horizontal line

After the World Trade Center: The Struggle to Make a City for Our Time

Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
May 6th, 2004

Good evening. I’m going to talk tonight about a subject that doesn’t seem, on the surface, to have anything to do with Cincinnati, which of course is the question of what we are doing in New York as we struggle with the sixteen-and-a-half acres that the world now knows as Ground Zero. I’m doing that not to be New York-centric, which I actually try very hard not to be when I travel around, but because this is a question that truly transcends New York, and tells us a lot about what we want our cities to be in the twenty-first century, and what kind of a job we are doing, so far, about making them. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the first great urban design challenge of the twenty-first century, and it belongs to all of us, New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike, since never in any of our lifetimes has any city, at least any American city, faced a situation like this one. The closest comparison, I think it is fair to say, is the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, but even though the World Trade Center resembles Oklahoma City in its suddenness, in its awfulness, and in the wanton disregard for human life that it represented, it is different in the nature of the problem it presents to us as architects and urban designers.

It is different not only because what happened in New York was bigger by far than the tragedy in Oklahoma City and tore apart not a building but a whole section of the city, as well as resulting in the destruction of one of the most famous symbols of New York, and indeed of America. But neither was the destruction of the World Trade Center like the devastation of whole sections of cities in Europe during World War II, though it resembles those in scope. I have often compared Ground Zero to Potsdamer Platz in the center of Berlin, although in truth, that is not entirely the same, either, because New York’s catastrophe happened in an instant, and no one was prepared for it the way the citizens of Europe knew that they were targets in wartime. The truth is that we have had nothing in our recent history to prepare us for this, for the implications of rebuilding a whole quadrant of a major city – more to the point, about the implications of having our city, which we think of as growing organically, slowly over time, suddenly blown apart. I want to think about that for a moment, because there is a critical thing here in the way in which all of us, but particularly those of us who are concerned with historic preservation, perceive the city.

The city is not supposed to be subject to cataclysmic change. When something on the skyline is removed, the expected order of things is that it is being replaced, relatively slowly, by something bigger. We historic preservationists may not like this urban Darwinism, and may often believe that it is wrong, but on some level we nonetheless have counted on the certainty of the notion that the skyline really did operate with a kind of Darwinian order, the survival of the fittest – the bigger things on the skyline would always drive out the smaller ones, and while we certainly did not always think that this meant that the skyline was inevitably getting better, we tended to make a peace with it. But on September 11th , of course, we experienced something else – cataclysmic, instantaneous change, and the biggest things suddenly became the most vulnerable. It turned the entire order of this organic skyline upside down.

I am talking about the skyline because it has become very clear to me that while the horrendous loss of life is of course first and foremost in peoples’ minds, the affection that people had for the skyline follows pretty closely behind. People really did care about the skyline as an object. They did not see it only as the sum total of the buildings. They saw it as a thing unto itself, and it was the violation of that thing that has so shaken people, including many – myself included – who did not necessarily feel any great affection for the World Trade Center towers themselves as objects of architecture.

We face, now, the question of making the city whole – whole both vertically, in terms of the skyline, and horizontally, in terms of neighborhood and Lower Manhattan and the trade center site specifically. I’m going to talk about the complex business of trying to do this, and I don’t want to spend our limited time on the aesthetics of the skyline, so let me say only how struck I am by the paradox that the hugeness of the trade center towers, which in the nineteen-seventies itself seemed to represent the utter destruction of the skyline, is now what people miss most of all. What was demonized is now what is mourned. Some of this, of course, is the result of the horrific circumstances of their destruction: these are our first skyscraper martyrs, and that changes everything about how they are perceived. Indeed, I think, looking back at the short life of the World Trade Center, that there were three distinct phases to my perception of them, and maybe to yours as well. The first phase we could call Resentment: what was this thing, or this pair of things, doing here, so big, so banal, so unthinkably intrusive, all the more insulting because it is taking away the title of tallest building that everyone knows rightfully belongs to the Empire State Building. Then came the second phase, which we could call Acceptance, or perhaps Grudging Acceptance, coming from, first, a recognition that we can get used to anything, and that in the case of architecture we had better get used to it because unlike a work of art or literature or music that we don’t like, we have to see a work of architecture every day. Acceptance was heightened in the case of the twin towers because there was also a recognition that these buildings did have a certain value as minimalist sculpture. The boxy forms played off well against each other, since one of the few things the architect Minoru Yamasaki did was to place them correctly vis-ˆ-vis one another, not side-by-side but with the corners almost but not exactly touching. And their facades were largely of metal, not glass, and that meant that they did wonderful things in the light; they reflected the warm sunlight of dawn and dusk especially well, but at all times they shimmered, and their texture gave them a kind of richness that people did come to value. The twin towers had a weird mix of delicacy and bombast, and tended to appear fragile and overbearing at the same time, which is a very strange combination of qualities in a single building. Since they were the tallest things around, they also functioned as a kind of campanile, an enormous bell tower, two bell towers actually, in Lower Manhattan, and I think people valued them for this. They became a kind of orienting device, and that, too, was critical to what we are calling the Acceptance phase of the twin towers’ short life.

But nothing in this Acceptance phase reached the level of Admiration, at least not for me or for most people. But then came the final phase, one that, of course, we could never have been prepared for, the phase of Martyrdom. We are not accustomed to thinking of buildings as martyrs – perhaps Pennsylvania Station was a sort of martyr to historic preservation, the building that died that others might live, since it galvanized the historic preservation movement in New York and, indeed, in the United States, and led to the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. But we do not associate even that building with loss of life, only with loss of architecture. The World Trade Center is now inexplicably bound up in a whole set of other values that martyrdom embraces – if you doubt it, look at the sidewalk vendors all over New York who are still, fifteen months later, selling pictures of the twin towers the way they used to sell pictures of Malcolm X or John F. Kennedy. All of this has put this building, so little respected by architectural historians and critics during its lifetime, essentially out of the range of architectural criticism. Martyrs, after all, are beyond criticism. I suspect that Joan of Arc was not a very nice lady, but you will not hear anyone ever say that. And no one dares say that any more the World Trade Center was not a very nice building.

I should point out, if I can go off on another tangent that relates somewhat to the notion of these buildings as martyrs, that the World Trade Center, both for the terrorists who attacked it and for the people who mourn it, symbolized modernity. The reason that the terrorists did not go after the Empire State Building, I am convinced, is not only because they did not see the Empire State Building as representing the same kind of financial might, but also because it did not seem modern. The trade center, whatever we as architects and critics and preservationists might have thought of it, advertised the promise of modernity to the world. The fact that many of us thought there could be a better advertisement is beside the point. To most of the world, these towers represented the modernist idea, in its most perfect, most fully realized form. And since to the attackers, modernity was an evil that has to be abolished, the towers, as the ultimate symbol of modernity, were the ultimate target.

Now, they are mourned, and they are beloved – most of all, as I said, because of the loss of life and the horrific events with which they will forever be associated; like human martyrs, the World Trade Center looms larger in death than it did in life. But the new associations people have with these buildings have to change the way in which we think of modernity. It is now, more than ever before, American. It has now come to stand for the life that we want to protect, as much as the Capitol and the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial. Modern architecture has never been intimately tied into the identity of this country, but it is now. The terrorists have managed to do what no architect, no architecture critic, no preservationists have yet been able to do, which is to make this country, this culture, cherish a piece of modern architecture and think of it as representing the national ideals. I think Maya Lin may have come about the closest to doing that in the Vietnam Memorial, but even that was compromised by the addition, against her wishes, of a figurative sculpture because the opponents of her design insisted that no abstraction could possibly succeed in representing the deep emotions and high ideals of a memorial. Now, our most emotionally-laden symbol is what is, in many ways, our most abstract one of all – the stark, plain, simple nineteen-sixties boxes of Yamasaki.

While the towers were, as I’ve said, among other things the largest pieces of minimalist sculpture in the world, I would hope that our current wave of emotion doesn’t carry us to the point of elevating the degree of architectural imagination or subtlety that these buildings possessed. We don’t need to start thinking that they were better than the Seagram Building. But I do want to think about the meaning of that new role, since, as I said, it changes the context in which everyone now looks at modernity. Modern architecture has often been viewed as something of – well, if not an evil force, then, by the average American at least, as largely a dull thing, often cold and institutional, certainly not warm and nurturing, and also as representing complex, contradictory forces – the forces of technology and those of business, which people tended to embrace or at least accept, and also the forces of homogeneity and banality and relentless growth, which were not so positive. But now modernity takes on a new aspect, that of cultural symbol, less an unstoppable force than it is a tragic victim of events set in motion by others outside this country. Modernity as victim: that is surely something new, something altogether unexpected by any critic, modernist or not, in the years of debate of modernism’s role. And these forces have made modernity more a symbol of our culture than even modernists had necessarily ever intended it to be.

This hardly means that people will run around embracing modern buildings, and feeling protective of them. Things don’t work that simply. There is no automatic extension of the trade center’s iconic status to other modern buildings. But I do think, still, that the context is now different. I hope the fact that we now have a modernist icon in the American pantheon of landmarks, a symbol of patriotism along with buildings like the White House and the Capitol and the Washington Monument, has to have some effect. Perhaps it will make us more sympathetic to the increasing issue of modern landmarks, and if so, that can only be positive, since more and more often now, the tough landmarks battles are not over Victorian or Edwardian or Colonial buildings, but over modern ones.

Let me begin to make my way back to the question of Lower Manhattan and where we go from here by saying one more thing about the skyline. The fact is that, for all that the twin towers were considered to be an unwelcome intrusion into the skyline when they were first planned in the nineteen-sixties, their absence now does not put back the skyline we once had, and long mourned. The rest of the skyline has changed dramatically over the years since the trade center towers were built, from being a series of slender points in the sky to being more defined by massive boxes, buildings with huge floor plates rather than great height, which collectively served to turn the skyline into a continuous blur of mass, not a series of romantic points. Once it had evolved into this blurred mass, it sort of needed the trade center towers to up the ante, and keep some sense of projections into the sky. I never imagined that I would think of the skyline as dull without the trade center, but that is exactly what it now is, since what we see today is not the skyline of 1968 which didn’t need the trade center, but the skyline of 2001, which strangely enough turned out to need it very much.

As I said, we have nothing in our experience to prepare us for the job of making the city whole right now. We have never dealt with trauma on this scale. Paradoxically, I think that other ages, which we mistakenly think of as having been more stable, were probably better prepared to cope than we are, because they were more accustomed to catastrophe. There were horrendous fires, floods, plagues, riots – not just in the Middle Ages but in New York and other cities in this country a hundred and two hundred years ago, and for all we tend to think of the builders of the great architecture of the past as having built with a kind of permanence in mind, and for all we mourn our seeming inability to take the long view, I wonder if that was really true. Or maybe they built with permanence in mind because they felt it was morally right to do so, even as they knew that anything could happen, and quite possibly would. We, on the other hand, have built flimsily, as if we did not expect things to last – but in fact we have expected everything to last, everything to be stable and permanent, and we believed, at least before September 11th, that we were safe from utter catastrophe.

In any event, we know now that we were not safe at all, and we now face the problem of what to do. And the question of a new skyline is not anything remotely like a question of aesthetics or style. In a way, it consists of three separate parts, each of which is itself daunting: first, the question of process, or exactly how decisions are going to be made and how they should be made; second, the question of program, or what will be on this site; and third, the question of architecture, or what physical form the new structures will take.

The good news about this process is that everybody seems to care; everybody wants to get involved. The bad news about this process is that everybody seems to care, everybody wants to get involved. The public passions here are both encouraging and awful, since the process has become so unbelievably complicated, and I can give you a quick sense of why this is so by merely telling you some of the players. There is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a vast bureaucracy in itself, which built the World Trade Center and continues to own the land. There is the private developer, Larry Silverstein, to whom the Port Authority leased the towers only a few weeks before September 11th, and for a while there was another private developer, Westfield America, a mall owner, which leased the retail space in a separate transaction, but has recently been bought out of the picture. So we already have a private owner leasing property from a public agency, or rather, a sort-of-public, sort-of-private agency. And then we have the State of New York, which controls the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which Governor Pataki formed to oversee rebuilding, and there you can already see the beginning of the problem – the special agency that is supposed to control the process of rebuilding doesn’t actually own or control the land. Another public authority does, but it doesn’t completely control it either, since it leased it to a private developer, who no longer actually has anything, since what he had was destroyed, but who has leases and contracts which he believes obligates him to rebuild. Then we have the insurance companies, that as I am sure you have read have been fighting in court over the amount they will have to pay, which is at least three-and-a-half billion dollars. They have won the court cases so far, which isn’t good for Larry Silverstein, since the proceeds of insurance are the only real money he has to rebuild commercial space. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the Battery Park City Authority, another state agency which owns Battery Park City, the huge residential and commercial development on landfill just west of the trade center site, and the state department of transportation, which oversees West Street, the six-lane road, a highway really, that divides Battery Park City from Ground Zero, and the New York City Department of Transportation, which is in charge of the city streets that surround Ground Zero.

That’s not all the players, either. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in charge of the subways that run underneath it, except for the PATH trains to New Jersey, which are controlled by the Port Authority. I have not mentioned one other governmental agency, the Federal government, which so far has not said too much about what it wants to see happen, but which controls a lot of the money that will pay for it. And I should point out, just to make it even more complex, that because of the unusual nature of the Port Authority, which is a bi-state agency controlled by the governors of New York and New Jersey, we have the unusual situation in which the governor of New Jersey technically has more say over what will happen at Ground Zero than the Mayor of New York. Don’t think that the governor of New Jersey doesn’t know that. But we still have a strong mayor, and one who has figured out some ways to flex his muscles as regards Ground Zero. And then, of course, there are all of the various private constituencies – the family members of those who died on September 11th, who are themselves comprised of many groups, such as firemen’s widows, policemen’s widows, husbands, wives, parents and children of office workers. There are also the residents of Lower Manhattan who have been severely affected by the events of 9/11, and who will be severely affected by anything that is built there. There are office workers, and tourists. And then there is everyone else, since as I said, everyone believes that they have a stake in the future of this piece of land.

Given all of this, is it any surprise that things have not been smooth? There is no road map for this one, no prior experience to tell us what to do. But we have come up with something, as all of you know, and it is better than it might have been, although it is hard to be completely enthusiastic about it. The biggest problem, I think, is that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation wasn’t really an independent organization; its partner was the Port Authority, which decided it wanted to make sure that it kept on earning money from this land, and saw it primarily as a profit-making piece of real estate, as it had been before. The one person who might have had the power to tell the Port Authority to act differently, Governor Pataki, did not seem inclined to do so. And so the Port Authority ended up calling most of the shots, forcing the hand of the LMDC and insisting that it only prepare plans that replace all ten million square feet of office space that was lost, and plan to build even more retail space than was destroyed. While the plans also include space for a memorial, it has often seemed that the memorial was a token – not the driving force of the plan, less the engine than the caboose. Despite everything that had happened, the official program for the site – the prescription for what functions should go on it – was at that point pretty much what had been there before the terrorists destroyed the towers. It just wasn’t in the form of a pair of hundred-and-ten-story buildings.

Probably many of you remember the awful first iteration of this project, when the LMDC released six initial study schemes for Ground Zero in July of 2002, which were really more like six variations on a single scheme, every one of them looking pretty much like a bunch of medium-sized office towers around a little memorial park, and it was not much of a surprise that they were roundly denounced by the public. This mattered, a lot more than you would think, because the one thing I forgot to tell you is that the Governor and everyone else involved in the process had pledged, in the heat of the emotion following the destruction of the trade center towers, that they would embark on an open, public process to re-plan the city. I’m not sure that this was more because the Governor was conscious of the powerful symbolic importance of this site, or because it was an election year, but in any event, this pledge turned out to have saved the day, because when the public reaction was so devastating, the planners were forced to shift direction, at least somewhat. The Governor didn’t dare say, ÔOh, I didn’t mean it when I said we would listen to the public’ – at least not in an election year.

In New York since 9/11 we have spent incalculable amounts of time holding forums and public hearings and symposiums and panels, and some of them have been relatively empty exercises in blowing off steam. One of these events, however, turned out to be incredible, so much so that I would be tempted to call it a turning point not only in the story of the World Trade Center, but in American planning in general. It was something called "Listening to the City," and it was held at the Javits Convention Center in July of 2002, co-sponsored by the LMDC and the Regional Plan Association, a civic group, and nearly five thousand people showed up to express their views. It was all done with modern interactive technology – people sat at round tables in groups of ten, and they all had buttons to press indicating their approval or disapproval of various schemes, and the technology also gave them ways to express their priorities. This is where the infamous six schemes met their death, I would say. It was a stunning moment – thousands and thousands of citizens talking seriously about urban design is something I never thought I would see, and having them exercise this kind of judgment, demanding more vision, more boldness, something more special and less banal and less like business as usual – for that was how you could sum up the message of the day – was pretty incredible. Here, you had citizens telling public officials that they weren’t showing enough boldness, that they were too cautious in what they had planned. We have become, I think, so reactive and not pro-active in our planning, so defensive, so hesitant to think boldly, and here were citizens saying it was time to be pro-active again.

Now, everybody had a different idea of what should be done at that point. The deputy mayor in charge of economic development floated the idea of buying out the Port Authority altogether, and putting the site back into the control of the city. Architects said listen to architects, that the problem was that the architectural community didn’t have enough input. While it is true that the architectural community didn’t have much input at the beginning, it’s also true that when they tried to, such as in the form of a much-talked about exhibition at a local gallery during the winter, they ended up looking either opportunistic, or clueless, or both. If you start with architects, you just get a bunch of their favorite shapes. This may seem like heresy for an architecture critic to say, but you don’t start with architects. You start with some sort of consensus about what it is you want to do with a piece of land, and then you call in architects.

The more sophisticated people inside the Lower Manhattan Development were secretly relieved that everything turned into such a mess last July, even though it looked like a huge defeat, since it meant that they had a public mandate to re-think the program for the site, and maybe beat back the Port Authority somewhat. At the end of the summer, however, the LMDC issued a new call to architects, with a program that unfortunately was almost exactly the same as the original one; perhaps the more important thing is that this time the LMDC invited architects from all over the world to participate, and indicated an interest in hearing from and listening to the most talented architects around. They got 407 submissions, and chose six teams – among them Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, a team including Skidmore Owings & Merrill and several younger firms, another team including Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier, Steven Holl and Peter Eisenman; a group that called itself THINK, led by Rafael Vinoly, and another team made up primarily of younger architects.

You all know, I think, what happened after this point. Even though this was not supposed to be a formal competition, it more or less turned into one, and in December of 2002 the teams submitted their proposals for master plans. Daniel Libeskind and Vinoly’s team were selected as finalists, and Libeskind’s plan won in early 2003. The Libeskind plan had as its centerpiece two key things. He depressed the area around the original World Trade Center foundations, and exposed the slurry wall that had survived the attacks – the concrete retaining wall – as a symbol of survival, and as a kind of ruin. He proposed a huge tower in his characteristic style of angular, crystalline, quartz-like forms, that would rise to 1,776 feet, and serve as the culminating point in a series of five towers spiraling upwards. And he included a series of cultural buildings and a new transportation center.

It was a good plan, because it took as its basis the belief that it is not possible to design this site as an ordinary commercial site, and it is not possible to design it solely as a commemorative site, but that the architectural challenge is somehow to weave all of this together, in every aspect of the site. It will never be ordinary, and it shouldn’t be. There is a paradox to building at Ground Zero, which I think Libeskind understood more instinctively than any other architect. It is this: Is it morally right to rebuild at all, however well we do it, as if nothing had happened? Or is it morally right for the city to show scars? Is the most perfect redevelopment wrong merely by being perfect, in other words? Should it somehow show us the pain, the enormity, of what happened there? But of course if it shows us the pain too clearly, too evidently, it cannot function easily or well as a place in which city life, that precious urban life that the terrorists wanted to extinguish, can go on. This is the paradox around which the issue centers, and Libeskind did the best at figuring out a way around it. We want to celebrate ordinary urban life here, and yet we know that to make it too ordinary is wrong. We want streets and cafes and public space – streets most of all – since they were taken away not by the act of destroying the World Trade Center, but by the act of creating it in the first place. But how do do this and keep the sense of awe that is so necessary? I feel that at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, by the way, which has been redeveloped by excellent architects, including Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn, and yet has a kind of dullness to it, a conventional feeling that has none of the power the place had before, when it was a void in the heart of the city.

On some level, this land will never be ordinary, whatever use we eventually choose to make of it. It will always be an extraordinary piece of the earth, even if we should choose to put back the commercial functions that were there before, and I wonder if we are not being wrong in separating so completely the functions of hallowed ground, of sacred and special space, and of ordinary, routine, go-about-your-daily-business space. It may be that our culture creates too rigid and arbitrary a divide between sacred and everyday space – after all, the great cathedrals of Europe were also marketplaces, community centers, focal points for every part of urban life, and the spiritual was woven in and out of that, and I wonder if there is not a lesson in this.

Here, I think, we have not only the opportunity, we have the obligation to try to find a new way to synthesize the awesome and the everyday. What will save Lower Manhattan, in the end, will not only be things that are honorific and great and emphasize that this is a place like none other, but also things that emerge out of the forces that were at play in this neighborhood on September 10th – which is to say more housing, more cultural facilities, more open space for everyday use, more restaurants. The neighborhood has been evolving in the direction of mixed use, away from being a pure financial center, for the last generation. The only possible future for Lower Manhattan has to incorporate a continuation of this evolution. Just as the neighborhood cannot only be a financial center – that is a whole other discussion, but there is no possibility that it will ever again function as solely a financial center, or as the inevitable place for financial businesses in the region – anyway, just as Lower Manhattan cannot only be a financial center, it cannot only be a place of commemoration, either. A good part of its salvation, in the end, will come in continuing in the directions in which it was going on September 10th.

All of that said, the Libeskind plan has not exactly had smooth sailing. In fact, it has been something of a nightmare for all concerned. Larry Silverstein insisted that David Childs of Skidmore, his preferred architect, design the tower, which Governor Pataki dubbed the Freedom Tower and decided should move ahead on a fast enough track so that the groundbreaking could occur during the Republican National Convention at the end of this summer. It’s so nice to know there is no political element to the planning process, isn’t it. Childs and Libeskind were told to collaborate, but they did not want to work together, and it has been a mess. They worked on it through the fall of last year, and in December unveiled a design that – well, the fairest thing to say about it is that it doesn’t represent the best work of either one of them. You don’t ask Matisse and Picasso to paint a picture jointly, in my view.

And at the same time the LMDC was holding a competition to design a memorial, since Libeskind’s plan, technically, only included a "setting" for a memorial, not a memorial itself, even though the sunken area with its exposed slurry wall was such a powerful statement that it seemed, at one point, to have all but been a memorial. The competition is a story in itself – 5,701 entries, the largest number in the history of architectural competitions; an unusually sophisticated jury that happened, unfortunately, to not much like the Libeskind plan, and encouraged the selection of a winning design, announced in January, by an architect named Michael Arad who openly defied the Libeskind plan and raised the sunken area that Libeskind had made his centerpiece. Arad, with his collaborator the landscape architect Peter Walker, has sunken only the footprints of the original towers, and brought the rest of the area up to street level.

Libeskind, or at least his plan, has been under siege. It definitely provides the outline of what will happen at Ground Zero, but it has been compromised and eaten away at from all sides. The cultural buildings, too, have changed somewhat from his original suggestions for them. Libeskind himself, it should be pointed out, has not yet gotten a commission to design a building at Ground Zero. He is the collaborating architect on the Freedom Tower, but it is really Childs’s, or Skidmore’s, building. The Port Authority had control over the transportation center, and it gave that commission to Santiago Calatrava – not a bad idea, and Calatrava’s extravaganza, which looks sort of like the new Milwaukee Art Museum, is the one thing proposed for Ground Zero so far that everyone seems to like. But at this point we have no real idea what will happen with the commercial aspect of the project. It looks like the Freedom Tower will go ahead, since there is enough insurance money for that at least, but the other buildings are uncertain, as is Larry Silverstein’s continued participation.

I have to say that there is an eerie aspect to the Freedom Tower, which is the notion of the world’s tallest building going up on this site even though there is no strong economic reason for doing it, but it is being pushed ahead fast because a powerful governor of New York wants to see it happen and will put state offices in it if there are not enough commercial tenants – you don’t have to know a lot of history to know that we have seen this movie before; it is the story of Nelson Rockefeller and the original World Trade Center.

I desperately hope that the Ground Zero story isn’t only a story of our failure to learn from history. We have certainly learned from history in terms of urban design; there is a broad, general consensus about putting back streets onto the site, and avoiding the superblock mentality that drove the original scheme. Westfield, the retail developer, withdrew largely because its insistence on building a conventional mall was at odds with everyone else’s vision, including all the public officials, who really believed that street-oriented retail was a healthier alternative to the city. And the planners have always been insistent on a mix of cultural facilities and improved transportation access as parts of the plan.

So we have learned something. But I don’t know that we have learned enough. The program, as I said, is still more or less the same one that there was originally. For all the talk of public participation, there was never any real public involvement in programming, in figuring out what to do with the site, only with the configuration of a master plan. So 99 percent of the ideas that were put out by interested, eager parties after 9/11 were irrelevant, because they didn’t follow the Port Authority’s commercial program. There was never any serious investigation of housing on the site, which is a real loss, because that is what there is a demand for in Lower Manhattan far more than anything else right now. Even the Mayor wants it. But the Port Authority doesn’t, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was not authorized by the governor to go against the Port Authority’s wishes.

I have been very discouraged a lot of the time, although having said that, I should quote something Alex Garvin, the LMDC’s former vice president of planning and design, said a while back at a forum on this whole process. "Lower Manhattan will evolve much the way that I think the American Constitution evolved," he said, "out of the realities of the situation and tug of war among very, very disparate interests. In both cases these interests had the same objective. At the birth of our Republic it was to adopt a constitution. Today, it is to put back the city and put it back as quickly and as well as possible."

Alas, I’m not sure we have the contemporary equivalents of John Adams and James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson at work here, but it is hard not to hope that history bears out the rightness of this metaphor. Maybe it’s too hopeful, even na-ve. But it also brings up another question, which is the extent to which planning should, in fact, be democratic. Will the democratic process actually give us the best scheme? I am all for public participation, but I don’t know that I agree that planning can be left to popular referendum.

I come back, in the end, to paradox. We need to combine the awesome and the everyday here, and that is not easy. We need to be bold, and we need to be populist, and those things do not always go together. We need to make a new place, and we need to connect and enhance the old. But difficult as all of these things are, if you think about it, they are part of the art of citybuilding, and always have been. The real truth of Ground Zero is not that it is different from the challenges we have always faced when building cities – it is just more so. Ground Zero is where our dreams and realities meet, with greater intensity than ever before, and where I hope they will ultimately come together.

horizontal line