Imaginative answers to Ground Zero's challenge

World's top architects present bold, new ideas

December 19, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

NEW YORK - A decade from now, Lower Manhattan could be under a glass dome, the largest covered space in the world.

It might feature two adjoining office towers that "kiss and become one," or a double-helix design that evokes human DNA.

It could be the setting for a giant power station that makes energy from sunflower seeds - a slap at Middle Eastern oil interests.

Those are a few of the ideas presented yesterday by seven world-class design teams selected to propose ways to rebuild Ground Zero, the 16-acre former site of the World Trade Center towers, destroyed in the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

The teams included many luminaries of the architectural world, including New Yorkers Richard Meier and Charles Gwathmey; Rafael Vinoly, a New York-based Uruguayan; Daniel Libeskind of Germany; Shigeru Ban of Japan; and Sir Norman Foster of Britain.

A team called THINK thought so hard that it came up with three concepts - one covering the site with a glass dome - bringing the total to nine.

"It's as if Rembrandt and da Vinci and Cezanne and Matisse and Jasper Johns were all set to the same task," development corporation board member Roland Betts told several hundred reporters and others gathered to see the plans.

Gov. George E. Pataki called the outpouring of ideas "a bold declaration of New York's confidence and of Lower Manhattan's ability to emerge from the tragedy even stronger and better than it was before."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the plans went "far beyond anything we have seen to date" for the World Trade Center site.

Some designers went back to the 18th and 19th centuries for ideas, while others "leapt ahead to the 21st century," said Betts. "The question for us is, what do we want to do? What statement do we want to make? What is the new face of New York that we want to present to the world?"

The three-hour presentation inside the World Financial Center marked the second time that development plans have been presented to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the quasi-public agency formed to lead the rebuilding effort.

In June, two groups proposed six solutions that were widely condemned as unimaginative and too commercial for the site, where nearly 2,800 people lost their lives.

Design challenge

In response, the development corporation opened up the process and challenged some of the world's leading architects, artists and urban designers to suggest ways to memorialize those who were lost in the attacks while allowing New York to retain its place as the world's business and financial center.

Not since the 1940s, when the United Nations headquarters was planned for New York, have so many leading architects gathered to work on one project.

The seven teams were each given 20 minutes to present their ideas in a setting that was part college thesis presentation, part American Idol competition. Each presentation was applauded, to varying degrees.

Each proposal was required to meet specifications for office and retail space, and to designate space for a Sept. 11 memorial that would be the subject of a separate design competition. Each proposed a signature element for the Lower Manhattan skyline. None advocated building in the "footprints" of the twin towers, but treated them instead as "sacred" memorial space.

Recurring themes

Beyond that, the designs varied widely, reflecting the interests of the respective designers. At the same time, several recurring themes emerged.

Nearly every team proposed what would be the tallest building in the world. Many of the designs were full of numerical symbolism. One plan called for towers to rise 1,111 feet. One called for a tower of 1,776 feet. One was 2,100 feet. A proposed theater would have one seat for each of the victims.

More than one architect admitted to struggling with the seemingly contradictory goals of acknowledging emptiness while promoting renewal. Vinoly said he considered the task nothing less than shaping a three dimensional response from the civilized world to "the absurdity of evil."

"How do you measure emptiness, loss, memories?" Foster asked. "How do you give physical presence to such intangibles? And if you did, if you can, how do you balance that against life and regeneration? These are the challenges that confront all of us today."

The team made up of Meier, Gwathmey, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl made a strong effort to address the need for memorials, identifying seven potential sites of various sizes. Their five towers were topped not by restaurants or observation decks but memorial chapels.

Several teams were careful to provide multiple ways for people to escape from tall buildings in case of an emergency - a response to the limited number of fire stairs in the twin towers that collapsed. Several proposed towers that were joined at the top or the middle. One suggested that every building on the site be connected to form one large structure containing 10.4 million square feet of space. Another suggested building a "vertical city" above Ground Zero.

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