In New York, we have a pretty terrible record when it comes to major urban building projects. Over the last century, the only one that might rightly be hailed as a universal success is Rockefeller Center. Our most prominent architectural collaborations—the UN, Lincoln Center, JFK—have been compromised affairs. Because they are ours, because they have become a part of our urban fabric and our daily lives, we have come to love them (or at least parts of them), in their flawed glory. The World Trade Center, so often a target of critical ire in its early and even later years, was similarly adopted by New Yorkers. It is both unfortunate and utterly predictable that what is now rising in its place is, like its predecessor, a compromise that we must to learn to appreciate. There is no escaping the fact that it is very much a commercial development.
I review the state of the site as it is now in the October issue of the Architectural Review. An excerpt from that piece follows, though I encourage you to check out the entire issue, which has relaunched with a new design, new features, and stories by the likes of Peter Cook, William Curtis, Joseph Rykwert, and Tony Vidler.
At the heart of the site is Michael Arad’s memorial, dramatically different in final execution than in his competition-winning design entry. That original proposal sensibly wiped the site clear of Libeskind’s intrusions, restored the memorial plaza to street level, and placed a pair of reflecting pools at the footprints of the destroyed towers. The memorial spaces were to be in bunkers beneath these pools—‘removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness’—with the names of the dead inscribed on parapets facing veils of water cascading down into square basins.
Arad’s underground chambers were fatally flawed from the outset—too claustrophobic; a logistical and security nightmare—but at least they offered something of the terrible sublime. As it is, they have been jettisoned altogether, and his reflecting pools now sit amidst a pleasant grid of white oaks specified by landscape architect Peter Walker, who was brought in to reduce the severity of the proceedings. The names of the dead, set in a modified version of Optima, line the rim of the pools, stencil-cut into bronze panels so they can be backlit at night. The effect is impressive but somewhat gimmicky, lacking in the authoritative permanence of carved stone.
The enormity of Arad’s black granite volumes, the whoosh of so much tumbling water, and the inherent gravity of the site confer significant and undeniable power. As works of art, they are a bit too literal for comfort—they do not possess the ineffable quality of, say, a Richard Serra—and their force will be at least somewhat undercut by the crowds who will gather along their waist-high parapets, an endless parade of mourners, gawkers, and camera-wielding tourists gazing down, rather than up (as logic might dictate). The shifting human spectacle, ever visible across the basins, will make solitary reflection a challenge—quite a change from the promised removal from the ‘sights and sounds of the city’.