Viewpoint (August 01, 2002)

The first anniversary of the fall of the World Trade Center is fast approaching. Six rebuilding schemes for the area, all titled with the word “memorial” (Memorial Plaza, Memorial Triangle, Memorial Square, Memorial Garden, Memorial Park and Memorial Promenade) have met with consternation and disapproval from several camps. For instance, there are objections to the inclusion, in all of these plans, of at least one edifice that would be 130-odd feet higher than were the WTC’s twin towers. According to a July 17, 2002 report in the New York Daily News, the Port Authority’s ownership and leasing agreement with developer Larry Silverstein and partners oblige it to rebuild every lost square foot of commercial space. At the very least, the business-as-usual philosophy deployed in these proposals undermines the wishes of the families of the victims, who had requested that 16 acres of the site be devoted to memorial space. New York Governor George Pataki has vowed to preserve the footprints of the felled towers, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calls for more than the 10 acres proposed by architects Beyer Blinder Belle.

While improved transportation, cultural facilities and residential space will revitalize an area that many hope will become a 24-hour city-within-a-city, the tension between America’s driving capital interests and the wish to render sacred and hallowed the scene of such devastation points up a more profound moral question about how we use the built environment. What is the role of architects in rebuilding this politically charged urban space? To what extent is the practice of architecture accountable to the tide of political and cultural identity, the historical marking of an important tragedy, the need to interrogate the way Western culture uses urban space and the interventions that build the character of the community, the city, or the country? Is the business-as-usual stoicism heard on September 12, 2001 poised to become the diktat of America’s urban plans?

Clearly, the WTC site’s real estate is far too valuable to remain commercially dormant. That’s a hard fact, and it is cemented in the value accorded to private interests by the most powerful nation on Earth. The plans for the rebuilding of this site suggested by Robert Venturi, writing earlier this year in Metropolis magazine (April 8, 2002), offer a sobering contrast, retaining the dense empty space on the site–in fact, they ensure the absence of expensive, income-producing buildings. His scheme proposes modesty, characterized on the surface by thinking about the site as a traditional civic park. By day, the hole would be visible and would be surrounded by name-inscribed fragments. From afar, on the skyline, the glaring absence of the towers would also remain. At night, two vertical beams of light would project skyward from the open space, rising to the approximate height of the fallen towers. A remembrance monument to those who died would thus be realized in the poignancy of ruins and fragments, reminiscent of the Romantic tradition of the 18th century English garden.

The light beams’ visibility all over the greater New York City region, rising from among the density of Lower Manhattan’s buildings, would also deliver a powerful remembrance, a tribute to the tragedy’s victims. The two diaphanous beams are a ghostly broadcast of silence that marks the skyline with powerful yet subdued monumentality rather than our normal expectation for such a prime location–the workaday buildings and forces of relentless commerce and enterprise that contribute to our conflicted modern condition. Nyla Matuk