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Ground Zero Ten Years Later: What Have We Wrought?

Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University
September 12th, 2011

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure as well as an honor to be here with you today, marking the passing of a decade since the extraordinary and horrifying events of September 11th, 2001. For ten years now, simply stating this date—September 11th, or even shorter still, 9/11—has been a way of calling to mind cataclysmic events of a sort we did not ever expect to experience in our lives, here, in the United States, in the twenty-first century.

But we did experience them, they did happen, and for some time now it has been more or less a commonplace to say that our lives, and the world, were forever transformed by what happened on September 11th across the Hudson River from here. Indeed, pointing this out now seems almost trite. Of course the world is different. And of course New York City is different. How could it not be, when its tallest buildings disappeared in an instant, when the strongest things suddenly became the most vulnerable—when the entire Darwinian equation of the city, in which bigger, taller buildings always seemed to prevail over smaller, shorter ones—was turned upside down. The biggest buildings suddenly became the weakest. And even those of us who were fortunate enough not to have lost family members or loved ones in this tragedy were profoundly shaken by the loss of a skyline that many people realized for the first time was a treasured possession in itself, an accidental profile made up of an agglomeration of different buildings that came together to become, to everyone’s surprise, a truly beloved thing. It was a thing that we had always expected to see, and counted on, trusting that if it changed, it would change gradually, in bits and pieces. And then suddenly it was ripped apart in a single instant.

Until it was torn apart, many people didn’t realize how much they considered the skyline a basic part of the physical background of their lives; like rivers or mountains or the beach, it was supposed to be there. It wasn’t fixed, of course, the way a mountain or a river is—or the way we thought of rivers before Irene, I guess I could say. But while we knew that the skyline would change, we expected it to change slowly, gradually, and inevitably in the direction of adding bigger pieces to it. It showed that it was dynamic and living by doing what living things usually do, which is to grow—not to be blown apart, as it was ten years ago.

I know that the events of 9/11 had an effect on some people’s lives that is greater than most of us can understand—those people who lost family members had a different experience, and a different set of challenges going forward, than everyone else. What I want to talk about today isn’t the loss of individual lives, even though I think we would all agree that this is the most important thing of all, and transcends all other discussion. But the terrorists on September 11th were not only trying to kill individuals. They wanted also to attack urban life, and all that means, and can mean, in the twenty-first century. The life that New York City represents—the world of a lively, healthy, open, diverse city, where people meet each other and do business and make their own choices about how they want to live and what they want to do—this idea of contemporary urban life was the target as much as any individual people.

That’s why I never believed that the right thing to do was to turn the entire site into a memorial, to make commemoration the sole purpose of those sixteen acres. To call it sacred ground is understandable, but it was always wrong to consider it sacred ground in the same way that the Gettysburg Battlefield, say, is sacred ground, or Arlington Cemetery, or dozens of other places that, for proper reasons, we would never in a million years consider building on. Ground Zero, however, is in the middle of the greatest and most important city in the nation—and, as I said, the everyday life of that city was the target of the terrorists every bit as much as were the thousands of individual lives that were lost. That life, that precious everyday life, had to be restored. To have not done that—to have not done something to put back urban activity on some part of those sixteen acres—would have not truly honored the dead, however noble the intentions.

Then again, to have only rebuilt would have been unthinkable, and equally wrong—a ludicrous act of denial, not only of the reality of what happened, but of the natural and essential human need to commemorate, and to mourn. We cannot pretend that this is the same sixteen acres that it was before 9/11, and we have the obligation to make sure that future generations, who do not have the memories all of us in this room have of that actual day, never make the mistake of thinking that this is just an ordinary place, a part of the city like every other.

All of this adds up to the view that, whatever else can be said about the Daniel Libeskind plan for Ground Zero, the plan that was chosen over several others in 2003 to be the master plan for the site, Libeskind’s basic premise was correct: you need to combine commemoration and renewal. You cannot do one or the other. You have to do both. That is the underlying principle, and it was right in 2003, and it is even more right now. Imagine, if you will, if the scheme that was almost chosen, by a consortium of architects led by Rafael Vinoly, had actually been selected, the plan to re-erect the profiles of the twin towers as open skeletons, and insert a few cultural facilities as box-like objects set into these 110-story racks. It was a powerful and gripping image in 2003, and there were many in the city’s architectural community who favored it, in part because it seemed more sophisticated than Libeskind’s plan, which was surrounded by a fair amount of sentimental description. This offered visual power instead of cloying words.

But if it had actually been built, how would it look now? Would it still be as powerful? Would we even want to have our skyline dominated by a reminder of the events of September 11, 2001? I suspect not. If the decade since 9/11 has proven anything, it is that the forces of life are stronger than the forces of death, and that New York as an urban environment is driven by an absolute, total and complete need to renew itself. I’m hardly suggesting, by the way, that the famous World Trade Center skeletons design was only about death and the past. It was not. But its overpowering imagery was of what had been lost, and the notion that the largest, most visible, and most iconic permanent thing in the New York skyline would have been only an evocation of lost buildings, rather than something that was truly and wholly new, does seem to me to be looking back far more than we would now want to be doing. It would have locked us into the past.

I said a moment ago that one reason this design, for all its sophistication, was not selected is that in New York, the forces of life are stronger than the forces of death. Now that sentence, taken out of context, sounds urgent, even inspiring—the forces of life overpowering the forces of death—but I’m not saying it to turn this talk into a sermon. To say that the forces of life in New York are stronger than the forces of death is, to my mind, an empirical observation, and not a just post 9/11 one, but a more general comment about New York and what its nature has always been. This is not a city that dwells on the past; it has always been a city that has moved forward, sometimes to its betterment, and sometimes not, because sometimes our commitment to moving forward has led to some horrendous decisions, and to an absolute lack of foresight, not to mention to an indifference to history. But that is another matter, or another subject for another day. So far as September 11th, 2001 is concerned, we certainly could not be accused of being indifferent to history. If anything, we have sometimes chosen to wallow in it. But the final disposition of the sixteen acres of Ground Zero does show, if nothing else, a clear and certain balance between looking backwards and looking forwards, between commemorating what happened and renewing the life of the city, as I said.

But let me return to what the observation that the forces of life are stronger than the forces of death actually means here. Lower Manhattan, as most of you know, has been evolving for a long time. When the World Trade Center was built, it was largely a financial district; almost no one lived there, and there were not a lot of places to eat except at lunch—there was so little dinner business that many restaurants closed at the end of the day. And there were no significant cultural facilities to speak of.

Over the years, all of that began to change. In the nineteen eighties, Battery Park City went up to the west of the World Trade Center—a new community built, in fact, on landfill from the construction of the twin towers. At the same time, Tribeca to the north of the trade center, a neighborhood of first-rate commercial and industrial structures from the nineteenth century, was undergoing a transformation as businesses moved away and people renovated these buildings into lofts and apartments. A few years later, as it became increasingly clear that people were willing to live in any part of Lower Manhattan, and also that large financial companies preferred to put their trading operations in the huge, sprawling horizontal floors of new buildings rather than on the smaller floors of older skyscrapers, the combination of these two phenomena led to many of the more slender, older office buildings with small floors being converted into even more housing—in effect, a third category of Lower Manhattan housing, after Battery Park City and Tribeca. And in all three of these cases, where people live, stores and restaurants follow. So do places to play music, to look at art, and so forth.
By the time the towers fell in 2001, then, Lower Manhattan was an entirely different place from what it had been when the towers first went up. Thousands and thousands of people lived there, in several different types of neighborhoods. And I haven’t even mentioned the growth of Chinatown, and the enormous explosion of growth across the river, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, which turned much of that waterfront into yet another city, with thousands more living or working a short distance away by water from Lower Manhattan. There was no skyline on the New Jersey side when the twin towers went up; there was a huge skyline on that side when they came down.

I mention all of this to set the stage, so to speak, and to make an essential point, which is that much of what has happened since 9/11 isn’t new. It’s really a continuation of what was happening in Lower Manhattan, and indeed in the entire region, before 9/11. The events of September 11th of course put an abrupt stop to all of the evolution of this region, and understandably led a lot of people to question whether it would ever resume—and even raised the possibility that it would reverse itself, and 9/11 would mark the beginning of a decline from which the region would never recover. For a little while, as many people fled New York for other places, that scenario of decline looked altogether plausible.

But something else happened, as you know. There was definitely a long hiatus, a pause, in the evolution of Lower Manhattan, lasting many months, perhaps more than a year. But then things resumed. The growth continued. The creation of housing continued. The arrival of restaurants and stores continued. In fact, it ramped up to a huge extent. Over the course of the decade following 9/11, once things started up again, more than thirty thousand more people came to the various neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan to live, almost doubling the residential population that had been there before. And remember that the population before 9/11, also roughly thirty thousand people, consisted almost entirely of people who had arrived in the years since the World Trade Center towers were constructed—since, as I said, when the twin towers first went up, almost no one lived anywhere near them.

The point I am trying to make is this: that the things that “rescued” Lower Manhattan, the forces that saved it, were not the post-9/11 forces, the things set in motion by our reaction to September 11th. The transformation of Lower Manhattan that everyone now rightly celebrates came about because of factors that were present on September 10th, before the terrorist attack. Those factors, those things that we might call the organic forces of renewal, had been transforming this neighborhood for a generation already. They were badly shaken—in fact, stopped dead in their tracks—by the events of September 11th. But in time things resumed, driven not by what we were doing at Ground Zero—since at that time we were not doing very much at Ground Zero except fighting over it—but by the pro-development policies of the Bloomberg administration, and, more important, by the larger forces of the economy, which was bringing unexpected prosperity to New York just a couple of years after September 11th.

So this is what we really mean when we say that the forces of life were stronger than the forces of death—that Lower Manhattan’s innate strength, and the fundamental nature of urban growth, could not, in the end, be destroyed by the destruction and tragedy of September 11th. It could be knocked out for a while, but not permanently derailed. It seemed for a long time after September 11th that Lower Manhattan’s future would be determined entirely by what we did at Ground Zero; indeed, that the destiny of all of New York would be intertwined with what we did with these sixteen acres of land. I called it the first great urban design challenge of the twenty-first century, and I, like so many people, thought that its future would be New York’s future.

Well, yes, and no. Of course Ground Zero has a symbolic meaning that goes far beyond any other place in the nation, let alone in New York. It could never be an ordinary piece of land, no matter what we did with it. But the future of the city, or even the future of Lower Manhattan, turned out not to depend on Ground Zero as much as we had thought. For a long time the planning process of the World Trade Center site was mired in controversy—politics, money, conflicting priorities of different stakeholders. Most of you know the long and somewhat depressing story of this planning process, and for those who don’t, I’ll sum it up in a moment, but the key thing is that it turned out not to matter as much as we thought it was going to. It wasn’t true that as Ground Zero goes, so goes New York. For a long time, Ground Zero wasn’t going anywhere. And New York began to recover anyway. Lower Manhattan, and almost all of the rest of New York, turned out to be a much a healthier beast than we had thought it was. It came back long before we had anything to show at Ground Zero.

But now, of course, we are beginning to have something to show, something that is finally visible on these sixteen acres: the 9/11 Memorial, which opens to the public today, and which I think is truly excellent; and there are several other elements of the site in various stages of construction to be finished in the next few years. I’ll talk in a moment about how well it is turning out, but I do have to say at this point that I think it’s something of a miracle that we have gotten anything at all there, let alone something as good as the memorial. After all, this has been like no other urban development project in history, and not only because of the cataclysmic event that made it necessary. Think, for a moment, of the complex roster of players here. There is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built the World Trade Center back in the 1960’s, 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. So just to start, we have a private owner leasing property from a public agency, or rather, a sort-of-public, sort-of-private agency. Not simple, just at this stage, and it got even more complicated a few years later when Silverstein negotiated to turn control of the big tower, 1 World Trade Center, back to the Port Authority, which then formed a partnership with a competing private developer, Douglas Durst, to get the building finished. But to go back to 2001, we have only begun to list the players. There was also the State of New York, which controls the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which then-Governor Pataki formed to oversee rebuilding—but this special agency that was supposed to control the process of rebuilding didn’t actually own or control the land. The Port Authority does, but it doesn’t completely control it either, since it leased it to the private developer. The developer didn’t actually have anything tangible, since what he had rights to—the twin towers—was destroyed, but he did have leases and contracts which he believed obligated him to rebuild. There were also the insurance companies, which for a while were fighting in court over the amount they would have to pay. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is in charge of the subways that run underneath Ground Zero, except for the PATH trains to New Jersey, which are controlled by the Port Authority. I should probably 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 had the unusual situation in which the governor of New Jersey technically had more say over what will happen at Ground Zero than the Mayor of New York.

And then, of course, in some ways more important than any of the others, 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 were also the residents of Lower Manhattan, the people who we were talking about who had turned this into a residential neighborhood, who were profoundly affected by the events of 9/11, and who would of course be severely affected by anything that is built there. There are office workers, and tourists. And that isn’t it, either. There is everyone else, since the extraordinary circumstances of 9/11 have made it perfectly logical and understandable that everyone believes that they themselves have some stake in the future of this piece of land.

Given all of this, is it any surprise that things were not been smooth? There was no road map for this one, no prior experience to tell us what to do with this piece of land, which millions of people saw as sacred ground, as hallowed ground, but which the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein saw primarily as a profit-making piece of real estate, as it had been before. The one person who might have had the power to set things going in a different direction, Governor Pataki, did not seem inclined to do so. It was a critical failing, the governor’s decision to let the process drift at the beginning, with a lot of high-minded rhetoric but no real courage, since he could have stepped in and insisted that we start on September the 12th with a clean slate. Even though he was the one who held the cards, the Governor did not do that, and in the mistaken view that this would be the quickest route to re-building, he kept all of the existing players in place, and kept the original program of the World Trade Center in place, too. The starting point, in other words, was replacing the ten million square feet of office space that was lost when the towers fell. While the plans also included the memorial, of course, and some new cultural facilities as well as a new transit hub, the official program for the site—the prescription for what functions should go on it—was still pretty much what had been there before the terrorists destroyed the towers. It just was no longer going to be in the form of a pair of hundred-and-ten-story buildings.

That also meant that the “public” planning process wasn’t really so public at all, since it never started from the beginning, and involved bringing the public into the question of what use this land should be put to. That was decided not in public but in private. The governor decreed that this would still be the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein’s office project. Every other decision flowed from that initial, and in my view flawed, premise. 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. Do you remember the website on CNN, where thousands of people responded to the network’s call for suggestions for the trade center site, and there was a moving series of designs posted for all to see? None of them mattered, really, since there was never any willingness to consider other uses. For example, there was no 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. Mayor Bloomberg said several times that he preferred it—but as I said before, the Mayor had almost no control over what happened. Housing, by the way, could have made money, which is worth remembering given how much the powers that be felt that commercial priorities were really the most important thing. But the Port Authority didn’t want to do it, and neither did Silverstein, and that was that.

I don’t want to recount the whole tale of what happened from this point or we’d be here all night, but I should remind you quickly that after a false start with several so-called “concept plans” that were supposed to show various alternatives for the site—which really just meant various ways in which the office space and a memorial could be arranged, all of which looked surprisingly similar, which shouldn’t have been a surprise but which nevertheless precipitated a violently negative public reaction, with most people finding the concept plans banal in the extreme—well, after that, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation recognized it had a problem. Since no one was going to re-open the question of what the program for Ground Zero should be, the LMDC instead decided to sponsor an architectural competition to create a new master plan for the site. This brought some of the world’s leading architects to Ground Zero—and, for a brief period, put architecture onto the front page of every newspaper, and even got the architects themselves onto venues like the Oprah show to discuss their ideas.

This architectural heyday eventually brought us to the master plan designed by Daniel Libeskind, which 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. There is a paradox to building at Ground Zero, which I think Libeskind understood more instinctively than any other architect. Is it morally right to rebuild as if nothing had happened, however well we do it? Or is it morally right for the city to show scars? Could the most perfect redevelopment plan be wrong merely by being perfect, in other words? Should it somehow show us the pain, the enormity, of what happened there? But of course—and here we get to the heart of the paradox—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. Libeskind understood that we need to renew, and we need also to commemorate, and tried to find a way to put these things together—to synthesize the awesome and the everyday, we might say.

His plan restored many of the streets in the Lower Manhattan street grid that had been obliterated by the sixteen-acre superblock of the World Trade Center, an essential starting point. He created a memorial zone around the footprints of the twin towers consisting of roughly eight acres, or half the site, at the southwest portion. Office buildings faced the memorial quadrant on the east and the north, making an “L” around it; Libeskind proposed two cultural buildings, one for performing arts and one for visual arts, and a new transportation hub, a great rail station that would allow a majestic point of entry into Lower Manhattan from the PATH trains.
That, more or less, is what is coming to be. Libeskind himself never won any commission to design any of the individual buildings, so there is no evidence of his architectural hand, but his layout for the site has stayed roughly intact. And I do believe that it was fundamentally right, and a good template for what has followed. This week, in the rush of emotion surrounding the tenth anniversary of 9/11, there has been a wave of goodwill surrounding the rebuilding process, or perhaps it is really just relief that one part of the enormous project, the memorial, was not only finished in time for this symbolically important anniversary, but has turned out to be genuinely good, and deeply moving. It almost wasn’t finished for the tenth anniversary; the underground work for the PATH trains and other below ground elements is so complex that in the normal order of things they would have had to be finished before the memorial could be completed above them. It was less than two years ago that Chris Ward, an unusually capable administrator who has been in charge of the Port Authority for the last few years, decided that this was unacceptable, and adjusted the construction schedule for other elements of the site to make it possible for the memorial to be ready for yesterday’s anniversary.

Still, it is a construction site, and it will be one for many years to come. Over the years I’ve been highly critical of most of the process and a great deal of the product at Ground Zero, most significantly the decision to replicate the program of the Port Authority and not include housing, and, indeed, to do relatively little to acknowledge the overwhelming changes that had already come to this part of the city before 9/11. To fit the needs of the twenty-first century, it wasn’t just the World Trade Center’s towers that were outdated, it was also its limited, one-dimensional program of office space.

And if we were going to do a series of office towers, including one that would fulfill the entirely reasonable and appropriate goal of restoring the skyline, of putting back something very tall, then at the very least I thought we should build the best tall skyscraper in the world—the most innovative, the most advanced, the most sustainable, the most exciting, the one that the entire world will look at and say, there is the future. The skyscraper is really the great American building form—it was invented here, and it is deeply connected to the American culture. For most of the last generation, the biggest as well as the most innovative skyscrapers have been built in Asia, or in the Middle East. These are the cultures and the economies that want to be noticed by the world, and so it is no surprise. But what better time and what better place could there be to reassert our leadership in this great building type than here, at Ground Zero? Where better to show the world that we could build the best skyscraper of our time than as the centerpiece of the reconstruction of the heart of America’s greatest city after it was attacked?

Of course, we haven’t done that. The building that is now rising—as of last week it had reached 80 of an eventual 104 stories—is by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and it is better than the average New York City spec office building, we can grant it that. It has an elegant taper to its profile, and it is a huge advance over the World Trade Center towers, which were a deeply flawed work of architecture. But it isn’t the breakthrough building I had hoped for. And it’s been subject to lots of compromises along the way, some for money, some for security, so that now, its first sixteen stories are just solid concrete. There was to have been a façade of decorative glass prisms to turn that into something glowing and beautiful, but it isn’t happening now, and no one is saying what the bottom will be like. I just hope it doesn’t look like the bunker that it sort of is. Yesterday, for the ceremonies marking the 9/11 anniversary, the gargantuan American flag that sometimes flies from one of the towers of the George Washington Bridge was draped on the base of the building, serving as both a patriotic backdrop and as a way of hiding the fact that the entire base of the building had been designed more like a concrete bunker than a welcoming urban structure.

That tower, which for a while was called the Freedom Tower and now, thankfully, has the more prosaic name of 1 World Trade Center, is the tallest of the five towers that are projected. They roughly follow Libeskind’s master plan suggestion that the tallest tower be erected at the northwest corner of the site, and that the towers step down gradually as they spiral to the south and east. Tower 2, by the British architect Norman Foster, is next; south of it will be Tower 3 by the British architect Richard Rogers, and south of that, Tower 4 by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. They are all excellent architects, and I’m sorry that, as with David Childs, none of them seems to have produced his best work here.

Of course, we’re judging that mainly from drawings and models. Only 1 World Trade Center and 4 World Trade Center are far enough along to see—towers 2 and 3 aren’t yet even out of the ground, and won’t be until there is a tenant committing to take a significant chunk of space. That could be years. And Tower 5 isn’t even off the drawing boards. The other elements of the project are also in the future. The closest is the museum of 9/11, which consists of two elements: an above ground pavilion by the Norwegian-American architectural firm Snohetta, and the underground galleries by David Brody Bond Aeneas. It’s a year away from opening.

The pavilion section was originally designed as the visual arts building, to be the home of two organizations that were to be given space at Ground Zero: the Drawing Center and a new museum to be called the Freedom Center. There were objections to both on the part of some of the families of 9/11 victims, who didn’t like the fact that the Drawing Center, a highly respected institution that has been around for several years, had shown some works of art post-9/11 that they deemed to be unpatriotic. As for the Freedom Center, they were offended that it was intending to tell the entire story of freedom fighting around the world, and not just the American story of terrorism after 9/11. Governor Pataki, who like many public officials was terrified of offending the victims’ families, shamefully allowed them to dictate policy here, and cancelled the plan. The building became the entry pavilion for the 9/11 museum. It will serve that function just fine, and it’s a decent, even in some ways an ambitious building, but I have a serious problem with the notion of censorship of arts institutions in the vicinity of Ground Zero. I thought that was the kind of attitude we were fighting against.

I suppose that while we are on the subject of those whose definition of freedom is restricted to freedom for people who agree with them—a view of freedom that seems almost to resemble the views of the people we are fighting to protect ourselves from—it might be an appropriate moment to say a word about another matter that put Ground Zero in the news a year or so ago, the proposal that some of you may remember to put an Islamic cultural center a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center site. It ignited violent opposition from many people who felt that New York City should simply have said no, this may not be built here—in effect saying that no Islamic people, whoever they are and however peaceful their intentions may be, may join together to engage in cultural or social or religious activities within a few blocks of the place where some other Islamic people who happened to be fanatic and insane perpetrated a horrendous crime.

I know that this project made many people uncomfortable, but had we said no, we would have been acting precisely like the fundamentalists whose bigotry we are fighting to oppose. And we would also have been equating all of Islam with the terrorists. The fact is that the group that proposed the center in Lower Manhattan had a history of encouraging Islamic assimilation, modernity and peaceful coexistence. It was in many ways a polar opposite of the terrorist groups.

Happily, Mayor Bloomberg, who has acted with a relatively cool and rational head through most of this long process, would not allow New York to practice the same kind of discrimination that we are fighting elsewhere. He understood that the test of freedom isn’t the protection of ideas that you agree with, but the protection of ideas that you don’t. He also was acting, I think, in recognition of the same idea we discussed a few minutes ago, which is that since Ground Zero is in the middle of a city, in the middle of a city that prizes freedom and openness above all, you can’t treat it as if it were Gettysburg, or some other piece of sacred ground far away from urban life. It is in the middle of urban life, and as it rebuilds, it needs to demonstrate that it is a part of the life that the terrorists sought to destroy.

We won’t know for a while how successful we have been in doing that. The fact that the towers are not the great, trailblazing skyscrapers that we might have hoped for may not matter if they do re-invigorate the urban life around them, and there is reason to hope that they will do this. There is also a lot of optimism about Santiago Calatrava’s train station, this swooping white object that he likes to compare to a bird in flight, and which may have the most exhilarating interior public space constructed in New York since the Guggenheim Museum. At $3.4-billion and its cost still rising, it certainly had better be good. If we are lucky, the soaring interior of this train station will be as great a symbol of downtown’s renewal as any of the towers.

Now, of course, it is the memorial that is properly the focus, both because it is the one thing that is finished, and the one thing that is based almost entirely on looking back, as we inevitably do at an anniversary moment. It is, to me, a moving and powerful design, produced by Michael Arad, a young architect whose entry was chosen in 2004 from among fifty-two hundred entries, the largest architectural competition in history. Arad made the footprints of the twin towers the basis of a strong, almost minimalist design, turning the footprint of each tower into a square hole, with waterfalls running down the sides into a reflecting pool below. At the center of each reflecting pool is another, smaller square, into which water tumbles, as if it were flowing to the center of the earth. Arad figured out how to express the idea that what were once the largest solids in Manhattan are now a void, and he made the shape of this void into something monumental. The names of those who died are inscribed in lettering cut into bronze panels that surround both pools.

There is some distant connection here to Maya Lin’s extraordinary Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and I think it is fair to say that this is the finest modernist memorial to be constructed in this country since Maya Lin’s. Working along with the landscape architect Peter Walker, Arad turned the space around the footprints into a handsome and restrained civic square, which will eventually have four hundred oak trees. You couldn’t mistake this place for a conventional urban park, but it’s definitely no cemetery, either. It is made to be where it is—in the middle of a city, and part of an urban life that was as much a target of the terrorists in 2001 as the lives of three thousand people. The people will not come back, but the life of the city has to, at Ground Zero as much as elsewhere. And now, I think we can safely say, it has begun to, and what has happened on these sixteen acres will allow us, finally, to look forward as well as back.

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