Rebuilding in New York
by Tess Taylor
It has been just over two weeks since terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center led to the collapse of the landmark twin towers. To varying degrees, and for those who can manage it, the routines of Manhattan have restarted. The city, in its myriad ways, is going about the work of going back to work.
While chain link fencing keeps casual onlookers from a close-up view, the enormous absence is visible from miles away. Stripped of its minimalist, sculptural figurehead, the prow of Manhattan seems to disappear, rather than loom, in the distance.
Meanwhile, the city's public spaces commemorate a multitude of private absences and griefs. Collections of flowers, candles, and handwritten notes wait at corner kiosks and subway stations.
However, most New Yorkers are more-or-less ready to fulfill the promise that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani offered on the day of the crisis: "We will rebuild: We're going to come out of this stronger than before, politically stronger, economically stronger. The skyline will be made whole again."
The Rebuilding Debate
But what should rebuilding mean? As discussions begin, they, like the practice of architecture itself, waver between the need for structural concern and the hunger for poetic gesture.
There is no shortage of opinions about how to fill the site. One might in fact make two small towers of the opinions in favor of and opposed to the rough idea of "rebuilding."
Opinion editorials from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Dallas on rebuilding the World Trade Center suggest exact replacements, memorial gardens, peace parks constructed of combinations of ruins and plants, or different, but also double, towers. If the tower of opinion in favor of rebuilding appears higher, it is only slightly higher than its twin, which favors other courses of action.
Architectural critics are writing flurries of commentary. Scholar Michael Sorkin asserts that the idea of rebuilding towers disavows the deep, pervasive sense of rupture present in the city. James Howard Kunstler claims that the fall of the World Trade Center marks end of the skyscraper. Robert A.M. Stern believes we can and should rebuild taller buildings.
At the online Architecture Forum, a diverse community of architects and lay participants are engaged in an ongoing lively discussion, with opinions represented from across the spectrum. As always, ArchitectureWeek readers are invited to join the conversation.
Housing Displaced Workers
Even as architects and citizens begin to circle the question of how to respond to the great absence, the city faces staggering logistical concerns for the short and medium term.
As the New York Times reports, when the fourteen acres of glass and several miles of steel fell, they destroyed a space that held 15 million square feet of office space for 50,000 workers and 80,000 visitors daily. Accounting for all the other buildings damaged and destroyed, the total of replacement office space needed will be substantially higher.
"Whatever the symbolic damage to the landscape of Manhattan, businesses need immediate, medium-term office space if the city is to preserve its economic base," said Levi Kiil, an architect at HLK. Although there are some vacancies in the rest of Manhattan, large blocks of contiguous office space are rare.
On the Monday after the attack, as soon as the most immediate shocks were subsiding, the mayor, in conjunction with the real estate board, and New York City Partnership, appointed a reconstruction commission to oversee the process of seeking space for relocated companies.
From an occupancy perspective, what is happening elsewhere in the city may be more important to watch than the site of destruction itself. Less than two weeks after the attack, the New York Times despaired that businesses were taking up temporary residence as far away as Jersey City.
The Times real estate section announced that four large parcels of land are up for redevelopment in the New York borough of Queens, across the East River from the United Nations and midtown, and that borough president Claire Schulman favored altering the Queens master plan's height and density regulations in whatever way necessary to spur rapid development.
New York has always prided itself on its density and its centrality, as a city that holds itself tall in contrast to other, low-lying and sprawling metropolises. If it sticks for the long term, the present dispersal could lead to a different, more multicentered city.
Metamorphosis of the Financial District
Yet it is possible that if the terrorists attacked a monument, they may also in some ways have destroyed a fossil. The loss to the financial district might itself be primarily symbolic, since some analysts have been predicting the demise of the lower Manhattan financial district for some time. For years, financial firms have been moving north to midtown.
This might not be such a bad thing for lower Manhattan. At the feet of the World Trade Center Buildings, the neighborhood of the financial district had been steadily becoming more residential. Corporate office towers, especially on such a scale, might no longer be the best fit for the place.
The press of redevelopment suggestions has brought mixed responses from architects across the city. Margaret Helfand, principal of Helfand Meyer Guggenheimer, commented, "spurring the multicentered city may help bring prosperity to some of New York's more neglected boroughs."
Yet architects have expressed concern that jumping to conclusions, or casting away zoning regulations, even in times of crisis, can easily lead to shoddy, poorly considered development.
"The great concern is that there is a potential to rush to hasty solutions, whether commercial or commemorative, without adequate participation of those affected," said Frederic Bell, executive president of the AIA, New York Chapter.
Both Helfand and Bell see an important role for architects in the process. "We want architects at the redevelopment table," said Helfand.
As the city prepares to spend billions of dollars on reconstruction efforts, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, partner and chairman-elect at Skidmore, Owings and Merill offered this call to architects and civic activists:
"The city faces an extraordinary set of choices about infrastructure and creating a new city fabric. We must make the public aware that design can matter. We can use the set of choices ahead of us to fashion a better civic realm. We must be articulate representatives of the power of our profession. It is not a time for specifics, but an occasion for vision."
To Rebuild on the Site?
If redevelopment and dispersal must necessarily take place elsewhere in the short term, what of the site itself? From architects in New York and across the country, there has been an outpouring of suggestions and graphic expressions.
At meetings in New York since the attack, architects, planners, and real estate developers have gathered to come to terms with the deeper meaning of the destruction. For some, the idea of rebuilding new identical towers seems like a ludicrous act of denial of the universal sense of loss.
Perhaps one temporary reconstruction will be realized soon. Architects Gustavo Bonevardi and John Bennett paired with artists Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere to design a scheme for two laser towers "built" of light. With the help of Creative Time and the Municipal Art Society, two of the city's pioneering public arts organizations, they may realize the vision soon.
Perhaps the pale twins, shimmering as they light up the sky, will be a fitting tribute to this strange in-between time, while New Yorkers live in the presence of many ghosts.
J. Andrew Jarvis, chairman and CEO of the Philadelphia firm, Ewing Cole Cherry Brott, has sketched his own image of this idea. He says:
"One light would shine for each person who perished there on September 11, 2001. The lights would be placed within the giant footprints of the twin towers, recreating their volume in the night sky to remind us where they once stood. During the day, the site would be a public memorial garden, displaying the name, photograph and hometown of each person who died.
"At night," Jarvis continues, "the combined power of all their lights would slice through the evening haze into the heavens; far higher than 110 stories. The twin towers of light would signify that buildings may fall and people may die, but the spirit of our nation endures. Steel may fail, but light cannot be destroyed."
Summarizing an Ambiguous Symbol
In the rush to remember, it is easy to forget that the buildings had always spurred debate. Architecture critics, from Blair Kamin to Paul Goldberger once denounced them as bad design. As Newsweek recently reported, their great height was partly a public relations boondoggle, as well as an architectural triumph, and their brief status as world's tallest building was conceived as a way of selling the image of a city to itself.
When New York hovered on financial crisis in the 1960s, the towers were built to buoy the city's image of self-preservation, but they were supplanted as the world's tallest buildings two years after they were completed.
Now, of course they mean a great deal more. To New Yorkers, friends, and neighbors, they are the epicenter of loss. As a result of the destruction of those towers, thousands of children of fire fighters, janitors, and investment bankers have lost mothers and fathers.
To a few terrorists, the buildings may have symbolized a great, monolithic evil empire. From close at hand, the towers were not were not so much a monolith as a microcosm of what the city holds.
On a basic level, the destruction of these austere cuboid monoliths on our skyline has provoked us to reflect on what buildings mean. To level a skyline is to assault a city's very idea of itself.
In the chaos of the attacks, New Yorkers assembled together in odd assortments, reorganizing all social relationships as they struggled to help each other through the crisis. As it rebuilds, New York is coming together, not humbled, but reordering in new, emergent, unknown, and hopeful formations.
Tess Taylor is chapter editor of Oculus, the AIA Chapter Newsletter, and a frequent contributor to Metropolis. She lives in Brooklyn