Trade Center Was Behind Us

The World Trade Center cannot help but be forever be linked with neighboring Battery Park City, which is famously built, in part, on landfill contributed from the Center. The generally excellent level of design that Battery Park City achieves is markedly different from the World Trade Center’s original design. Thankfully that was so. But for a number of factors, including change of fashion, it might not have been the case. Change of fashion helped and was probably pushed along in part by reactions to the Trade Center having been built.

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller substantially influenced the design of the World Trade Center. The Battery Park City that is now mostly built beside it is NOT what was originally designed for its site. Early on, there was another set of designs for what Battery Park City was to be; those designs were also influenced by Rockefeller. Those designs relied upon ingredients similar to what was used at the Trade Center, such as “tower in the park” style. They were pretty awful. When I was in urban planning school we studied those designs and I remember fervently hoping; 1.) that they would never be built, and 2.) that I would one day get the chance to work on a better-designed Battery Park City. Both of these things came to pass so I am thankful for a lot in life.

During the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s the Battery Park City financing plan fell apart and New York State had to rescue bonds that had already been issued to fund it. The crisis led to new plans. The new, entirely different designs were far better. It also helped that Battery Park City was built by multiple developers who bid on subdivided portions of the site in accordance with overall design guidelines established by the architectural firm of Cooper Eckstut Associates.
The excellence of it all, well-thought-out public spaces, frequent weaving streets, a mixture of uses, detailed human design and ornament, fairly reasonable density similar to other successful historically successful neighborhoods is generally commended. I believe that among others, City Planning Commissioner Chairman Amanda Burden is pleased to tell people that her credentials include having worked on Battery Park City’s design. The design is so widely admired this must serve her in good stead. It comports nicely with the fact that she tells people that before she worked on the public spaces of Battery park City she was mentored by William H. (“Holly”) Whyte while working at the Project for Public Spaces. Mr. Whyte, renowned in his own right, is famous as Jane Jacobs’ mentor. (When his name comes up I like to mention that accounts of his career usually begin with his time at Fortune Magazine where the man who hired him was my namesake-uncle Ralph Delahaye Paine, Jr.)

Affordable Housing and Battery Park City

The pleasurable excellence of Battery Park City did not come entirely free from compromise. One thing that likely helped ensure the effective insistence on high standards is the fact that when it was built Battery Park City was predominantly luxury housing. It wound up with very little affordable housing compared to what was originally planned. When construction began with the first residential building in1980 the plan was still for all the residential buildings in the project to be bond-financed middle-income Mitchell-Lama projects. This went by the wayside. The Mitchell-Lama program was largely abandoned state-wide and at Battery Park City due to a number of factors including changes in the federal tax code, the financial difficulties of the city and state of New York and the resistence of developers to the program’s style of comprehensive project budget and income regulation. Instead, Battery Park City developers were permitted to seek other financing. Most of the residential buildings as a result were co-op or condo without a low- or moderate-income component, but rental projects in Battery Park City availing themselves of tax-exempt though rental projects were done with a 20% low- and moderate-income component. Those requirements were worthwhile at the time the buildings were financed but the 20% low- and moderate-income requirement has begun to expire for some of those projects.

The middle-income Mitchell-Lama building complex that kicked off the building of Battery Park City in 1980 is designed nicely enough so that it fits in well enough with the rest of Battery Park City, but looking at it you can recognize that its design quality and building materials and finishing are decidedly a level below the luxury residential buildings that were built afterward.

By allowing Battery Park City to be predominantly luxury housing extra funds were generated. In exchange for not requiring all of the Battery Park City residential housing to be middle-income an arrangement was made whereby extra funds generated by virtue of devoting most of the housing to higher-income families would be paid over to the City to finance affordable housing in other `off-site’ areas of the city. Initially, the City diverted most of those funds for its general purposes. In more recent years those funds have finally started to be used for the affordable housing that was intended. One should wonder what will happen now in light of the warnings that the City is again facing hard financial times.

Learning From Designs of the Past

These days there are those who offer the idea of tweaks to further improve Battery Park City’s design. Mostly they involve precepts which were not thought about when it was built. It is, for instance, suggested that to comport with modern aesthetics the project should have been designed with better access to the water (something that would have assisted evacuations on September 11th.)

The designs for the new World Trade Center site at Ground Zero will be better than and different from those for the original World Trade Center. To various degrees streets will be reinserted into the grid. This recognizes that the original superblocking of the site was undesirable. The reinstatements into the grid may be the most significant improvement offered. Transportation connections will be improved. There will be more trees. The original design for the Trade Center was so wide of the mark these cannot be referred to as “tweaks.” Nevertheless, it would have been nice if the new plans differed still more from the original plan for the World Trade Center. We learned what we learned in time to do Battery Park City well. It would be better if we incorporated more of those lessons in plans for the new Trade Center site where behemoth buildings will once again rise abruptly out of plazas which themselves need more humanizing character. Overall, the buildings, including the signature Freedom Tower, will be particularly featureless at the pedestrian level. Though streets reestablishing the city grid will be increased, opportunities to do this to a greater degree have not been taken advantage of.

Plans Offered Poor Choices

Does anyone remember how bad almost all the choices proposed for redevelopment of the site were? I refer not so much to the very first somewhat minimally fleshed out set of proposals that people rejected as uninspired but to the second set of nine proposals that were supposed to provide careful good design as evolutionary choices. If you are having problems remembering, it is not your fault. Those proposals are now hard to dig up. Go to New York Magazine and click on the links for the The City Review. A few renderings of all the major designs are also quickly available at September 11 News.

Some of the plans were utterly outrageous and it would have taken an army of Philippe Petits to humanize them. What if the HHH-shaped buildings (Meier, Eisenman, Gwathmey, and Holl) had been built? Or the vast interior Great Room,” the world’s largest covered plaza (Think Group)?

Best Choice

Only one of the proposals was very good, the Peterson Littenberg Architects proposal. That was the proposal that most resembled Rockefeller Center, perhaps a Rockefeller Center that had invited in two Chrysler Building sisters (and another iteration of it involved a taller tower too). Fashions may come and go but I do not think that Rockefeller Center has ever been out of fashion or that truly good design like that of the Chrysler Building has ever been disavowed. The Peterson Littenberg proposal was also the proposal you could best imagine as having taken lessons from and integrating as a good neighbor with Battery Park City. The Peterson Littenberg design proposed to tame the often superfluously wide West Street into a more gracious landscaped boulevard that could be readily traversed transiting into Battery Park City.

Restoring all the pre-existing density of the site is a challenge. The Peterson proposal dealt with this challenge by trading ground level green space for more lower height buildings (topped, like Rockefeller Center buildings with green plazas). The proposal which perhaps could be characterized as the most “feminine” (though it has towers) is the one that provided no obviously taunting targets for terrorists.

Libeskind/Childs Design ‘Chosen’

There is debate whether the “design” for the site that was “chosen” was really chosen, and the “design” that was “chosen” isn’t even the design that is now being proceeded with. Daniel Libeskind’s original Freedom Tower design was abandoned and replaced with another angle-the-edges-of-a-tower show-it-when-gleams ho-hum. Ironically, when the Libeskind design was chosen it was touted for its interestingly “asymmetrical” design. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s website now promotes its replacement, cheering that “The Tower's design evokes classic New York skyscrapers in its elegance and symmetry.” It was generally considered that Libeskind “won” the competition because of Governor Pataki’s lobbying intervention or overriding of commissioners. Pataki then apparently decided to direct Libeskind to collaborate with David Childs from Skidmore Owings and Merrill to produce the Freedom Tower 2.0 design a year later.

The Freedom Tower 2.0 was replaced by Freedom Tower 3.0. The Freedom Tower 3.0 design turned out to be beta test edition and was reworked to become the Freedom Tower 3.2 edition now planned after it turned out, lo and behold, that the New York Police Department didn’t think that security concerns had been adequately thought through. This meant that a much less inviting and more fortress-like blocky bottom had to be added on the already uninviting building. To increase security, the Childs team shrank the building’s base to draw the building back 90 feet from West Street (compared to 25 feet for the original tower design). This not only allows “more room for at-grade security” it also creates a larger public plaza alongside West Street. That is the wide and unquiet West Street that the Peterson plan proposed to tame and that this plan does not. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, building’s base footprint at 200 feet square is now noted to be the same measurement as the footprints of the original Twin Towers.

Security Detail?

Can today’s starchitects be trusted to consider details like security? And if they aren’t considering “details” of a gargantuan building, can they be trusted to consider the human elements of design? The issue of not having thought through the detail of security concerns is similarly presented with Frank Gehry’s design for the Nets arena which is proposed to proximately abut Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, streets might have to be closed during Nets games because of the lack of thought that was given and because, unlike the Libeskind building, the arena can’t be shrunk back from the street. But, seriously, if you are building a replacement tauntingly similar to the twice-attacked Trade Center, how can you not pause to think about security?

Architecture as Ersatz Conceptual Art

But if you hold Libeskind’s feet to the fire respecting “details,” it turns out that one of the main selling points for his plan, the so-called “wedge of light” was either another overlooked detail or a bill of goods. (See the New York Times, Shadows to Fall, Literally, Over 9/11 'Wedge of Light,' By Edward Wyatt, May 1, 2003) 63 When presenting his original design Libeskind had dramatically offered that on every September 11, from the exact time the first plane struck to when the second tower fell, the wedge of light in the Park of Heroes would be a place where “the sun will shine without shadow.” Dramatic, and it made it possible to sell the architecture as a piece of conceptual art- Problem was that it just wasn’t so.

If the replacement for the Trade Center amounts to a whole city neighborhood unto itself why do we treat it as a conceptual plaything for architects who are not paying attention to details? Why is that the high priority that steers the award of commissions? When you don’t pay attention to details you are probably not paying attention to the details within the picture known as human beings. Look what happened with Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building.

Details, . . .

The other night, I was at the Municipal Art Society’s annual meeting held in the New York Times building. Inside, the MAS annual report was being distributed. In that report it was noted that the Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building had received a “MASterwork” award from the society. The evening was July 9, 2008. That was the same day that the third climber in five weeks had attempted to scale the Times Building. At the very same time as we were meeting inside, construction workers were working outside to remove the ceramic rods and box up other features of the building’s distinctive architecture that provided the open invitation to climbers. If noting else, three climbers going up your building will get you to think about the relationship of your architecture to human beings.

. . . . Details, . . .

The Piano building has many admirable elements and is far superior in many ways to most modern buildings. Perhaps it deserves the award from MAS, but my point about attention to detail with respect to the building is not off the mark. It is reported that Piano forgot to include bike parking in the building (Streetsblog: New York Times Employees Say Renzo Forgot the Bike Parking) This has lead to disenfranchised bikers locking their bikes to the same structural/ornamental exterior elements of the building that people were using for climbing. This was something the Times didn’t want and something else they are now working to prevent. (There is some rumored question about whether interior bike parking was planned in the basement but then displaced when an upper floor was built without adequate load-bearing capacity for its intended library. According to the rumor, people say the library therefore had to be moved down to the basement.)

. . . . . . . . Details,. . .

Just looking at the Trade Center will remind you of security issues and just looking at the Trade Center should also remind everyone that people have been climbing buildings for years. (In terms of waking up to such things, Forest City Ratner not only owns the Nets with the aforementioned problematic arena but is also a half-partner in the Times building faced by this other security issue.) After Philippe Petit tight-roped between the towers in 1974, George Willig climbed the World Trace Center South Tower in May of 1977. Before Willig climbed the Trade Center, in the fall of 1976, Willig climbed the Unisphere in Flushing Meadow Park left over from the World’s Fair of 1964-65. ; (In case you want to know how far you can throw a stone without hitting a building climber I should disclose that my brother, Stephen, was the cameraman who climbed the Unisphere with Willig, getting up above him so he could film him coming up.)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Details,. . .

When we forget about the details of real vital humans living human lives at human scale it may go hand in hand with not recognizing or underappreciating other aspects of how the rest of us are all living our lives. The Times/Ratner building, a private enterprise, was effected by taking land and buildings from unwilling sellers who fought the tactic in court. Eminent domain abuse. Eminent Domain abuse is an issue of very major concern in New York, but the Times, which has engaged in it and reaped the spoils reports on it only sparingly. (Is discussion of eminent domain a tangent when talking about the relationship of urban design to human beings? I don’t think so. The challenge is to think holistically about the ways in which human beings integrate with architecture. It ought to be noticed that designs associated with eminent domain are more often designs that impose regimented concepts of “order” from on high rather than providing domain for the organically human.)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Details,. . .

The one other new building that is noted as getting a MASterwork award in the same MAS annual report is starchitect Frank Gehry’s “dirty iceberg” (the IAC Building) on West Street opposite Chelsea Piers. I am not sure why it deserves the award but the handling of entrances and exits in the building is an example of people-don’t-matter-but-anything-that-would-make-a-good-paper-weight-will-make-a-good-building school of architecture.

Reflexes When Attacked

The gleaming we-can-make-good-paper-weight submissions proposed to replace the Trade Center presented little evidence that we had ever learned something from the mistakes of the original Trade Center. It was more as if we were nostalgic for it. Many ideas were in the air as we thought through with what we should replace the Trade Center. Among them were two opposite schools of thought operative to steer between. One of them was a kind of knee-jerk reaction which was, in fact, very close to nostalgia. It is the knee-jerk response to defend what has been attacked.

Maybe someone is prone to criticize his wife, but if someone else does so, her flaws disappear and she is defended strenuously by the formerly critical husband. America had been attacked. There was a consistently recurring theme as a result. Most people didn’t agree or so advocate but they knew the feeling when a small minority of the people repeatedly said that we should build the towers again just the way they were. A similar theme related to this was the urge to make sure that there would again be a tall iconic building at the location. Over time this urge might have faded but in the wake of the attack it was like a primal urge to fight back. We had the tallest: It was taken away: We wanted the tallest back.

There was also what presented itself as almost the opposite school of thought: Whatever we built we should not build where the towers were. The voids that are to be the Reflecting Absence memorial represent this point of view. The voids will serve their purpose well. They will be an excellent memorial. They are almost certainly the best-designed aspect of what is proposed to replace the towers. Nevertheless, they were not inevitable. If there had been true nostalgia and love for what had been there before September 11th it is likely that something very similar to what was there before would have been replicated.

Ambivalence and Planning

The proof that we did not love the towers well enough is the actions we took after their demise. As Bagli reports in is New York Times story, 19 public agencies (and two private developers plus 101 construction contractors and subcontractors) are involved in replacing the Trade Center. That represents the true ambivalence and uncertainly about what we want to see there. New York has a byzantine love for layering on extra public authorities but it is not just that. Did the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (“LMDC”) need to be created as an extra layer of confused accountability? What were its justifying novel powers that really added something constructive to the mix?

I believe in planning and I believe that good planning takes extra time. There is certainly more to be planned and many more interrelated elements to be coordinated and accounted for in what still remains to be done at the World Trade Center but as we read the government report assessment that replacement of these elements is behind schedule and over-budget the following should be noted. The Silverstien-owned 7 World Trade Center abutting to the north, which was outside the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s formal jurisdiction, opened a full two years ago in May 2006.

The Glitz Play

Post 9/11 was a vulnerable time for us. We knew we were ambivalent and probably mostly remembered not really loving the Trade Center. But the starchitects came out to play and what with the fashions that were cycling round what we ironically got by virtue of our ambivalence is in many respects a replay of what we never loved very well when, beyond all imaginable odds we were given the chance to have something different after just 28 years. Maybe the starchitects were unduly influenced by the nostalgia they detected from the populace. The way in which the very first set of plans received a poor public reception may have convinced them that this was an instinct to pay attention to. Maybe they were afraid of not going for the glitz by virtue of what they attributed to that rejection. The architects also had the job of restoring a huge amount of density at the same time they were being urged to build tall. Some may say that in times of “war” there is an instinct to build tall formidable buildings with a masculine impulse. Maybe there is truth to this and that is why the design fails to escape the constraints of a testosterone-laced straightjacket. Would the impulse to continue the warp and woof of Battery Park City into the Trade Center site have seemed too feminine? Perhaps- at the time.

Public Spaces and New Streets for the Street Grid

It is often suggested that building a new section of the a city should start with the design of the public spaces and the rest should follow from that. When dealing with real life objectives that may seem simplistic and not pragmatic. Certainly, design for the new World Trade Center site involved many jigsaw puzzle aspects making it more difficult. The public spaces precept appears to have been followed to an extent. The redevelopment plan reintroduces East/West running Fulton Street and North/South Greenwich Streets. The LMDC website explains, “These streets will connect adjacent neighborhoods and support the active street life that is characteristic of New York City.” Street reintroduction at the site also defines the public space. East/West running Dey and Cortlandt are also reintroduced to a more minimal extent: for just one block between Church and Greenwich Street and only for pedestrian use.

- Dey and Cortlandt Streets

Streets dedicated to pedestrians can have splendid value if care is taken to keep them active. The length of Cortlandt that will be reintroduced as a pedestrian way will be between two towers that will sheer immediately up to the sky so care must be taken for this canyon to be “active” with street life not just a hurried torrent of dense pedestrian flow through a tight bottleneck. In Manhattan’s Forties (46th and up) there are mid-block passageways between Park and Madison which have been allowed to become bleak and inactive, a fate that can easily befall pedestrian ways that are inattentively managed. As Dey Street will open up and flow into and alongside the new transit hub plaza (alternately known as the “Park of Heroes”), inactivity won’t be a problem there.

Although the extension of Dey and Cordtland will not entirely traverse the site, they will flow into the new memorial park space rather than dead-end. Someone walking west on Cortlandt will be able to continue their walk although what someone walking on Dey Street will be able to do will depend upon the handling of a public or visitor facility that may go in at that location in the park.

- Washington Street, North and South

Washington Street which flows north/south and exists as a truncated remnant to both the north and the south of the site, unlike Dey and Cortlandt is not, per se, extended to flow into the memorial park as it could be. An impediment to bringing in Washington Street from the north as a vehicular way is that it would too closely abut the Freedom Tower for security purposes. Nevertheless, one has to ask why it is not designated as a pedestrian way from the block between Vesey and Fulton that, similarly to Dey and Cortlandt Street, would provide a last leg flowing into the memorial park. This could still be accomplished. A likely reason the plan doesn’t say it is being done is that the bordering Freedom Tower and the performing arts center at that location will not be providing actively used edges for such a pedestrian way.

Washington Street’s remnant flows up all the way up from the south to centrally located park space. In the plan it is apparently not thought of as continuing or flowing all the way into the memorial space because the park space it first flows into is the narrow Liberty Park. Liberty Park could readily be considered a southern part of the memorial park as it sits on its south like the sole of a shoe. An extra-wide Liberty Street is will create the demarcation and barrier interfering with this flow and connection. This “two-block” demarcation will be reinforced with a change in grade.

- The West Side of the Memorial Park

The longest side of the memorial park with no naturally flowing entrance points is the three-block length on the west side between Liberty Street at the bottom and Fulton Street at the top. This is the water side and the Battery Park City side. The lack of entry points is a form of blow-back from the original Trade Center’s design. Battery Park was built with a long continuos side to it back when there was little across from it to connect to on the Trade Center side. Now it is passing the favor back across the street just as if a die-cast impression had been taken. Like the south side of the memorial park, the lack of connection is reinforced by an extra-wide street, the very wide West Street, sometimes referred to down here as the West Side Highway. Too bad this street it is not being buried which has certainly been urged. This is the wide street with respect to which we are carrying out a continuing tradition of building multiple successive pedestrian overpasses to make crossing it on foot possible.

Just as there is green (Liberty Park) to the south of the memorial park, similarly there is unconnected green and pedestrian space across West Street that could readily have been thought of as extending the memorial park under other circumstances.

It is a bad idea to have two sides of the memorial park set off from the City by big streets unless the memorial is intended to be a drive-by experience. I don’t think that is the goal nor will it facilitate contemplative respect. I am reminded of the kind of detached automobile-centric monument viewing that is possible from the wide streets of Washington, D.C.

Memorial Park’s Overall Connectedness

So, while the east side of the memorial park is well connected with multiple streets flowing into it, there are two adjacent sides of the memorial, one of them very long, where the memorial park is separated from is surroundings by big streets, lack of connection to the street grid and grade changes. A third adjacent side (the north side) continues the minimization of connections by forgoing an available Washington Street connection to the grid.

The memorial park is a good size for its purpose. It is roughly proportional to City Hall Park just a few blocks away. City Hall Park has 14 connecting street entrances around its entire circumference. The new memorial park will have nine, six of them on the east side of park. You could calculate the total number higher, at 11, if you treated the two possible Washington Street connections, north and south as part of the intended flow paths into the park. The number would be 12 if you viewed Liberty Park as being an integrated part of the memorial park across the street.

Location of the Memorial Park

Is the memorial park in a good location as separated as it is from the city? Because of the highway, it will lack the kind of “enclosed” feel so often valued for parks. It may not be the best location but this is where jigsaw puzzle aspects come into play. Its location is essentially dictated because the Reflecting Absence memorial is to be where the two Twin Towers used to stand.

The location is good in that it is to the south and west of the major tower locations. That will be good for sunlight especially toward the end of the day. The very active streets on two sides will intrude into the contemplative experience and add noise. A change in grade should slightly help abate the noise but the flatness of the park will limit possibilities in this respect. The location is also good in that it will show off the higher quality and more varied Battery Park City architecture on the west.

The Other Towers

The 1,362 foot Freedom Tower comes close to duplicating a twin tower (101 usable floors). It is the same height as the slightly shorter WTC 2 twin tower. Same size footprint. Same observation deck height. Slightly higher symbolic height with the antenna taken into account (1,776 feet). No setbacks.

As noted, immediately adjacent to the north of the site, Silverstein built the 52 story tall 7 World Trade Center. The building is a simple sheer tower. Whatever its limitations, it is probably most important that because it is on a smaller contracted footprint than the previous 7 World Trade Center it was possible to restore Greenwich Street. That was a good preeminent goal. The building itself, however, is worse than a generic glass box because its base is several floors of scale-and-relationship-obliterating steel security mesh. There are no windows, no stores, no doors almost all the way around. Among other things, the ‘reverse’ side of the building (if it has one) is on Washington Street. Across, on the other side of Washington Street is a multi-story interior arcade along Vesey Street. Like what Phillip Johnson’s AT&T building attempted to do, that arcade could give the feel of a Florentine arcade (Piazza della Repubblica). Opportunity to capitalize on the value of this arcade is minimized by its chill industrial entombment from the Silverstein building base and the similarly inhospitable base of the Freedom Tower. The fortress bases of the Freedom Tower and Silverstien building, echoing each other, will stand kitty-corner to one another, ping-ponging strollers. Walkers will be beset by the experience of the loomimg fortress walls on far too many adjacent streets: Barclay, Vesey, Washington, Greenwich, Fulton and West.

In all, there are four other additional towers planned, with tower designations #2 through #5. Of these, #2, the 78-story 200 Greenwich Street is the tallest and #4, the 61-story 150 Greenwich Street will be the 4th tallest. The southernmost Tower #5 will be the shortest but design information about it still needs to be made available.

The best of these towers is the 1,155-foot Tower # 3 at 175 Greenwich Street designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership. It is a better-looking building than the Freedom Tower. In feel, the building is reminiscent of the Renzo Piano Times building. Its complex detailing does more to establish scale than any of the other towers. At one and the same time its Xing structural patterns will, like the new Hearst Tower, form an ascending pattern to the sky, while unlike the Hearst Tower, it will have many multiple repeating cues as to what the count of the floors is and how human beings within the building might use it. It also sets back. This furnishes an intermediate event to contribute interest to views while making the tower less overwhelming as it rises up over the memorial park.

Towers #2 and #4 are sheer, bland and overwhelming in the same unfriendly way the Freedom Tower will be. If the main interest they offer is to inoculate the skyline with diamond shapes. What they offer to appreciate at street level is bloodless. Rockefeller Center succeeds by establishing experiences at all sorts or intermediate levels. On Manhattan’s adjacent Sixth Avenue, buildings of almost identical design by the same architects fail by sheering straight up to the sky from flat plazas. By contrast the Empire State Building performs a clever magic act with its scale. If you stand right next to the Empire State Building, tourists will stop you and ask you where it is. Like the towers on Sixth Avenue, the Freedom Tower and Towers #2 and #4 will offer not offer the benefit of such an elusively subtle experience. Like the original Twin Towers, these straight-ups standing at attention, their tops presented to the skyline, will force acknowledgment. Should New York present at least a few such uncompromisingly abrupt experiences? Even if that is the case, are there not already enough? As for human scale, these planned towers leave the job of establishing scale and creating a street experience to other buildings at the site.

Establishing Scale at the New Site

Scale at the new site will be established by the following. The varied and interesting buildings of Battery Park City that are across the street to the west. Trees- There will be many more trees in memorial park and trees as fellow living creatures can do a lot to establish scale. Drawings of pretty green trees are also a frequent architect’s cop-out (or apology) when they realize that issues of scale have been inadequately addressed. The new Calatrava-designed transportation hub- even as its shape is strikingly novel. The Performing Arts Center at the north. The Cultural Center. Tower # 3, 175 Greenwich Street, with its set-back and detailed elements, designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership. The street entrances to the memorial park. The St. Nicholas Church to be built in the southern Liberty Park. Saint Paul’s Chapel (built 1766 before the Revolution, the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City) and cemetery- Interestingly and opportunely, the site’s new configuration should allow some sight lines through to this historic building. The existing vintage buildings at the southwest corner of the memorial/Liberty Park site. (Unfortunately, beautiful human-scale vintage building now visible at the north of the site will be concealed by the straight-ups of the Freedom Tower and Tower #2.) The steps that change the grade surrounding the memorial park. And, finally, oddly enough, the vastness of the Reflecting Absence memorial.

The Quality of the Memorial Park Experience

A vast amount of space will be devoted to the Reflecting Absence memorial. The size of the voids dictates that. In addition, the extended flatness of the surrounding park represents a constraining insistence that the voids be paid attention to. One day, decades hence, the park may be reworked to create a more varied less sober experience and it will be interesting to see what our instincts are when 9/11 has been subsumed as a part of more encompassing history. I suspect our instincts will be less constrained and less carefully correct. I wouldn’t say that the memorial park is too somber, but, until that time, no matter how many trees, the flat park, (not the pond-like voids themselves), if frequently visited, stands to be in danger of being unsatisfyingly tedious. (Perhaps the park will need to be filled up with sculpture, art and poetry produced by the children and loved ones who were left behind.) To avoid this danger, the other elements of the memorial plaza will have to do some heavy lifting. The quality of engaging design needs to be very high. The architectural conversation with the human scale element needs to be eloquently articulated. The Freedom Tower, and towers #2 and # 3 are not off to a good start in this respect. West Street’s long swipe of the park also does not help.

Steps Forward and Back?

In a classic performance a tightrope walker never crosses the abyss in one brisk walk from one end to the other. To generate suspense the walker hovers in the middle of the void taking steps forward and back. In terms of quality of design, I think Battery Park City was clearly two steps forward. The designs for Ground Zero are a lot better than designs for many other big developments in New York but aren’t they a step back from where we were with Battery Park City? The suspense has been there. The next step didn’t have to be step back because, as good as Battery Park City is, there are those telling us that there are possible forward steps still to be taken.

When Battery Park City was being built the official story was that Cooper Eckstut had formulated their design guidelines by carefully reviewing what qualities make the best neighborhoods of New York deeply beloved. Noticing New York is dedicated to the proposition that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand. One would have hoped that when redevelopment of Ground Zero was being planned, there could have been more noticing and appreciating of neighboring Battery Park City so as to incorporate more of the lessons that could be learned from it as it learned from neighborhoods that came before. Admittedly Battery Park City is a more mixed use development with a higher proportion of residential development than Ground Zero with its many office towers, but that does not mean that more lessons shouldn’t have been carried over.

Even if the designs for Ground Zero are a lot better than designs for many other big developments in New York, we should care that all the steps taken are forward. The development will be a cynosure for world eyes and for us the equivalent of 14 or 15 downtown New York City blocks. It has been seven years and little is there at the moment; you still can’t go downtown without people from all over stopping you to ask where the site is. It happened to me again last night.

The designs for Ground Zero should set the standard for everything else. The goal of reaching a zenith of design quality should not matter less than the preoccupation of achieving the zenith of New York City building height.

Literally, the Ground Zero development exists alongside Battery Park City. Figuratively, as a standard, it exists alongside of the other big development going on in New York City. While the Ground Zero design may only represent one step back, by the standard it sets it can give license for other mega-projects, like Atlantic Yards, that are clearly two or three-design-steps back.

I suspect that the new Ground Zero will be around for many decades longer than the 28 years during which we grew so ambivalent about the original towers.

Steps Forward Now

I don’t believe there is any longer time or opportunity to do significantly better than the current not entirely satisfactory plans for replacing the Trade Center though they still can be tweaked. Washington Street can be more open, details attended to. Probably Towers #2, 4, and #5 can be made better. Overall, the redevelopment will be better than the original World Trade Center. It will be better than the usual development in New York. The transportation hub will function more effectively. The Calatrava station should be worthwhile even though it is being cut back because of financial constraints and will have less of its potential grandeur. Perforce the memorial should be an achievement. The public space will function better that what was there before. There is solace especially in that the street grid will be much improved.

Notwithstanding reservations, the best thing that can happen is that building progress apace. Models and renderings will never fully allow the public or even the best design professionals to fully experience what a city space will be like when it is built. I have little doubt that assessments I have expressed here will inevitably shift somewhat from the real experience of what is to come. There are some things I may like more when I see them in concrete. There are other things I may realize that I like a lot less. There is an advantage to building the physical things so that we can experience with impact where we have gotten to. Only then we can decide where we want to go next.

The building of the old World Trade Center was a learning experience. As noted it helped show us the way to Battery Park City. When the new Trade Center is finally redeveloped maybe we will again realize with clarity the ways in which we want a other big New York developments to be designed.

There is always the possibility of all sorts of change on many levels. The reviews of “Man on Wire” recalled for me a fascinating coincidence or trivia fact. The very same day Petit took his walk, August 7, 1974, was the date of the congressional leader confrontation that caused President Nixon to announce, just one day later, that he was resigning from office.


KDPaine said...

Makes me really want to go see the movie! I visited the OK City memorial this year, all we talked about is how different the process has been. Land in OKCity isn't worth nearly as much it is in downtown Manhattan, so no one but me was surprised that its taken so long. If you ever get a chance, go to OKCity -- it is a amazing memorial

bobbo said...

Better yet, go to Dubai and see what is being denied this city by the cranks who blog AD INFINITUM about the flaws they find in dynamic plans.

Internet - cult of the amateur.

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