Proposed twin towers memorial makes a virtue of simplicity
Rule-breaking design won epic competition
By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 2/15/2004
NEW YORK -- A visit to the World Trade Center site is in one way astonishing and in another disappointing.
What's astonishing is the way they've rebuilt the place already. Port Authority architects have created a vast new underground train and subway station, fully functional although not yet enclosed or climate-controlled. The design firm Pentagram has dressed it beautifully with ghostly quotations about the city printed on white scrims. Eventually the station will gain an elegant hat in the form of a glass pavilion, being designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, that vaguely resembles a bird in flight.
More disappointing is the exhibit across the street, at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center. It shows the whole World Trade Center site as it's now proposed to be rebuilt. The Calatrava hat is there. So is, more important, the winning design for a memorial to the deceased of Sept. 11, 2001. But both are half hidden behind other buildings in a big scale model that you view through glass, as in a zoo. You can't see much of anything. Advice to tourists: Don't bother.
The model also includes the proposed 1,776-foot-tall office tower that is planned for the site. As architecture, this building is an improbable mess. It looks like what it is, a building designed by two architects who couldn't agree on anything: Daniel Libeskind, who created the World Trade Center master plan, and David Childs, the architect hired by the tower's developer. Their building is the emblem of a dysfunctional marriage.
Much more interesting is the proposed 9/11 memorial. It's a great disappointment not to see a better model of this. The memorial is the result of the largest design competition ever held, in which 5,201 designs were sent in from all over the world. Eight finalists were announced in November, and a winner was chosen in January. He is Michael Arad, a 34-year-old architect who works for the New York City Housing Authority. After making it into the final eight, Arad revised his design with the help of a prominent landscape architect, Peter Walker, who's known in the Boston area for his rock-garden fountain at the Harvard Science Center.
Arad and Walker call their winning design "Reflecting Absence." Its virtue is its simplicity. A park filled with trees surrounds two square voids. The voids mark the footprints of the former twin towers. The towers are, thus, visibly absent. Ramps take visitors down to a lower level, where there are waterfalls and each void becomes a pool, with the names of those who died forming a ribbon around all four sides. Farther down, beneath one of the pools, will be a museum space. It's a scheme that doesn't dominate the site. And it doesn't feel too complete. You feel there's room for it to grow, change, and adapt over time.
Why was Arad's design the chosen one out of 5,201? I try this question on Michael Van Valkenburgh, a nationally known landscape architect who has offices in Cambridge and New York. He was a member of the 13-person jury that selected the winner.
Van Valkenburgh says by phone that the jury moved fast in the beginning. "After the first week of judging, we were down to a short list of two or three hundred," he says. "At the next meeting we winnowed that to 50 or 60." Things got slower as they worked their way down to the eight designs they thought had the most promise. They asked these designers to develop their ideas further, for a second round of judging in November.
"When the eight showed up for round two, the general quality was so disappointing to the jury," says Van Valkenburgh. The jury had taken a chance on some of the designs, even though they looked a little vague. "Among the eight, the jury was unsure of the promise of some. Often they were hard to decipher in round one. We tried to be generous."
In the end, it turned out there were only three finalists the jury really cared about. And every one of them violated the approved site plan by Libeskind, who had placed the memorial site 30 feet below street level in a vast pit. All three finalists brought it back up to grade.
Says Van Valkenburgh: "Libeskind's big-hole-in-the-ground-as-memorial was a particularly cruel joke to perpetrate on the future of the city. It was uncivic and strangely inappropriate as a long-term urban element. All of the schemes that were serious contenders brought the memorial back into relationship to the everyday life of the city."
It must have been tough, though, on competitors who respected the rules -- although the jury had hinted, early on, that they'd consider rule-breakers. Van Valkenburgh believes the rules of the competition were "cruelly prescriptive."
Arad changed his design during the competition. "His original scheme had a featureless plaza, simply two acres of pavement around the voids," says Van Valkenburgh. "Then in round two in November he came back with ridiculous 100-foot pine trees. Then we said, if we are serious about this scheme we've gotta get this guy a landscape architect. We didn't recommend anyone in particular. Arad was wise to choose Walker, somebody 42 years older than he was, and someone with a proven track record."
Unlike most juries, this one made active suggestions. "The jury and the LMDC [the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency that ran the competition] had extensive exchanges with the designers. They were more of a Socratic nature. It would have been easy to fix some of the schemes, but the memorial had to be theirs."
Walker added a rich layer of landscape to Arad's rather abstract design. "Peter Walker came in with this kind of wonderful American version of a Tuileries bosque," says Van Valkenburgh. "He took the tree plan of Harvard Yard, where the trees are in lines but they're not on a grid. The trees are at irregular intervals, but regularized into rows."
Competitions often prove controversial. Not everyone is delighted with the Arad/Walker design. I'm worried that it depends too much on water, always a problem in northern latitudes. But the design can evolve and improve. It should certainly be built. Not to do so now would be to break faith with 5,201 competitors, not to mention relatives of the deceased.
It's undeniable, though, that the memorial process has been a rush to judgment. It takes time to understand the meaning and importance of an event like 9/11. Americans waited half a century after Washington's death to create the Washington Monument, and another half-century after Lincoln's to do the Lincoln Memorial. It's far too soon to know the relative significance of Sept. 11, 2001.
Will the public ever get a chance to see not just the eight finalists but the whole array of entries? The LMDC says yes. It's putting together a website that will display all ofthem. After it opens -- the date isn't set yet -- the agency will decide if there's enough demand for a public exhibition.
A final note: Besides the eight finalists, the jury selected about 15 or 20 other schemes they thought deserved recognition. "There were some great art projects that wouldn't have been terribly good as memorials," recalls Van Valkenburgh. But none of these designers, nor the 200-300 who made the first cut, nor the 50 or 60 who survived the second cut, have been informed that they were runners-up. Nor is there any plan to inform them.
Surely it would be a minimal act of human kindness to let these people know how close they came.
Robert Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.
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