A Question of Civil Rights

We have the right to clean air, clean water, and clean food.

On a bright, crisp mid-December morning Cesar Pelli’s recently restored Winter Garden glimmered with holiday lights strung above the palm trees. The crystalline pavilion was filling up with members of the press bearing bulky coats, cameras, notebooks, computers, and cell phones. The best seats in the house were reserved for the business, arts, and public-service sectors, their representatives all busy working the room. As we waited for the presentation to begin, I watched the workers from the World Financial Center gather on the surrounding balconies. I wondered what they would think of this event, clearly choreographed as a public-relations moment, not a public dialogue seeking real input.

After all, the new designs about to be revealed for the World Trade Center site would have the most profound meaning to the people who work and live in the area. Any design, the thought kept buzzing in my head, must be first and foremost about the people who use it. These particular people know their urban environment in intimately horrifying ways. They walk by the pit every day, watch as more restaurants and shops get padlocked, negotiate hard-to-pass streets, dodge traffic, and risk their lives crossing Route 9A (quaintly called West Street)—and through it all, they simply try to live with what happened there on 9/11.

I kept glancing in their direction as architect Daniel Libeskind began with his trip down into the pit and talked of “listening to its voice,” which at once shocked and inspired him. What survived the collapse—the great slurry walls that hold back the Hudson’s waters—is at the core of his design. His words were filled with sympathy for people, an understanding of their sorrows and hopes and memories, a sensitivity to how New Yorkers use their city’s streets, parks, and skyscrapers. Here was a theoretician who could have spoken in the obscure tongues of his peers, but the tragedy of the place and its potential rebuilding brought him down to earth, took him deep inside, and then sent him soaring into the sky with glass-and-steel behemoths.

When Lord Norman Foster spoke, we heard a voice made strong by a deep understanding of how the natural world can coexist with our high-tech inventions and how green design can sustain all kinds of life on the street, below the ground, and in the sky. Foster, who has become a recognized master of green architecture in his native England and elsewhere, offered two towers—“the tallest, greenest, strongest” structures—that would touch each other in the sky but not touch the footprints of the twin towers that were there before. His gardens in the clouds looked workable and showed an imagination rarely seen in green design here.

As morning became afternoon, the differences between Lord Foster and our homegrown talent—including the Meier-Eisenman-Holl-Gwathmey and the SOM teams—were depressingly revealed. Our men were capable only of timid nods to sustainable architecture; roof gardens and PV cells are nice details, but they need to be part of a whole system of thinking for an environmentally challenged twenty-first century.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (the agency charged with rebuilding the site) did seem to play the role of informed client: their development program made mention of green design. But the agency also overwhelmed its architects with square footage. The LMDC’s original program, publicly derided when the first six plans came out last summer, was still in place (and somehow grew bigger), clearly dismissing the public’s misgivings about size and scope and approach, even as the agency promised to listen to us.

Here were some sexy new designs for 10 million square feet of offices, 1 million for retail, a quarter of a million for a hotel—and still no residential development within the 16 acres (though some of the proposed skyscrapers suggested this possibility). What we saw were star architects acting as salespeople for developers. These wonderfully creative minds were giving us advertisements for a muscle-bound, unsustainable development.

How did all this play on the balcony? Do the folks from the neighborhood make the link between their dying streets and the polluted air they breathe, and the possibility of fixing these ills through design? Do the designers themselves make that link? How will we know the answers to such questions if we don’t talk about design and architecture in a real public forum? Do we even know how to have a public forum?

Lower Manhattan can be the place that brings architecture into public service. But this won’t happen if we insist on treating architecture as advertisement.

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