Reflecting on 1 World Trade Center

With Michael Kimmelman weighing in on 1 World Trade Center earlier this week, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was an Associate at SOM back in the mid-1980s, where it was my privilege to work with many of the very talented architects and designers who eventually played leading roles in the design and construction of 1 World Trade Center.  Unfortunately, talent and hard work are too often placed in the service of disappointing ends.

While SOM’s execution is superb, Mr. Kimmelman’s overall assessment was too kind.

Even so, when SOM shoved Daniel Libeskind out of the way, and I have no doubt that their fingerprints are all over that one, we were done a great service.  Daniel Libeskind is really in the business of winning architectural competitions, a great business by the way, but not necessarily the same business as actually making the buildings that his renderings conjure up.  As seductive as the renderings may have been, and they were, and as heartfelt his accompanying “Memory Foundations” essay was, and it was the best part of his entire submission, the resulting buildings would have been even more disappointing than what was really built.  The fault, though, really lies in the plan, which was flawed from the beginning.

Before that beginning, there was a far better plan back in 2002, proposed by Beyer Blinder Belle, another well-known and very well regarded New York firm.  BBB’s plan clearly showed that they had reflected on the costly lessons learned from dozens of failed urban development projects since the 1960s.  Unlike the plan that finally took hold at the Trade Center site, BBB discarded many of the now-discredited planning strategies that go back nearly sixty years; more if you count the original sin, which is LeCorbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris from the 1920s.

Beyer Blinder Belle’s proposal charted a new course.  Streets destroyed for the construction of the original WTC would be restored.  The office space lost would be completely replaced, but in a series of smaller buildings, more appropriately and urbanely scaled.   There was an opportunity for mixed use development, so that people could live, work, dine, drink, meet, greet, take recreation, and enjoy fuller lives all in one neighborhood.  Open spaces would be woven into the new urban fabric, creating a harmonious rhythm of built and open, brick and green.  Many different architects would design individual buildings, creating variety, interest, and excitement.  There would, of course, be a memorial, perhaps more intimate and less bombastic than what is there.  And the economics would be more manageable, the growth more flexible and organic, responding to true market forces, not subvented ones.

The opportunity was there to reimagine urban development and redevelopment, and establish New York in its rightful place as the city where great ideas come from.  You can see at least some of that proposal here http://to.pbs.org/1nHZi6E

The reaction?  A resounding chorus of disdain and derision led by the late Herbert Muschamp, Mr. Kimmelman’s predecessor at the Times, and joined by the mainstream press, even, inexplicably, by Ada Louise Huxtable.

Mr. Muschamp, suffering from what I can only understand as a severe case of cultural inferiority, railed against BBB’s proposal, even going so far as to call it “blah, blah, and blah”, advocating instead a collection of office towers, each designed by a global superstar architect, arrayed as if in a kind of museum of late-career-toppers by the superannuated darlings of the global architectural press.  Mr. Muschamp seemed to believe that by building these things, New York would finally get “good” architecture.  The fact is, New York has lots of talented architects, and plenty of good buildings; while developers may need them to push their wares, New York as a city doesn’t need branded starchitect buildings the way, for example, Milwaukee needed its Calatrava, or China needs just about everything.

Chances are, given George Pataki’s delusions of national office, the Port Authority’s internal machinations, and the power of not only Larry Silverstein but the entire New York real estate business, no other plan stood a chance, and the press went along for the ride. Still, one has to wonder what form the discussion would have taken had Mr. Muschamp and others considered the logic of BBB’s plan, and advocated its more evolved thinking, instead of championing the outmoded ideas that have driven the planning of the Trade Center site.

There’s cause for cautious optimism here.  Mr. Kimmelman has had some success in his advocacy for the relocation of Madison Square Garden, the demolition of the current Garden, and the construction of a world-class new Penn Station.

That’s a project we all can, and should, get behind.

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