The Magazine

Faulty Towers

From the March 17, 2003 issue: A bad idea for Ground Zero.

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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DANIEL LIBESKIND'S victory in the architectural competition for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site is a victory for what we might call the "permanent institution of the revolution." It looks as though we will never be able to revolt against that revolt--never be able to rid ourselves of the avant-garde that ceased being avant-garde ages ago.

Now fifty-six years old, Libeskind immigrated to the United States in his early teens, graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, and studied architecture at Cooper Union. He is a product of the postmodern academy with deep intellectual roots in deconstructionism, and, as one might expect, his "Memory Foundations" scheme for Ground Zero is fundamentally conceptualist (as opposed to artistic) in nature.

Even at that, his conceptualist scheme has already been seriously compromised. His original intention was to leave fully exposed the slurry wall lining one side of the deep "bathtub" below the obliterated Twin Towers. The fact that the wall, which holds back the Hudson River, survived the September 11 catastrophe was a tremendous blessing, sparing Lower Manhattan a deluge in addition to the inferno. The slurry wall would face a pit seventy feet deep, reaching down to bedrock and encompassing the Twin Tower footprints. This abyss, which would serve as the locus for a memorial, would evoke the catastrophe, while the bedrock and the slurry wall, with its picturesque multitude of exposed metal tiebacks sticking out of its concrete mass, would symbolize the mighty foundations of democracy and the Constitution. Thematically, Libeskind would kill two birds with one stone.

Unfortunately, the slurry wall requires lateral stabilization. So a multilevel structure, possibly including a parking garage for buses, will be situated above the bedrock. This means the abyss will be limited to a space ten yards wide by a hundred yards long, running alongside the wall. The rest of the 4.7-acre memorial site will be only thirty feet deep.

Surrounding this site on two sides will be a jumble of buildings devoted to cultural uses, including a September 11 museum to be housed in a particularly bizarre structure resembling a pie slice protruding into the depression. A horizontal slit, cut out of the pie slice, creates a cantilevered mass lurking ominously over an observation platform that looks out on the memorial site. The museum building offers access to the site, as does a long ramp running along the slurry wall.

At the north end of the site, a curious architectural sliver, attached to a tall office building and crowned by a lofty antenna, will rise to a height of 1,776 feet, for obvious reasons. The sliver, an abstract sculptural form, is configured so as to play off of the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty. Half a dozen gardens representing ecospheres such as tropical forest and grassland are to be installed in the towering sliver as symbols of "life victorious." (These "sky gardens," by the way, are urbanistically perverse; such gardens belong outside and at ground level, where they can provide refuge from the hubbub of the street.) Several other office towers, a transit station, and retail corridors will be arrayed along thoroughfares intended to establish commemorative venues and recover a portion of the street grid that existed before the World Trade Center was built.

The architectural imagery of the Libeskind scheme involves lots of glass and metal and contorted geometry. "Like fragments of shattered crystals, they create a sense of disequilibrium, disorientation, even alienation," Mark C. Taylor, a humanities professor at Williams College, wrote of Libeskind's Ground Zero buildings in the New York Times in December. Admittedly, some of the more recent renderings tend to be softer and blander than earlier ones, while the sky gardens and the towering sliver's upward thrust are intended as heartening gestures.

Nevertheless, this scheme is an abomination. It uses architectural mayhem--especially in the crazy cluster of cultural buildings around the memorial site--to represent or evoke the cataclysm. Architecture is not supposed to do that, for architecture, properly understood, is an anthropomorphic art concerned with stability, usefulness, and beauty. Libeskind, like other deconstructionists, gives us no composition, in an organic, anthropomorphic sense. And to the extent they relate to the human body, the forms and spaces Libeskind creates--as at his Jewish Museum in Berlin--are often conceived to arouse sensations of constriction and confinement rather than repose or dynamic harmony.