The National 9/11 Memorial opened to the public yesterday, with entry passes having been snapped up long ago by people from around the world. The emotional pull of the memorial is obvious, as was apparent in official ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary. I hadn’t really connected with the overwhelming need of family members to have something tangible to grasp onto. Just being able to touch their loved ones names on that memorial, in that site, was a long-awaited opportunity to gain some sense of closure, especially for those who have never recovered anything of their loved ones.
Other early visitors spoke of the serenity of the layout, of walking among the trees. They marveled at how the waterfalls block out street sounds, how the design effectively creates a sense of hallowed ground. It made me want to visit as soon as I can (and according to the web site, that isn’t until at least a month from now), which was a bit of a surprise, since I’ve had lingering doubts about the memorial from the beginning, doubts that spring largely from its place in the overall World Trade Center redevelopment plan.
It prompted me to revisit my own 9/11 keepsakes: a copy of The New York Times Magazine from September 2002, the first anniversary, that presents downtown Manhattan as reimagined by a group of architects including Rem Koolhaas, Richard Meier, Zaha Hadid and Rafael Vinoly. The issue was prompted by public outcry over architectural plans unveiled a few months earlier, showing Ground Zero rebuilt as a 1980s office park, with a cluster of nondescript office buildings and plenty ‘o retail space. The message: business outcomes trump creative urban design. I remember keeping the magazine specifically for that reason; the fascinating group of designs offered an alternative, a way to truly rethink life in downtown Manhattan, to both honor those lost and meet the needs of future generations. (The interactive pages connected to the issue are still available online, with designs and commentary from the architects.)
The architects proposed radically reshaping the landscape by transforming West Street, a traffic-clogged artery cutting Ground Zero off from the waterfront, into a tree-lined promenade with a mix of office buildings, residences, retail and community centers; vehicle traffic would run underneath. The WTC site would have a school “where architects, scholars and the public could create solutions to city problems—from traffic congestion to air pollution,” according to Meier’s concept. A cultural center would house a Confluence Center of World Religions in Steven Holl’s design: “Visitors could enter this museum through separate portals that incorporate the architectural motifs of major religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.” A communications tower nearby would be the world’s tallest structure, a stand-alone spire reaching 2,100 feet, with multiple observation decks. Maya Lin reaches beyond the idea of confining memorial spaces to the original tower footprints, offering one option of creating a promenade out to an island set in the Hudson River.
One could hope. Instead, as could have been predicted, redevelopment of the Trade Center site became bogged down in bureaucratic, political and emotional wrangling among parties with vastly conflicting interests. National security played a part in design drafts for the eventual One Trade Center (aka the Freedom Tower) now rising past the 80th floor on its way to the 105th, in symbolic symmetry to its ghost cousins. The tallest structure at the World Trade Center will be a building essentially designed by committee, with a 15-story concrete fortification at the base that radiates a very different message from the serene contemplation of the adjacent memorial. All it needs is a moat. The very idea of a cultural center embracing motifs of world religion is moot in a time of still-vigorous protest over a proposed mosque several blocks away.
The ideas are purely conceptual, of course. And not all of them seem viable today. (It’s probably just as well that Peter Eisenman’s design of twisted and crumpled office towers, a memorial “that could be appreciated from anywhere in the city,” was shelved.) But collectively they are a reminder of what could have been. This past weekend, looking out my Brooklyn window to the new One World Trade Center, decked out in cheery, patriotic bands of red, white and blue lights, that seemed one of the saddest legacies of 9/11: the forfeiture of a truly reimagined and architecturally vibrant downtown.