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New gangs of New York

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review - Sixteen Acres: The Rebuilding of the World Trade Center Site By Philip Nobel. Granta, 2005. 280pp £17.99

A couple of Christmases ago, when the seven shortlisted schemes for Ground Zero were first made public, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a speech in which he linked the project to the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.

He talked about a great monument, a huge investment in mass transit, new office buildings, a hotel, housing, a museum, tree-lined avenues, new parks and the longawaited rail links to Kennedy and La Guardia airports. Asked where all the money was for this building, when there were already millions of square feet of unlet office floor space in Lower Manhattan - the biggest office overhang since the Great Depression - Bloomberg spoke of turning the whole area into a federal tax haven to attract multinational corporations.

That was ages ago. Nowadays the 'federal tax haven' is no longer spoken of, the international competition to redesign the site has been held and the masterplanner's crown won by Daniel Libeskind, and everything is on track for a major building programme. Or is it?

Philip Nobel's book is a breathless gallop from the firestorm morning of 11 September 2001 - and what architects were doing in New York at the time. Rem Koolhaas changed his plans and stayed for several days, making several visits to the smouldering site after dark to absorb the atmosphere, while Frank Gehry played a much slower hand - though little good it did either of them in the end.

The book is written in the way that a frontpage story-writer would do, blow by blow:

'As New York lay supine, dazed from the boom and bust of the years before she was gobbling column inches with the story of her 16-count hit-and-run in the Hamptons?' If you can understand that, you will do just fine reading the rest - provided you factor in a dose of 'city lasagna' (residential towers in which the raw concrete edges are exposed, to save a buck, of course). From time to time thoughts of this kind - and worse - make their way into Nobel's narrative.

He records the appearance of the first graffiti, 'Fuck You', within days of the attack - 'the first essay at making meaning through construction at Ground Zero' (as he charitably records it). There are others to follow: T-shirts, boxer shorts, mugs and the inevitable mouse mats.

Next up is a rambling but entertaining dissertation on the life of Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the World Trade Center and also the notorious Pruitt Igoe housing project demolished in the 1970s. This leads into a discussion of public open spaces and the potential they have for information and advertising after dark.

Then back to the World Trade Center - its architecture having failed to communicate a specific vision, the project invites opinions from outside. These opinions typically have the twin towers as 'mysterious tombstonelike-monoliths', 'a pair of giant cigarette cartons' and 'an aluminium sided disaster'.

But the outcome is still uncertain - for everyone from the developer Larry Silverstein, who owned the obliterated underground shopping centre on the World Trade Center site and wants to rebuild it, to the possibly fictional horde of tenants who it is hoped will materialise upon completion of whatever does get completed and when. According to a recent New York Times, the Freedom Tower 'is back on the drawing board' because of fears over its security. Nobel could write a sequel.

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