Fred A. Bernstein

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Sweet Sixteen Acres

My assessment of Ground Zero, in 2018

Published in Log, Fall 2018



By Fred A. Bernstein

The oddly angled, vaguely deconstructivist entry pavilion, by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, gives no hint of what’s to come: a series of ramps leading down to vast underground spaces, the largest of which, called the Foundation Hall, is so big that massive artifacts from 9/11 – a mangled fire truck, a pair of “trident” columns from the destroyed twin towers – seem tiny.

But it’s not just the size of the subterranean spaces that makes them powerful. Davis Brody Bond, the architects of the below-ground portion of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, labored to keep the everyday at bay. Mundane elements – lights, vents, and speakers – were carefully hidden so the rooms would be quietly majestic, the slurry wall presiding like New York’s Wailing Wall, the Survivors’ Staircase a stairway to heaven. In this museum, the outside world feels very far away. The ground is hallowed, and we’re in it.

Up above, things are a little more hectic. A memorial plaza, the size of several city blocks, is accessible at grade level from north, south, east, and west. Mourners cross paths with tourists looking for Eataly. Hawkers advertise the pricey One World Observatory (tickets $34 and up). And on their way to work, employees of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which built the center and is now headquartered here, maneuver past a kiosk offering the book "Dog Heroes of September 11th." The crowding and commerce are a victory for those who wanted to see the site become part of the fabric of the city, a loss for those who wanted to see it held apart as sacred space. 

           The site was always going to be crowded. That much was clear as soon as planning began, just days after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Larry Silverstein, the developer who had leased much of the World Trade Center from the Port Authority for 99 years, announced his determination to rebuild every one of the 10 million square feet of office space he had lost. Eager to speed redevelopment of the site, the Port Authority's commissioners, appointed by the governors of New York and New Jersey, accepted Silverstein’s demand (which seemed alternately mercenary and civic-minded). That meant finding room for the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings on a site that also had to contain a sizable memorial, a museum, a new station for the authority’s PATH trains (sometimes billed as a transit hub), and – inevitably – acres of stores and restaurants. A performing arts center soon entered the mix, both to keep the site active at night and to bring a forward-looking element to a development at least partially focused on the past. 

              But how could all those buildings fit onto 16 acres – Lincoln Center, with its relatively modest program, is bigger – without becoming the urban planning version of a checkerboard with more checkers than squares? And, on top of the physical overcrowding, wouldn’t there be emotional overcrowding? Who, I wondered, in the early days after the attack, would want to work in an office building facing a memorial? Conversely, who would want to visit a memorial hemmed in by office buildings? The site was being asked to do too much.*

              In one respect, the World Trade Center was certain to be an improvement over the old one, with its elevated “superblock” plaza impeding the movement of people around the southwest corner of Manhattan. But if better circulation was practically a given, the success of the other elements was not. And if that success came, it would have to come without any one person – not a Moses or even a Robert Moses – leading the procession. (At times Michael Bloomberg seemed to be in charge, but even he couldn’t control the Port Authority.) 

               Now, after 15 years of construction, all but two buildings are finished: the performing arts center, by REX, expected to open in 2020, and Tower Two, by Bjarke Ingels Group, slated for 2022. This is a good time to take stock.

            The memorial at the center’s heart needed to be able to handle large numbers of visitors while at the same time providing opportunities for contemplation. Architect Michael Arad’s giant fountains succeed at both. The movement of water from ground level to pools 30 feet below grade, and then from those pools into seemingly bottomless pits, is awe-inspiring, a spectacle that honors the enormity of 9/11. At closer range, the names cut into the bronze wall surrounding the fountains are a dignified roll call of those who died. Arad managed to give both the collective and the individual losses their due.

           But the memorial’s greatest strength may be that it helped relieve the crowding on the checkerboard. The two pools and the groves of swamp white maples oaks that surround them ensured that at least six acres – nearly half the site – would remain free of anything taller than a carefully pruned tree. As Arad told me in a recent conversation, “It’s against the natural instincts of everything in the city to create a void.” And yet he created a void (the grove) surrounding voids (the fountains), which is not just the site’s centerpiece but, urbanistically, its saving grace. Moreover, the trees provide a buffer between buildings. New York is in danger of going the way of Shanghai and Dubai, where relentless repetition of glass facades means that pedestrians experience reflections of reflections of reflections. Here, the trees provide a respite from that infinity mirror effect, and from the lifelessness of too much glass. 

           If there’s one problem with the memorial and museum, it’s the cost of operating them: some 72 million dollars a year, according to Michael Frazier, the spokesman for the foundation that runs both. Of that, some two million dollars goes just to keep the fountains running. Is that a lot? “It’s not extravagant,” Arad said in a recent phone call, “when you consider that the memorial is visited by six million people a year.” 

           Besides, what’s two million compared to four billion, the nominal cost of Santiago Calatrava’s giant PATH station? Like the museum, the station is largely underground. But unlike the museum, it has a huge above-ground presence, thanks to a pair of steel wings reaching 160 feet above the plaza. Those wings form the roof of a monumental oval room, 350 feet long and 115 feet wide, known as the Oculus. It’s true that the long, narrow window at the building's apex parallels the sun’s path through the sky, allowing abundant natural light to reach the marble floor below. But this is no oculus (defined as a circular or oval window). Security concerns meant the steel ribs overhead – the building’s defining feature – had to be thicker and deeper than Calatrava intended (and thicker and deeper than at similar Calatrava buildings in other countries). That should have sent the architect looking for a whole new concept. But he plowed ahead, as if believing his own renderings. The result is that the roof is largely opaque: less a window, a glass surface supported by steel ribs, than a steel surface with thin glass insets. (Ironically, the effect recalls Minoru Yamasaki’s original Twin Towers, where the number of mullions relative to the amount of glass made being in the world’s tallest buildings claustrophobic.) Moreover, the amount of sky visible overhead, already limited, will be further diminished when the 1,362-foot-tall 2 World Trade Center rises to its north. The view, like so many New York views, will be of other buildings.  

           At least the “transit hub” is finally becoming a real hub: A connector to multiple subway lines at Fulton Street opened in 2016, and a station for the local 1 train (which had  passed through the hub without stopping) was completed in September, four years behind schedule. But the Oculus is ringed on two levels by retail, a travesty that makes the vast, and vastly expensive, room little more than a shopping mall. 



Is it useful to think about what might have been.? In 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation solicited concepts for redeveloping the site. From some 400 responses, a selection committee chose seven teams as semifinalists. The most dazzling plan (by architects Rafael Viñoly, Frederic Schwartz, and others, known as the THINK Team), called for two 1,665-foot-high reincarnations of the Twin Towers as space frames. The frames would have (over time) become vertical villages, with museums, restaurants, theaters, conference facilities, viewing platforms, and other amenities suspended within them. This so-called World Cultural Center had the potential to be as potent a symbol of New York in the 21st-century as the Empire State Building was for most of the 20th. But after the committee settled on THINK’s plan, New York’s politically ambitious governor, George Pataki, overruled it. In a shockingly self-aggrandizing memoir, "Breaking Ground," Daniel Libeskind suggests that his lawyer, Ed Hayes, helped persuade the governor to choose his plan over the THINK proposal. (Ungraciously, Libeskind compares the skeletal cultural towers to human remains.) 

           But Libeskind’s victory wasn’t much of a victory even for Libeskind. His plan called for a series of towers spiraling around the site, with angled roofs climbing, in a procession of peaks, to the 1,776-foot apex of his so-called Freedom Tower. At the foot of the towers, a vast 70-foot-deep pit would have provided access to the slurry wall, the concrete dam that keeps the site dry (and saved it from further calamity on 9/11). A museum building was to have extended into the pit. 

           Over time, virtually every distinctive (and some might say kitschy) element of Libeskind’s plan was scrapped. His procession of towers gave way to a collection of flat-roofed skyscrapers, each by a different architect. Eventually the Freedom Tower, designed not by Libeskind but by David Childs of SOM, was renamed One World Trade Center, in a concession to developers, who preferred a rentable tower to a patriotic symbol. 

           That rentable tower is uninspiring. Neither its shape nor its detailing rises above the ordinary (suggesting that Port Authority wasn't a great client, since the same David Childs, working for Silverstein alone, produced the far more elegant 7 World Trade Center immediately to its north). Even so, the tower has established itself as an important element on the skyline, a visual anchor for Lower Manhattan and a symbol of the city’s post-9/11 resurgence.

           What of the secondary towers? They try to distinguish themselves from each other and from the hundreds of other glass buildings crowding Lower Manhattan. But their distinguishing features, as with almost all office towers of the last 50 years, are no deeper than their curtain walls. Fumihiko Maki’s 4 World Trade Center is rigorous, reserved, its ice-slick surfaces intersecting crisply. Rogers Stirk Harbour’s 3 World Trade Center tries to be jaunty, even informal. Here, the inevitable glass surfaces are framed by white-painted steel beams, a nod to earlier Richard Rogers triumphs like Lloyd’s of London and the Centre Pompidou Center in Paris (with Renzo Piano). The trouble is that the building stands directly next to Calatrava’s riot of exposed structure, making its own attempts to “letting it all hang out” seem feeble. 

  One unbuilt building promises to be sublime. That’s the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, its three theaters able to assume multiple configurations, separately and together, with Swiss watch-like precision. As its architect, the Rem Koolhaas disciple Joshua Prince-Ramus, told me recently, “The building will be different every time you’re here. The more you use it, the more your expectations will be confounded.” But from the outside, the building will give away none of its secrets. It will be shrouded in thin marble sheets, designed to glow at night like the facades of Gordon Bunshaft’s fabled Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. But, this being the World Trade Center site, the stone will be sandwiched between layers of shatterproof glass.

           It would be great if by day the glass became invisible, allowing the stone to dominate. That would make the building a link between the Center’s new glass towers and what remains of an earlier, less reflective downtown, including the 1930s Federal Building at 90 Church Street, directly north of the site. If, on the other hand, the stone becomes invisible, the performing arts center, which shows so much promise, could be just another glass building.

           And the last thing the site needs is another glass building.  The World Trade Center is successful urbanistically, thanks in large part to the memorial plaza, and that’s something to celebrate.  But architecturally it’s a microcosm of a city in which commercial developers turn to the same material over and over, despite the importance of variety to making neighborhoods feel “real.” Then, too, given its history, the World Trade Center called out for the solidity, the gravitas, of heavier materials. The underground spaces at the center (the memorial fountains and the museum) have that solidlity and gravitas; it’s too bad the above-ground architecture doesn’t follow suit. 


*  Full disclosure: Precisely because I believed that the World Trade Center site wasn’t big enough for all the elements it was expected to contain, I designed a 9/11 memorial adjacent to Battery Park. It consisted of two piers, the size and shape of the Twin Towers, projecting into New York Harbor, one pointing to the Statue of Liberty, the other to Ellis Island. After I (foolishly) decided to focus on another design idea, my partner, Charles Upchurch, entered the Twin Piers in the memorial competition. It was selected as one of nine finalists (out of more than 5,200 entries), then disqualified on the grounds that I had entered the competition twice. (I hadn’t.)

Fred Bernstein studied architecture (at Princeton) and law (at NYU) and writes about both subjects. In 2008 he won the Oculus Award, bestowed annually by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for excellence in architecture writing.