In a packed midtown-Manhattan hall one evening last week, 400 architects and design buffs got together to talk about the future of the New York City skyline. Since September 11 dozens of similar forums and meetings have taken place all over the city, convocations of people swapping ideas about the reconstruction of the 16 acres where the World Trade Center used to be. They toss around notions for new buildings, memorials, parks. At last week's confab, which included architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and historian Mike Wallace, some speakers argued that a skyscraper should be built on the site again. Others expounded on the need to make the downtown streetscape friendlier. There were few specific proposals--and surprisingly, even fewer arguments. "It was amazing how much consensus there was," said one observer. Usually architects are trying to one-up each other. But since the attacks there's been an unprecedented outpouring of desire from designers to be part of civic life and influence what gets built on the site. "Why can't we have a great public space?" asked architect Hugh Hardy. "It's a fantastic opportunity." Williams quoted the Mexican architect Luis Barragan: "The certainty of death is the spring of action."
Yet there's no certainty that these voices and hundreds of others from the design community will even be a factor in deciding what's eventually built. Late last week New York Gov. George Pataki and the outgoing mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, announced a new state-city corporation to oversee the redevelopment of all of lower Manhattan, including transportation and infrastructure as well as reconstruction of the WTC site. The corporation, whose board members and chairman are yet to be named, will channel federal funds to those projects, starting with a $2.8 billion allocation. With businesses fleeing and the economy teetering, trying to restore confidence is higher on the political agenda than Medici-like notions of fostering great architecture and public spaces.
At the same time, developer Larry Silverstein, who bought a 99-year lease for the Twin Towers only last summer, is exploring ideas for rebuilding, with help from architect David Childs of the firm SOM and planner Alex Cooper. (Silverstein's progress depends in part on whether he collects on a $7.2 billion insurance claim or gets only the $3.6 billion his insurers want to pay out. He has also asked Congress to cap his liability in lawsuits resulting from the attacks.) Still, the lack of any official role hasn't stopped architects, planners, artists and civic groups from forming a dizzying array of ad-hoc advisory groups. "We're in a rush because there's a window where maybe we can influence public policy, and we're afraid the window will close," says Ray Gastil, head of the Van Alen Institute, one of 16 design groups in a coalition called New York New Visions. Says Robert Yaro, head of the Regional Plan Association, "This can't be some biggies in a closed room. It has to be a public process."
"We hope that passion for good design is contagious," says designer Marilyn Taylor, chairman of SOM, a leader in the volunteer force, who's been a link to downtown business honchos. Meanwhile, the coalition groups are doing everything from researching successful urban centers to pro bono space planning for businesses that had to relocate in the wake of the terrorist attack. But they have no real power. One team is writing a paper on how to choose a design for a memorial--the one item that everyone, from the governor on down, agrees must be built on the site. But what's trickier is figuring out what the memorial should be. "There should be an international competition for the design," says architect and team member Michael Manfredi, "and it must be an integral part of the design of the site."
Meanwhile, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land, has wisely decided to salvage key pieces of WTC wreckage. Gigantic twisted steel beams--"torqued in amazing ways," says architect Bart Voorsanger, who's helping select what to save--as well as crushed fire trucks and even fragments of an Alexander Calder mobile that once swung in a lobby, have been tagged for keeping. "Somebody may choose to put these elements in a memorial," says Voorsanger, "or we'll archive them."
Most designers have stayed away from publicly advocating a specific design for what should replace the Twin Towers. But Max Protetch, a Manhattan dealer in architectural drawings, is inviting more than 100 architects from around the world to do just that. He'll exhibit the results in January. "I called Philip Johnson and Oscar Niemeyer," he says, "as well as young architects. This is how a larger public can speak." Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum, was planning a show on the Twin Towers when the terrorists attacked. Now she's shifted the exhibit's focus: rather than just showing the towers as monuments, it will look at their creation as part of '60s urban-renewal trends.
Remembering that historical context is key to any ideas for reconstruction. In the days after the attack, we felt nostalgic for the towers--some even suggested rebuilding them just as they were. Now the thinking seems to be, let's make lower Manhattan a better place and improve the public realm. Maybe put some streets back through the 16-acre "superblock" that the designers of the WTC created and reconnect the site to the surrounding street grid and the waterfront. "The World Trade Center created this kind of impenetrable barrier between TriBeCa and the rest of downtown," explains Yaro, who used to go to the now-defunct Washington Market in the neighborhood as a kid in the '50s.
There were fewer people living in lower Manhattan in 1960 than there were in 1800. But today the area around the financial district is also residential. Out of the WTC disaster comes the chance to make the place more urbane and humane, as well as to improve the transportation links. Yes, we're talking urban planning here, and it's not a sexy subject. The glamour could come with new cultural and entertainment amenities that would bring more tourists and night life to the area.
Those are ideas many planners are considering, and so, now, is developer Silverstein. "What we're doing is massing studies," he says, which means trying out rough models of office buildings of various sizes on the site. "We don't know the number, the size or the placement yet. Or where to place an appropriate memorial. Could we fit in a performing-arts center? Or a museum?" Architect Childs says he's not designing any specific buildings; in fact, he thinks that several architects should be involved. "You can have a strong concept executed by multiple hands," he says. "And I believe there should be a strong vertical tower or an open structure like the Eiffel Tower."
As plans unfold and commissions meet and various consortiums lobby, these ideas will become more complicated and fraught. This is democracy and capitalism in action--and that's never been a formula for good design. Some of the architects who've been speaking out may tire and go back to their drawing boards. But here's hoping that the best architects believe they have a big stake in the project, whether they're hired or not. Their good ideas need to flow--and bad ideas that crop up need to be stopped. Rethinking the neighborhood plan is a good start. The tough part will be seeking the most thoughtful, innovative, spectacular designs for the buildings and public spaces that will rise from the ashes. That's what citizens of New York and beyond need to push for. After all, as Yaro puts it, "we're talking about building the first 21st-century city."