Towering Expectations

In Washington exhibit, architects seek to accommodate the twin ideals of replacing the World Trade center and respecting its symbolic importance.

April 06, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

After New York's World Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11, there were immediate calls for the twin towers to be rebuilt just the way they were -- as a show of defiance to the terrorists, if nothing else.

Since then, architects and urban designers have recommended that New York explore other ways to redevelop the 16-acre site in Lower Manhattan, instead of merely cloning what stood before.

The 110-story towers were the product of a specific time and place, they said, and now New York needs an approach that's right for today.

But exactly what should that be? How much land ought to be set aside for a memorial to those who lost their lives, and how much land should be devoted to commercial activity? Are buildings higher than 100 stories really needed anymore? How can architecture help heal the wounds left on Sept. 11?

Those and many other issues are addressed in a provocative exhibit that opens today at the National Building Museum in Washington and runs through June 10.

"A New World Trade Center: Design Proposals," was organized by New York art dealer and gallery owner Max Protetch. Last fall, he invited many of the world's leading architects, as well as some younger and more experimental practitioners, to envision how the area known as Ground Zero might be redeveloped after the devastation of Sept. 11.

Some declined, saying it's too soon to make plans for such a sensitive area. But others used Protetch's invitation as a chance to express their feelings about the terrorist attacks, or explore design issues affecting urban America, or both. Participants include luminaries of the architecture world such as Michael Graves, Daniel Libeskind, Hans Hollein, Zaha Hadid and Coop Himmelblau.

The exhibit comes directly from Protetch's gallery in Chelsea, where it drew thousands of visitors earlier this year and helped frame a serious discussion of the future of the World Trade Center property.

"The architects and artists proposed a wide variety of ideas, from replacing the original towers with mixed-use development to building only a memorial, to a combination of both," Protetch said.

"Not only does the exhibition document the architecture community's responses to Sept. 11, but it also provides a snapshot of international architectural thinking at a specific point in time."

At one end of the spectrum are proposals from those who believe that nothing should be built on the site and that it should be left as a void in the city's fabric. At the other end are proposals from those who want to re-create the towers as they were or build even more than before. Most entries fell somewhere in between.

Some proposals weren't meant to be constructed. Others could go up tomorrow, if the powers-that-be agreed. Still others made their points with words, or sounds, rather than images.

Many struggled to find a balance between the need to set land aside for a memorial and to reserve land for commercial activity that will keep the city vibrant.

Michael Sorkin wrote in his proposal that "Ground Zero is a sacred place, no more suitable for building than Gettysburg or Babi Yar." He recommended that all the office space in the two World Trade Center towers be spread throughout the seven boroughs of New York City, as a way of invigorating many different neighborhoods.

Della Valle and Bernheimer Design also stopped short of proposing a specific building. It simply listed 80 individuals or groups that ought to be consulted.

Some architects focused on reinventing the skyscraper as a building form. Daniel Libeskind created a series of spikes, jutting into the sky. Vito Acconci suggested a building full of holes -- "pre-shot, pre-blown-out, pre-exploded." Steven Holl designed a zigzagging tower that would be made with a series of ramps, leading to a roof-level observation deck.

Morris Adjmi had the most patriotic solution -- a single tower clad in red, white and blue. Gluckman Mayner Architects proposed that the twin towers be rebuilt as they were -- but made this time with a new type of glass skin that changes from opaque to clear and "can express different emotions." Several proposed giant blobs of one sort or another, presumably designed with the help of the latest computer technology.

Some proposals were distinguished by their use as much as their design. Paolo Soleri proposed a "secular cathedral." Eytan Kaufman envisioned a bridge connecting New York with New Jersey. JaKob + MacFarlane proposed a New World Peace Center.

Many left the footprints of the two towers as voids in the landscape and placed buildings around them. Others tried to knit the World Trade Center site back into Lower Manhattan, by extending streets and sidewalks onto the 16-acre site.

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