Sacred Ground [home]
homeground zerofreedom towerarchitects

the limits of architecture - by paul goldberger

From Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture and the Rebuilding of New York by Paul Goldberger, copyright © 2004 by Paul Goldberger. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker and the dean of Parsons School of Design. He previously wrote for The New York Times for more than 25 years, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1984. He is also the author of The City Observed; The Skyscraper; On the Rise: Architecture and Design in a Postmodern Age; Above New York; and The World Trade Center Remembered.

After September 11, architecture seemed to have acquired a seat at the table of power, based on the belief that ambition of design could confer a depth and seriousness to whatever was built at Ground Zero.

In many ways the story of rebuilding Ground Zero has been a story of the struggle of a certain kind of idealism against the pressures both of money and of time. When the planning process began, it was buoyed by an overwhelming tide of emotion. It seemed, for at least a short while, that the usual rules of building in New York would be suspended in light of September 11 and that one positive effect of the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center would be a different way of looking at Manhattan real estate -- indeed, a different way of looking at the entire idea of the city. Rebuilding Lower Manhattan after September 11 was the first chance New York had in a very long time to produce an ambitious piece of civic planning. It was an opportunity for the most creative architects and planners in the world to turn their attention to the challenge of Lower Manhattan and to make use of the best design ideas that the last generation had produced. Everyone knew that it was already a very different neighborhood from the one into which the original World Trade Center had been inserted, vastly more interesting and diverse, and this could be a chance to make it better still, so long as decisions were made on the basis of what kind of uses, what kind of buildings, and what kind of public spaces would make the best twenty-first-century city for everyone -- not on the basis of what would make for the best short-term return for real-estate developers and investors.

 

That did not happen, in large part because the person with the most power in the planning process, Governor Pataki, did not choose to step in at the beginning and wipe the slate clean so that planning could truly have started from zero, not from the point at which the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein wanted it to start. That would not have been easy. But as the events of September 11 were unprecedented in American history, so, too, should the response have been unprecedented. After all that happened in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the destruction of the most powerful symbol of the American skyline, it is hard to believe that the public would have objected to a decision to take over these sixteen acres of land for public purpose, and to use public funds to purchase the land from the Port Authority or to buy out Silverstein's lease.

Still, it is wrong to think of the planning process, however much it may have failed to achieve its potential, as business as usual. Larry Silverstein's initial attempt to rebuild the site according to his and the Port Authority's wishes was firmly rebuffed. Even the most pragmatic politicians knew that Ground Zero could not be treated as if it were a normal real-estate project, and Pataki had started the LMDC in part to ensure that the planning process was at least somewhat more open to public review. Later, after the gubernatorial election of 2002, Pataki became more assertive, but it was far too late for a completely fresh start or for any radical rethinking of the site. All that was possible was to make the best of the conflicting forces that swirled around Ground Zero.

 

RELATED LINK

· Interview with Paul Goldberger
In this interview with FRONTLINE, Goldberger recounts how and why politics and design clashed in the building of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero and describes the end result as "a well-meaning but sad compromise."

Those forces could be summed up as political power, money, and architecture and planning. The first two are always part of life in New York and have always played a critical role in shaping the urban landscape. It should not be a surprise that they have continued to be potent factors at Ground Zero. The surprise would be if politics and money had become irrelevant. The third force -- design -- has risen and fallen and risen again in significance in the history of New York, but it has rarely, if ever, been the dominant force. Even the greatest works of architecture of New York, from Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge to the Woolworth Building, Rockefeller Center, and the Seagram Building, reflect economic and political forces and not solely aesthetic ones.

But design meant more at Ground Zero than it has for most of New York's history, and there are several reasons. The first has nothing to do with the events of September 11. Architecture has played a larger role in the culture for much of the last generation, thanks to a higher level of visual literacy and the increasing presence of notable, iconic buildings, not to mention the celebrity status of their architects. The relationship between architecture and political power and money was changing even before September 11, as architecture became, for better or for worse, a marketing tool for museums, civic buildings, apartment buildings, and even commercial office buildings and stores. Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum was drawing huge numbers of tourists to Berlin long before September 11, just as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum brought an onslaught of visitors to Bilbao. More to the point, office buildings by Norman Foster and Fumihiko Maki and Jean Nouvel (the three architects selected by Larry Silverstein to design the other three office buildings at Ground Zero, should they ever get built) were very different from the kind of banal commercial boxes created by developers a generation ago.

This is the cultural background against which the architectural campaign of Ground Zero was set: architecture was poised and ready, in a sense, to fulfill a new set of cultural obligations that the overpowering emotions of September 11 set before it. To many people, the very idea of design seemed to embody the idealism that was sought in the reconstruction of the sixteen acres. We would respond to this tragedy by showing the world the very best we were capable of, the most advanced and creative architecture we could produce.

It was a laudable goal, and what was particularly striking was the extent to which it was shared not only by architects and planners but by a wide range of citizens. After September 11, architecture seemed to have acquired a seat at the table of power, based on the belief that ambition of design could confer a depth and seriousness to whatever was built at Ground Zero. This belief not only inspired such disparate events as Max Protetch's gallery show in January 2002 and The New York Times Magazine's architectural beauty pageant the following September, it had a direct connection to the public's negative reaction to the initial schemes by Beyer Blinder Belle and the LMDC's subsequent attempt to turn around the planning process by initiating its master-plan competition. And it led to the extraordinary event with which this book opened, the presentation of serious and mostly avant-garde architectural proposals for Ground Zero before an audience of New York's leading politicians, civic leaders, and real-estate executives, and later to the celebrity of Daniel Libeskind, to Larry Silverstein's willingness to work with Libeskind, if not to give him authority over the design of the Freedom Tower, and to the selection of Santiago Calatrava to design the transportation center. In each instance, there was a shared belief that architecture was capable of being a force for good -- or, more to the point, that aesthetics might have some tangible effect on the quality of life and on the statement that New York City wished to make to the world.

The mistake many people in the design world made was in believing that the forces of power in New York, once they had decided to use architecture as a kind of calling card for the renewed city, would actually cede any significant degree of power to aesthetics. If architecture was given a seat at the table that it had never before had, that seat was not, as many critics and architects had expected, at the head of it. "Our goal was to build a twenty-first-century city -- theirs was to reelect George Pataki," a planner active in the process said, looking back on the events of 2002. The judgment may be harsh, but there is no question that political and economic forces remained in control. What played out through 2002 and 2003 was the use of architecture for political ends, not the use of politics for architectural ends -- that is the key moral of the story, to the extent that anything in this saga can be called a moral. However difficult it may have been for many architects, planners, and critics to accept this, the key political and economic decisions in the planning process remained more or less the same as they had been before architecture was elevated to the status of a political tool.

When the works of architecture are as fraught with political compromise as the buildings at Ground Zero appear likely to be, it is hard to believe that time will turn this effort into a triumph.

Architecture's power, then, was limited. This is not to say that design was mere window dressing, although there were discouraging moments when it certainly appeared to be no more than that. But at many of the most important junctures of the long process, architecture and the ambitions that quality design represents were a serious factor. So, too, was the role that various civic groups, such as New York New Visions and the Civic Alliance, played in trying to keep both the public and the official planners mindful of the notion that Ground Zero was not supposed to be business as usual.

The LMDC's master-plan competition, for all its flaws, represented an earnest attempt to marry the ambitions of serious design with political realities. But it was a marriage that was fated always to have two partners on unequal footing. The political and economic forces that prevailed at Ground Zero -- the state government, the LMDC, the Port Authority, the Silverstein lease, and the program requiring ten million square feet of office space and enormous amounts of retail space as well -- combined to all but overwhelm the abilities of talented architects to shape the site to its highest potential. The idealism of good design could not, in the end, mitigate the harshness of this extreme commercial program.

Architecture almost always reflects power, and it can never obscure it. Great architecture over time can take on its own reality, and its beauty can sometimes even render moot the circumstances of its creation -- no one thinks of Central Park in terms of the agonizing political struggles that went into its creation, for example, or of Rockefeller Center as a huge economic risk embarked on almost by accident by the son of the nation's richest industrialist. But when the works of architecture are as fraught with political compromise as the buildings at Ground Zero appear likely to be, it is hard to believe that time will turn this effort into a triumph. Libeskind's master plan has been whittled away, the Freedom Tower represents neither Libeskind's nor David Childs's ideas in their strongest forms, and the other office towers are so far in the future that it is difficult to imagine what forms they will take. Silverstein's decision to name three architects of international renown to design the other towers seemed to suggest that the developer had undergone an architectural epiphany of some sort, but given the absence of a market for these towers or the money to build them it is probably better thought of as an architectural publicity stunt. (Maki, Foster, and Nouvel met with David Childs in the winter of 2004, which could be taken as a sign that some work is being done on their buildings, but Libeskind was not present at the meeting, which made it clear that the process of trying to weaken the master-plan architect's control over the entire project was continuing unabated.)

The disappointment of Ground Zero is in part a failure of time. If the original architecture of the World Trade Center demonstrated a great fallacy of America in the 1960s -- the fallacy of size, the beliefs that bigger was always better and that American might and power could solve any problem -- the planning process since September 11 demonstrates the fallacy of America in the 1990s and beyond, which is the fallacy of speed, the belief that faster is always better. Faster is not better when you are trying to get beyond tragedy, because it denies the reality of mourning and of human nature, which is that psychological wounds take as much, if not more, time to heal than physical wounds and that you cannot rebuild a city successfully when you do not know entirely what you want it to be and when the wounds are still fairly raw. We have demonstrated many things in the rebuilding process, but patience is not one of them. We rushed into it, desperate to renew, as if building quickly would prove to the terrorists that our culture was strong and able and still on top of the world. But the pressure to build quickly was also, in part, a pressure to avoid rethinking the site from the beginning and to consider what alternative uses might, in the long run, serve the city better.

New York City is resilient, and so is Lower Manhattan, which will survive whatever happens at Ground Zero. Indeed, Lower Manhattan was in the middle of a remarkable transformation before September 11, as it evolved from being almost entirely an office district into a richly diverse neighborhood, with residences, restaurants, stores, and cultural facilities, many of which took over former office buildings. It is all but certain that the ultimate future of the neighborhood lies less in what is done in response to September 11 as in the continuation of all of the positive forces that were at play on September 10. These forces are continuing to strengthen. In some cases they have been reinforced by the LMDC itself, which has funded numerous improvements to parks and public spaces outside of Ground Zero. The one thing that is beyond doubt at this point is that Lower Manhattan will be an increasingly vibrant and diverse neighborhood, whatever form the sixteen acres of Ground Zero ultimately take.

Of course, those sixteen acres will symbolize New York's future, and if they turn out well, they will have the potential to raise Lower Manhattan from a lively and good downtown to one of the great urban centers of the world. Rebuilding Ground Zero is the first great urban-design problem of the twenty-first century, and for all that has gone wrong, for all that the planning process has often seemed weak and lacking in the clear, bold vision that we had hoped for, there have been plenty of times when it has brought forth waves of optimism and hope of a sort that New Yorkers had not seen in generations. Most of the time, idealism plays a role in planning in New York that is so small as to be barely worthy of mention, but on the sixteen acres that once contained the World Trade Center, it has counted for much more. If nothing else, the planning process has reflected the realities of New York at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Idealism met cynicism at Ground Zero, and so far they have battled to a draw.

 

 

home · introduction · the designs for ground zero · the freedom tower · the architects · limits of architecture
links · chronology · discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted sept. 7, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photograph courtesy LMDC
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

 

 
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS