PBS Frontline on Architecture Battles at Ground Zero

PBS Frontline on Architecture Battles at Ground Zero

Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

September 11th, 2004, 8:49 pm #1

If you're looking for a fly-on-the-wall view of one of the nastiest architectural catfights in recent memory, be sure to watch Tuesday's "Frontline," which charts the tumultuous first year in the rebuilding effort at ground zero. There are less shameful reasons to tune in too.

The story line is well-known -- the bitter, highly-public struggle between avant-garde architect Daniel Libeskind, who won the master plan competition for the 16-acre lower Manhattan site, and David Childs, the corporate architect chosen by developer Larry Silverstein to design the site's iconic Freedom Tower.

What's fresh and, at times, shocking is the unvarnished, behind-the-curtain look at their forced collaboration on the skyscraper, as when Libeskind's wife and business partner, Nina, says of the Childs camp: "They're just liars."

Or when Roland Betts, a longtime friend of President Bush's and an influential board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency charged with steering the rebuilding, says: "I thought people would behave better. . . . But they've behaved like [expletive]."

This is like watching sausages get made or seeing an arranged marriage descend into intense recrimination and spiral toward divorce.

It would all be wonderfully entertaining were it not for the fact that nearly 3,000 people died at ground zero and the redevelopment is among the most complex and significant design challenges of the early 21st Century. The saga is, at least, instructive, illuminating the conflict between civic agendas and commercial pressures that shape the built environment of every American city, including Chicago.

Timed for the week of the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and directed by Kevin Sim, who got exclusive access to the Libeskinds, the hourlong show (titled "Sacred Ground" and appearing on WTTW-Ch. 11 at 9 p.m.) doesn't present any major revelations. But it generates a surprising amount of dramatic tension.

It accomplishes this by juxtaposing the architects' behind-the-scenes fighting with the press-conference platitudes of New York Gov. George Pataki, the prime political force behind the rebuilding, and by contrasting the architects' unseemly bickering with the victims' families' dignified expressions of grief.

Video of screeching elevated trains establishes a feeling of lurking violence, while footage of aerial approaches to the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan eerily recalls the terrorists' cockpit views.
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