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Big Apple spurns chance of a new beginning

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Daniel Libeskind's winning plan to rebuild on Ground Zero puts commercial imperatives above human ones, and has stirred much debate in New York, says William Menking

The contest to replace the fallen World Trade Center complex in New York City was the highest profile and most publicly debated architectural competition in US history and the person who would build the winning project wants nothing to do with it! Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein has only criticism for Daniel Libeskind's winning proposal, claiming, for example, that tenants will not be attracted to a building overlooking a graveyard memorial. In fact, many New Yorkers express a similar unease at working in a skyscraper on this site, especially one which might again become a symbolic target for terrorists. It is unlikely, in any event, that Silverstein will soon find tenants in this current property market for a new building and it may not be built for many years - if at all.

But the public debate surrounding the proposals for the vacant 6.5ha site is extraordinary, even by the standards of New York, where every new building rises under protest. Barely a day passes that another story does not appear in one of the city's newspapers on the various architectural schemes for a new Trade Center. New York's most important media voice, the New York Times, usually covers architecture only in its real estate or cultural sections. But when rumours began last week that Libeskind's proposal was the likely winner, stories began appearing daily on its front page.

Further, it seemed that every newspaper in the city covered the minutiae of the competitions. A Jewish paper, for example, claimed that ground zero had become a laboratory for Jewish architecture, highlighting the unprecedented rise to prominence of Jews in the Western architectural profession. It also asserted that Deconstruction, in which Libeskind is implicated, is a radical movement arising from the massive rupture in Western civilisation caused by the Holocaust and that it was a ground for rethinking the discipline of Western architecture.

Not to be outdone, the New York Post tried to create a controversy out of architecture with the banner headline, 'Sham plan for new WTC: soar loser?', that asserted the new World Trade Center is likely to end up looking a lot different from the way Libeskind has presented it. Finally, a long article was devoted to claims that workers in Libeskind's Berlin studio are circulating emails demanding the public seek the removal of Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times' architecture critic, for his alleged bias against their scheme.

This was the second time a competition had been held for the site, sponsored by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the builders of the original World Trade Center complex, and The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), a redevelopment organisation set up after 9/11. In the first, they sought plans from some of the city's most commercial and banal architecture offices and the public reaction to their designs was predictable. When their buildings were exhibited at a public forum, 15,000 people showed up at the session which lasted eight hours, and every group in the city condemned the projects as unworthy of the site.

In the meantime, a coalition of public organisations calling itself Visions New York created an ideas competition to enliven the debate.

This competition, to its credit, developed a sophisticated planning model that fully considered the city's neighbourhoods and residents, rather than simply the economic demands of the site's owners. Interestingly, it also includes a reassessment of American foreign policy and what a new center would say to the world about America. It selected 49 schemes to exhibit and hundreds of people viewed the results. Based on this model, Michael Sorkin's studio actually thought about what would make a livable working environment on the site and created a low-scale, high-density community of linear parks, housing and live/work spaces spread outside the site and across Lower Manhattan.Unfortunately, this competition seems to have had little impact and has faded into obscurity.

For this second competition, won by Libeskind, the Port Authority and the LMDC selected nine teams of architects to propose schemes. An installation of the results was visited by more than 100,000 people who offered 19,000 comments on the designs. It was from this shortlist that the final two contenders, the THINK collaboration led by Rafael Viñoly and Studio Daniel Libeskind were selected.

The THINK proposal for a World Cultural Center featured two intertwined, open steel, latticework structures each capable of supporting huge buildings and (like several other schemes) upper floor cultural centers and public spaces. Public spaces high in the sky seemed to be a popular feature of many of the schemes, including Libeskind, but one wonders whether anyone other than tourists would venture into them?

The second plan by Studio Daniel Libeskind, Memory Foundations, takes a sentimental and metaphoric approach to building on the site, but will this make for good architecture? Libeskind's scheme hopes to gauge New York and America's angst over the September 11 attack, unlike Norman Foster's, which seemed to simply be designed for a corporate client, which in other circumstances would have been a recipe for success in NYC. But the Trade Center site is unlike any other in this city's history. Thus Libeskind can seriously propose building as his centre piece the world's tallest structure - 1776ft tall, the year of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

The politics of this competition were amazing: the competition committee recommended the THINK team's latticework design, but were overridden by the Governor of New York State, George Pataki.

The media has reported that many people found the THINK team's proposal the most compelling, both on an urban design level and for its centrepiece, with its beautiful skeleton structure. However, THINK'S metaphors did not seem obvious enough to succeed as Libeskind's and many also found the skeleton morbid as a metaphor for the fallen building and dead who perished with it.

The Governor of New York claims he preferred Libeskind's proposal because it heroically pointed to the future, while the THINK proposal looked to the past and September 11. In fact the reality, according to insiders, is that the governor was afraid the THINK team's proposal would require a larger financial investment from the state, while Libeskind's asks Silverstein to make the largest financial commitment. It is from such prosaic issues that public policy is made and may explain Silverstein's dislike of the winner.

While Libeskind claims his design reaches a balance between history, memory, revitalisation and the future, it has many unfortunate similarities with Cesar Pelli's nearby World Financial Center. These Post-Modern towers were designed for how they would be seen approaching from the Hudson River. This is no more a way to design a city than Libeskind's claim that his designs come out of his emotional attachment to the skyline he first saw as he sailed into the harbour as a student. It is proof once again that architects without good planning guidelines should not be deciding about the future of such a huge part of the city. By the way, it is a shame that the one contemporary architect who has assiduously studied New York City's architecture, planning tradition and public spaces, Rem Koolhaas, has stood on the sidelines during this competition.

New York does not need another 'world's tallest building', but something more modest like affordable housing, linear parks and truly public spaces and institutions. Such modesty would be a sign to the rest of the world that New York has learned from its past and is building a new place that responds to its residents' needs - not those of tourism and property developers. It was a real crime that the adjacent Battery Park City, developed by the Port Authority, was created simply for its wealthiest residents and commercial greed, and this is what it is attempting once again.What a shame.

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