Libeskind’s W.T.C. design needs to be fixed

By David Stanke

After the first W.T.C. design plans were public criticized, Downtown was in trouble. It was dying with no prospect for the start of rebuilding. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation brilliantly responded with a new round of plans that would be appealing enough to escape the brunt of public criticism. Daniel Libeskind played the design game brilliantly, designing something for every constituency. That allowed two important next steps to begin. First, modifications and enhancements can be worked out between the Port Authority and the various direct stakeholders, in preparation for future development. Second, part of the site, the 1776-foot building, can move quickly toward development. Much of this work can now go on outside of the spotlight of every self interest group in the nation. The Daniel Libeskind plan was the silver bullet that got the real work going. Opening up the possibility of more designs would be a disaster.

But now that we have had time to analyze and consider the prospects of life with this design as the centerpiece for Lower Manhattan, we can evaluate just what we have. Unfortunately, in designing a plan to push every hot button and to avoid criticism on any front, Libeskind also created a Trojan horse. In the belly of the landuse plan lays the pit, an empty six-acre hole specified to have no use except for mourning. And though this design was not part of a “memorial” competition, it has dramatically set the context for the form of the memorial. This pit is a costly and damaging void in the middle of our residential and commercial communities. It provides no value. It destroys the prospects for everything surrounding it, from retail on Church St. to any use of West St. It will also steal hope from every visitor for years.

The L.M.D.C. made another brilliant move by setting up an international design competition for the memorial, open to anyone. They then wisely select a panel of experts with few people directly affected by the event. As with a funeral, sometimes those less affected are best at making the important, long-term decisions. But, though experts are modifying every other aspect of the plan, the position of some within the L.M.D.C. is that the pit is too fundamental to be altered. This assumes that thousands of designers and the talented panel can not be trusted to come up with a better design for the memorial area than that selected by two politicians, a mayor and a governor. If this pit is so integral to the plan, let’s evaluate the other primary components of the design. Then we will understand which are real, which might actually be implemented, and which can be changed.

Start with the commercial buildings. The semi-circular formation of buildings encircling the memorial park is a fundamental design principle. The surrounding buildings essentially define the context of the pit. But two of the buildings are on property that may not even be available for “W.T.C.” development. The Deutsche Bank building is about to be wrapped in a Libeskind banner, not a sign that the building will be razed. And will the parking lot at West and Liberty be transferred to the Port Authority to hold the final building of the design?

The underground mall in the plan is not the underground mall we had in One W.T.C. It is multiple levels of mall space compressed in the smaller east side of the site. As Westfield, the retail tenant, has pointed out, the more levels of retail space, the less desirable for tenants and useful for shoppers it becomes. Westfield has sued, I presume for design changes to make the retail space more desirable.

A frequent criticism of W.T.C. I was that the 5-acre plaza was uninviting and unusable. Other than wind and weather problems, the plaza was far more inviting as public space than what is provided in the Libeskind plan. The 6-acre space for the memorial, museum and cultural center space is unusable and uninviting because it is 30 feet below ground. The other open space, the Wedge of Light park, is diminutive once Fulton St. is completed through the park. To consider the extent of the failure to provide public space, consider where would you stage an open concert in Libeskind’s 16 acres.

The plan was to revitalize the street life on the 16 acres and surrounding areas. Street life is fostered when an area is accessible from all directions and supports a critical mass of usable space. To provide accessibility, the expensive undertaking of burying part of West St. is proposed. But after crossing calm, beautiful West Boulevard, a walker will hit a 6-acre, impassable barrier that must be circumvented to get to transportation, shops, or any location east of Greenwich St. The 30-foot deep memorial park provides a dead stop in place of accessibility. Most of Liberty, Vesey, West and Greenwich Sts. will have activity on only one side of the street. The retail businesses on Church St. have already complained that the dense row of buildings between Church and Greenwich backing up on the pit will damage their business.

Next consider the symbolism so integral to the plan and key to avoiding opposition from the 9/11 coalition. The exposed walls are declared to symbolize the enduring strength of democracy. Now democracy is a universally wonderful concept, but how do the walls recall or reflect the notion of democracy? The bathtub walls bore no symbolism of Democracy until one man stood up confidently in a room full of people seeking a W.T.C. vision and said they did. In reality, the bathtub walls would have collapsed if not for the rubble that held them in place.

The “Wedge of Light” symbolism is also an illusion of smoke, or shall we say shadows, and mirrors. The theoretical concept has no visual reality. It is simply an intellectual curiosity to appeal to sentimentality. With a shadow cast on the wedge of light, we are left with a simple triangle park, or more realistically, a pedestrian funnel into the transportation hub. To be fair, the Wedge of Light does hold important symbolism. It symbolizes the whole plan in which nothing is quite as it seems.

But now that this Trojan horse has arrived, we need to engage in hand to hand combat to mold it into something that does not destroy the city. The key pieces are there, but it must become the functional, beautiful heart and soul for Downtown. The W.T.C. needs to support business, retail, residential, and remembrance needs. It needs an open memorial park at ground level with above and below grade access from East to West and North to South through the 6-acre memorial area. We need a memorial that lifts our spirits, created by a memorial process freed from the constraint of a 30-foot pit.

The Libeskind design survived because there was no compelling vision able to defuse the overwhelming grief inherent in the site. But that, after all, is the job of the memorial panel and international design competition. They must find the symbolism that lets us experience our grief, but also deliver us from it.

The L.M.D.C. should respect the integrity and wisdom of their own process for designing the site. Set the designers of the open competition and the memorial panel free with the 6 acres. The panel should understand all of the emotions surrounding the site and all of the needs of the space. Only then can they make their decision and put the heart and soul into the W.T.C. and bring Downtown back to life. Only they can bring the Trojan horse to life.

David Stanke owns a condominium across the street from the W.T.C. site and is one of the founders of BPC United.


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