By JOHN BARBER
The Globe and Mail
September 7, 2002
NEW YORK -- There is a powerful absence at ground zero in September, 2002. The former site of the World Trade Center is now just a hole in the ground, an outsized, but otherwise typical ex-cavation, stripped clean of each and every tangible object - from mangled body parts to ruptured commuter trains - that could testify to the events of the terrible day.
Tourists still clog the temporary footbridge that overlooks the site, holding their video cameras at arm's length, like shields, while recording a chilly nothingness.
The power of this disturbingly empty mass grave has transfixed New York. Although it is still more of a sprawling civic therapy session than an actual construction project, the effort to rethink and rebuild this place has already become monumental.
With no model to guide them and the world looking over their shoulders, New Yorkers are struggling to begin the enormously complex task of supplanting the desolation. Not only must they conceive of an unprecedented type of memorial, one appropriate to honour the approximately 2,800 dead and to rebuke terror, they also have to rebuild most of their downtown, whose wounds extend far beyond the boundaries of the 6.5-hectare World Trade Center site.
And this being New York, of course, they must do it all in a manner that sets new standards of urban achievement. While they mourn, they grab at the chance to define and to build the quintessential 21st-century business district, something far different from the traditional office park exemplified by the twin towers.
So far, however, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the new state agency in charge of the process, is doing far more listening than leading. Ambitious deadlines have fallen away as it feels its way forward, going to great lengths to gauge and respond to the public mood. Some observers decry a lack of leadership, warning of tough decisions dodged or deferred, but the degree of participation is amazing.
"Some people have said that this job will never get done in New York because it's such an unmanageable and bureaucratic place, and all good ideas get stifled," said Leevi Kiil, president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "I just don't believe that will happen. I might have thought so a year ago, before the attacks, but so much creative thinking has occurred since then, I'm convinced it will be possible."
Speaking last week in Queens, at one of several public meetings staged by the LMDC to solicit views on a memorial, New York Senator Serphin Maltese likewise marvelled at the basic decency underlying a difficult process. "In my 40 years of public life, I have never seen any endeavour so sensitive to participation from the public at large," he told LMDC officials. "I know you approach it with high reverence."
A few minutes later, Queens resident Patrick Cartier, a modern Archie Bunker trembling in grief and rage, made it clear why that is so.
"That property belongs to us. It doesn't belong to you," Mr. Cartier shouted through tears that began to flow as soon as he mentioned his son, James, who died in the rubble of Tower 2.
"We're out here bleeding to death," he added, contemptuously dismissing the earnest committee arrayed at the front of the hall, along with its professional facilitator, "and all you've got is these fancy people designing these circuses."
Mr. Cartier bitterly denounced what he called the "total disdain" of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom others also criticized for a perceived lack of sensitivity to the families. And he ended with a forbidding promise. "The blood of our loved ones is soaked into that ground. We're going to claim it for ourselves!"
It is just such claims, of every description - legal, political, and above all, emotional that make both the memorial and the re-building exercises so perilous.
The public agency that owns the site - the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey - is mainly concerned with reclaiming the income once generated by the World Trade Center; as is Larry Silverstein, the developer to whom the agency leased the towers in a deal that had barely closed at the time they fell.
Then there are the insurance companies Mr. Silverstein is suing for more than $7-billion. The insurers are offering less than half that, based on the assumption that the attack was a single event; Mr. Silverstein argues that it comprised two separate attacks and so is making two claims. As a result, the future of Lower Manhattan, as expressed baldly by the amount of money available for rebuilding, hinges on a legal dispute many New Yorkers consider deeply distasteful.
Residents and workers in the stricken downtown represent another active lobby, as does the city's vocal design community. The federal, state and local governments each advance interdependent agendas while the LMDC hovers in the middle with a mandate to solve everything, but having little explicit authority.
There is heady talk about complicated land swaps to bring the site under full city control, enlarging the train system that was destroyed and building a new one to connect downtown to JFK Airport. Galleries and magazines vie with one another to present visionary schemes for rebuilding. Most formidable of all, the families of those who died on the site guard against any potential violation of what they consider to be sacred ground. Some have insisted that all 6.5 hectares remain empty forever.
"Everything's up in the air," conceded Mark Ginsberg, an architect and co-chairman of New York New Visions, a consortium of 21 architecture firms and groups formed to aid stricken downtown designers and now an influential lobby. "There's all these balls in the air and it's very unclear how things will get worked out.
"At the same time," he added, "we have a hole down there - a hole in the middle of the city - and there's a real desire to do something quickly."
The rush to show some progress, often expressed as a political desire - a swift and definitive response to terrorism - is a powerful force. "Normally, projects on this scale take 30 years," Mr. Ginsberg said. "We're trying to do it in five or 10, and this site has more meaning than any other in New York."
In a first-floor office way downtown on the edge of Battery Park, architect and urban designer Steven Peterson demonstrated one way to do something quickly.
"This is interesting," he said, picking up an assemblage of model skyscrapers the size of a deck of cards. "This is Rockefeller Center, along with some of the adjacent properties." He explained that the suite of little foam bricks represents 11 million square feet of office space in total, the same amount destroyed downtown last Sept. 11.
"You put Rockefeller Center in there," he went on, dropping the miniature into a gaping hole in the heart of a larger model on a nearby table - a body-sized depiction of all Lower Manhattan, laid out like a patient on a gurney. "It's the same scale."
As simple as that.
Rockefeller Center, he said, is "one of the most amazing assemblies of public spaces in North America, if not the world, from the 20th century." The famous Depression-era complex, a co-ordinated ensemble crowned by the RCA building soaring above a famous submerged courtyard, was the inspiration for two plans to rebuild the World Trade Center drafted at the behest of the LMDC by Mr. Peterson and Barbara Littenberg, his wife and partner.
"That was the inspiration and we thought it was the appropriate one," Mr. Peterson said.
Both plans included suites of skyscrapers centred on large public spaces, and both restored much of the intricate downtown street grid obliterated by the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1970s.
But nothing about building on this site can be simple: The city responded with outrage when the LMDC presented the two plans, along with four from other designers, at an epochal public meeting in July. Equipped with electronic keyboards to register instant responses, 5,000 New Yorkers gathered at the Javits convention centre and expressed near-unanimous disappointment in all six schemes.
Professional opinion was just as tough. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable denounced the "six cookie-cutter losers" as "retarded exercises in crushing commercial square footage and meaningless memorial voids."
The basic problem was that all six schemes essentially recreated the World Trade Center - all 10.8 million square feet of it - in a superficially different form. Despite their emotional desire for something grand and defiant on the skyline, New Yorkers made it clear that they want something quite different than the old twin towers. More than anything, they resented the commercial overreach embodied in plans to cram every last square foot of rentable space lost on Sept. 11 back into a site that, after carving out space for a memorial, would be about half the size of the original.
The whole exercise "just seemed totally premature," said architect Margaret Helfand, a founder of New York New Visions and a persistent critic of the official go-quick impetus, "and I believe it was an embarrassment to the people involved. So everybody took a deep breath and said, `Okay, the public isn't going to buy this, we need a different process.' "
"The public said they wanted more innovative design," conceded Alexander Garvin, vice-president and chief planner at the LMDC, "so we said, `All right, let's go find more innovative designers.' "
The agency shelved the six schemes and invited design firms from around the world to try for the second round of planning on the main complex to begin this fall. It hopes to select five new designers, and put them to work with Mr. Peterson and Ms. Littenberg to produce three new plans by the New Year, leading to a final selection next spring.
At the same time as it develops an urban design that could fundamentally alter the map blocks away from the trade centre, the LMDC is initiating a separate international design competition for the memorial element of the plan.
Many have questioned the wisdom of separating the two initiatives, which are currently operating on different timetables, with the memorial design scheduled to be announced next fall. But there are no precedents to guide the civic diplomats in co-ordinating the two agendas, which will probably prove their most delicate operation.
However, the agency's now-notorious false start afforded valuable lessons for the new beginning, according to Mr. Garvin. The new plans, he said, will respond to public demands for more housing and fewer offices in the district, along with a strong new street grid in place of the "superblock" that once supported the twin towers.
They also will dare. "The public wanted something much more imaginative, much grander and more of a soaring memorial," he said.
The revised plans will build on one Peterson-Littenberg scheme that did prove popular, Mr. Garvin said. Called Memorial Promenade, it conceives the Sept. 11 memorial as a long formal boulevard beginning in Battery Park at the tip of the island, running seven blocks north on the route of West Street, an 80-metre-wide expressway that would be submerged below the boulevard, and culminating at the site of the old twin towers in a new park the size and shape of historic Union Square.
The designers selected Union Square as their model because it is "traditionally a place of the people," Mr. Peterson said. Fittingly, he added, Union Square became the only site outside the downtown that attracted the early, informal memorials of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We find it rather amusing to be among the six universally panned schemes," said Mr. Peterson, back with his "patient," this time demonstrating how Union Square could fit into the vast expanse of plazas and roadways separating the site from its nearest neighbour to the west, the World Financial Center in Battery Park City.
But it was a necessary setback, Ms. Littenberg said. "We had to get our feet wet," she said. "We had to test the Port Authority program, to see whether that was an acceptable way to proceed. Clearly it was not."
While both designers welcome the opportunity to repeat the exercise with a more flexible set of requirements, they also worry about the public's stated preference for high drama and their profession's current susceptibility to what Mr. Peterson called "the genius saviour" - design superstars such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind.
The future of the site is hovering "between emptiness and bombast," Ms. Littenberg said.
"We don't think we need bombast," Mr. Peterson said, "but we do think something dramatic can happen - dramatic and rich and enduring."
It comes back to Rockefeller Center. "Is it dramatic? I guess it is. It's dramatic, but it's subtle. Rockefeller Center is both things."
But will average New Yorkers with an electronic keypad be able to discern such qualities in a series of crude computer images flashed on a screen? "I don't know," he concluded. "It's hard to imagine."
Some observers have concluded already that even the renewed attempt to plan the site is premature and risks another ignominious failure. "I'm the first guy to get excited about design," said Margaret Helfand of New York New Visions. "I just think you can't really begin designing until you know what you're designing."
Nobody should even begin to make drawings until research needed to develop a comprehensive vision for the site is complete, she said, arguing that "three-dimensional physical planning" should be the last step taken in a process that, a year after the tragedy, has still barely begun. The urge to rush could ruin the effort, she warned.
"What's the mission for this site?" she asked. "Is this going to be an office development, or is it going to be just another neighbourhood? A cultural district or a civic centre? Who's going to make these decisions?
"Nothing is clear," she concluded. "There's no clear leadership in place to deal with the big issues. Everything's just kind of evolving."
One of the most difficult questions is the fate of the so-called footprints where the twin towers once stood, which invokes the larger question of how much influence the families of Sept. 11 victims will have in designing their memorial.
Out in Queens, Patrick Cartier's neighbours responded warmly to his demand for total family control of the entire site. Even the more moderate speakers, including all those who lost relatives, insisted that the tower footprints remain inviolable no-build zones.
New York Governor George Pataki, campaigning for re-election this fall, has endorsed the principle of leaving the footprints open; and the LMDC, responding to the same political pressure, has expressed the same preference.
The semi-popular Memorial Promenade scheme from Mr. Peterson and Ms. Littenberg succeeded in part because it allowed new development to cover the footprints of the twin towers, with the old buildings poetically recalled by two squares matching the original footprints, but in slightly different positions.
"We think you can achieve both a better memorial and a better city if you do build on the footprints," Mr. Peterson said, mainly because they are awkwardly located.
Others disagree. "There's plenty of space down there," the AAS's Mr. Kiil said. "You don't need to build on the footrpints."
The LMDC's Mr. Garvin said some New Yorkers believe that the footprints would be honoured best by serving as the foundations of two new towers. But others resist the entire idea of special designations for any part of New York City's deeply damaged historic core.
"My sense is that the whole area is special and requires special treatment," said Madelyn Wils, elected chairwoman of Community Board No. 1 in Lower Manhattan and also an LMDC board member.
"People died on the site; they also died off the site," she added. "Body parts were found blocks away. People who lived two blocks north of here or west of here had body parts on their balconies. Body parts were strewn all over Battery Park City and Rockefeller Park - all over. Are those sacred areas?"
That crucial question remains, but in the meantime, the extraordinary promise of an entirely new beginning for Lower Manhattan, physically and functionally freed of what many planners consider to be the blighting influence of the old World Trade Center, stands as the most powerful force for change.
Planners dream of major new transportation infrastructure to support the financial district, along with an infusion of housing and cultural amenities that will transform ancient Wall Street into the model of an ultramodern downtown.
"A 21st-century business district is a very different proposition from the kind of place that was built in the 1950s and '60s," Mr. Garvin said. "It is no longer just an office park, closed at 6 o'clock on Friday and reopening 9 o'clock on Monday morning."
And it's up to New York, of course, to show the rest of the continent how to create such a thing.
"I think Lower Manhattan could become the true example of a 21st-century mixed-use downtown core that everybody now wants," Mr. Peterson enthused. The "general consensus" to rebuild downtown is "a tremendously positive message to come out of the tragedy," he added.
In fact, that consensus is completely untested. The urge for new life has yet to confront the claims of the dead.
"Nobody's telling the families they can't have everything they want," Ms. Helfand observed. "Nobody's letting them know they have to back off." She is concerned that half the site, "a huge area," has already been fenced off. "I think there are some real questions about what level of influence the families should have, without saying they shouldn't be respected and there shouldn't be a memorial."
Even as this unwieldy, classically civic process stumbles to an uncertain climax, memorials continue to evolve spontaneously all over the city. Mementos and makeshift shrines ring ground zero; one merchant on Lower Broadway has preserved the racks of clothes he had in his window on Sept. 11, still singed and covered with ashes, in a plexiglass case on permanent display.
Nearby St. Paul's Chapel, used as a place of rest and respite by rescue workers in the months after the disaster, needed extensive repairs by the end of the operation. But restorers didn't touch the most moving memorial of those days: the deep scratches and gouges made by tool belts and equipment in the church's old wooden pews.
And workers have already begun the job of rebuilding, beginning with a beautiful, transparent fence around ground zero, designed explicitly to open the site fully to view: a temporary monument more meaningful than any granite memorial built for the ages could hope to be.
So the process itself - the challenge of dealing respectfully with so many deeply felt, conflicting demands - is the most powerful memorial New York can hope to show the world one year after the event. "This complexity requires thought," the AIA's Mr. Kiil said. It would be a tragedy to rush into mundane solutions, he added, predicting the deliberations could last years before they arrive "at the creation of a place."
In Queens and Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, at a seemingly endless series of public meetings, professional facilitators faithfully record every brilliant and every crackpot suggestion for the rebuilding and the memorial, respectfully gathering crude bristol-board diagrams of a shining new Gotham. Despite the simmering tensions and unresolved issues, all New Yorkers have surrendered almost fatalistically to their habitual optimism.
"I'm a believer in the city," Mr. Peterson said. "I believe it is inherently in the nature of the city to accommodate many different demands and functions at once. That's what it's all about."