Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

Creating a monument to capture the tragedy of 9/11 is no mean feat. Neither is writing about it. In its almost decade-long march from conceptualizing to development, plans from Ground Zero have literally had a lot of cooks stirring the pot. That makes for some slow processes, but hopefully one that's worth the long wait. Here's my update on it for Bluprint magazine.
The World Center battles politics and financials to rise again
Text and Photos by: Carren Jao
Edited by: Judith Torres
Published: October 2010

12 seconds. In the time it took the twin towers to fall September 11, 2001, the whole world changed. 2,819 lives were lost, hundreds of thousands psychologically wounded and a new era of (in)security dawned on us.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, New York—a city usually in constant motion—was immobilized. Families were in mourning and even those who lost no loved ones still felt the trauma of the past days’ events. In the space of just a few seconds, a gaping hole was left in the heart of the city. “Everything stopped. No one knew what was going to happen next,” said Rick Bell, the head of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The only certainty to be had was that whatever next steps there were it would be a difficult road. More than nine years after 9/11, it still is.

The World Trade Center will supposedly be completed by 2013. Today, it continues its labored march to completion.

To build or not to build

Out of the thousands of lives lost, only 289 bodies were found intact. 19,858 other body parts were recovered. Ground Zero had become the de facto burial site for many of the victims. In the months following the event, there were contradicting points of view coming from the public on how best to move forward.

It was not an uncommon sentiment to hear that nothing should be built over the land as a sign of respect. The then incumbent New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani argued strongly against commercial or civic redevelopment over the whole site. After all, under normal circumstances, who would build over a graveyard?

The more belligerent felt New York should rebuild and fast. But rebuild what? An exact replica of Minoru Yamasaki’s two metal boxes with 10 million square feet of office space? Real estate mogul Larry Silverstein, who has just leased the World Trade Center a few weeks before the tragedy, would certainly have been happy with that.

“Some elected officials, some very strong minded agitators, activists were saying, ‘We have to show these terrorists that they can’t destroy what we did. Look at how Berlin was rebuilt,’ you know, to rebuild it exactly as was before.” recounted Bell.

Bell and other architects, designers and planners advocated for yet another alternative. “We’re saying we should rebuild absolutely and quickly, but build it better than it was before.”

Bell was the spokesperson for New York New Visions, a coalition of New York architects, designers, planners and engineers that came together when it came to matters concerning the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, the site of the tragedy.

Concern like Bell’s was not uncommon. Almost everyone in New York wanted to have a say: the families of those in the towers and in the planes, firefighters’ widows, residents of Lower Manhattan, business owners in the area, not to mention New York’s morass of civic organizations.

Unlike most public works, where ironically the public had sway over the proceedings, the matter of what to build was in the hands of the many. The situation both helped and confused the already touchy matter of rebuilding. The Ground Zero design aroused unprecedented public interest. The city was fixated on architecture.

For the real estate developers, government officials, concerned citizens and bereaved families, every step in the process was a long-drawn out conversation mired in politics, red tape and seemingly incompatible interests. Never had the design and rebuilding of a space been so public or emotionally fraught.

The Max Protech Gallery in Chelsea exhibited design proposals by well-known architects. A two-day forum on Lower Manhattan designs at the Museum of Modern Art lasted for more than six hours on the first night. All 900 seats were filled at a public hearing on the future of Ground Zero on January 29, 2002. More than 4,000 people attended the Listening to the City event in Javits Convention Center where initial plans for Ground Zero were unveiled.

Both the New York Times Magazine and the New York Magazine had architectural commissions featured in their publications by such architects as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid for public scrutiny. “Now is the time for New York to express its ambition through architecture and reclaim its place as visionary city,” proclaimed the New York Times Magazine. [continued]


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