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Sincere monumentalists lose out to politicians in WTC development

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Just before Christmas last year, when the seven shortlisted schemes for the New York World Trade Center site were first made public, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave 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, a museum, tree-lined avenues, new parks and housing and the long-awaited rail link to Kennedy and La Guardia airports. Asked where the money for all this building was going to come from when there were 17 million square feet of vacant office space in Lower Manhattan - the largest office overhang since the great depression - Bloomberg proposed turning the area into a federal tax haven to attract foreign multinational corporations.

That was three months ago.

Now the federal tax haven is no longer spoken of and the international competition to design the WTC is over, with Daniel Libeskind declared the winner. Yet still the disconcerting lack of agreement about what will actually be built rumbles on, apparently unaffected by this great architectural event.

Instead, everyone involved - from the developer who owned the demolished underground shopping centre on the WTC site and still wants to rebuild it, to the tenants who will have to materialise to repopulate the empty offices and pay the rents needed to create demand for new floor space - insists that they must be part of the decision-making process.

This strange state of affairs illuminates the whole Lower Manhattan rebuilding project. It finds its origin in the unprecedented nature of the event that directly and indirectly created the 6.5 ha development opportunity, an event so sudden that every protagonist was caught, so to speak, on the back foot and recovering their balance took them the best part of a year. During that time, the sincere monumentalists, those whose interest in the site was motivated solely by a desire to commemorate what happened there on 11 September 2001, increasingly felt themselves losing control and slipping into the grip of the politicians, authorities and property barons of the city, who regarded the WTC disaster as a development opportunity first and a site for a monument second.

It was this division that led to the architectural competition being held prematurely, as a means of claiming back the project for the idealist camp, but in a way that was always hedged about (and still is, even with a winner chosen), with disclaimers to the effect that 'the final scheme will be different', that 'the market will decide what goes there', that 'it won't happen for years'and so on.

This is not to say, of course, that the port authorities and the property interests do not want a monument for the thousands who died. But it is to say that the real monument - as evidenced by recent changes to Daniel Libeskind's scheme - is Ground Zero, the huge excavation that was originally an attempt at rescue but is now rapidly disappearing under a new railway interchange. There is a conviction about Libeskind's non-treatment of this space that is absent from the jeu de desespoir of his jagged office blocks, surmounted as it is by a kitsch 1,776 feet (541 m) 'spire' with its silhouette cut to the shape of the Statue of Liberty. In any case, the property men have outflanked the monumentalists again. As though to confirm the temporary nature of all their seductive visualisations, Mayor Bloomberg has opened his book of superlatives again and embraced the Libeskind scheme as 'guaranteed to become an internationally recognised icon of our city'.

The word on the street is 'wanna bet?'

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