The Magazine

Rebuilding Ground Zero

Memorializing September 11

Jan 21, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 18 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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IN THE AFTERMATH of September 11, Senator Charles Schumer recommended the World Trade Center be replaced with "something grand." It's a curious word. Who speaks of grandeur any more? Certainly not many of the fashionable architects, designers, and pundits suggesting what to do with the site.

There have been, of course, any number of suggestions that something big be erected where the World Trade Center stood, if only as a gesture of defiance. Minoru Yamasaki's 1970s twin towers--stark, steel-sheathed, 110-story buildings severely geometrical and devoid of human scale--were very big indeed. But big isn't the same as grand. And nowhere does the difference matter more than on the ground of the buildings obliterated on September 11. This place demands a monumental architectural setting.

A preliminary plan for reconstruction at the sixteen-acre site, which extends over what were once twelve city blocks, should emerge in the next few months. Cleanup at the site has gone much faster than anyone imagined and is expected to be finished in June. Which raises the question: When it comes to rebuilding, will New York learn from the seemingly endless stream of errors it has made in its architectural patronage over the last half century?

Fortunately, the likelihood of a clone of Yamasaki's Corbusian towers-in-a-desolate-plaza is practically nil. The new buildings will probably rise about fifty stories: hardly pygmies, but short enough to allow the Empire State Building to assert its primacy on Gotham's skyline once again. Larry A. Silverstein--the developer who only last July took out a $3.2 billion, ninety-nine-year lease on the towers, two adjacent buildings in the complex, and the retail mall--has retained Alexander Cooper to work on a new scheme. You can see an example of Cooper's work in Battery Park City, which he and his former partner Stanton Eckstut laid out two decades ago, eschewing the Corbusian blueprint for more traditional, finer-grained planning. But Silverstein's design architect is David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill--and Childs's specialty is, alas, slick, uninspired postmodernism.

Whatever buildings are erected at the site, there remains the question of a memorial. Given the ideas floating around New York these days, it's not hard to imagine a park at the site with walls inscribed with names or mechanically etched with computerized images of the dead. An unadorned fountain might offer the minimalistic spectacle of water shooting up in jets from a pavement or cascading over slabs of granite. We might even anticipate a landscape strewn with the remnants of the twin towers' steel sheathing--if they're not displayed in an on-site museum--along with twisted girders, or even flattened police cars and fire trucks. Thus might the postmodern preoccupation with "authenticity" and "metaphor," "memory," and "meaning" be satisfied.

The players in the decision-making include the new Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation headed by former deputy secretary of state and Goldman Sachs co-chairman John C. Whitehead. This entity, a subsidiary of New York State's economic development corporation, will produce the preliminary reconstruction scheme, and it has received a stunningly bountiful $2 billion appropriation from Congress as part of an emergency aid package for New York City. Then there's the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built the World Trade Center and owns the land. Silverstein, for his part, is expecting to collect a huge sum from his insurers that will allow him to build his new skyscrapers. Finally, the federal government may demand a say in return for billions of dollars for cleanup and infrastructure repair at the site.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the memorial has become the lightning-rod issue. Shortly before leaving office, Mayor Giuliani declared that a "soaring, monumental, beautiful memorial" should be the first priority. He suggested that such a memorial would be a major international attraction, and that Silverstein could build in another part of Manhattan. But comments by Whitehead--and by Giuliani's successor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg--indicate that there will almost certainly be a very considerable amount of office, retail, and possibly residential construction at the site.