"A New World Trade Center"

Between January 17 and February 16, there was a show at the Max Protetch Gallery, a 20-minute walk from my office, called A New World Trade Center.

The show was conceived by gallery owner Protetch, who had watched the towers burn from his West-side apartment, shortly after September 11. He contacted numerous architects and artists, many famous and established, others newer and as yet little known, and asked them what they would like to see replace the World Trade Center. They were encouraged to be unconstrained in their vision; indeed, many of the plans were notable for their imagination and abandon rather than their feasibility.

In the month it was open, I visited the show four times. I was drawn there because in the previous 4+ months we had been steeped in the grim realities of September 11, the constant reminders of the attack, the null space on the southern skyline. (I look down Fifth Avenue from outside my office and see, far off yet clear, the black slab of the Deutsche Bank building, its gutted façade covered with a dropcloth, on its side the American flag and the banner thanking the rescuers; from 6th Avenue I see the pyramidal tops of the World Financial Center. Mornings, when I exit the subway at Union Square, following the same route I did the morning of September 11, I pass the shrine to the lost policemen, the posters from well-wishers around the world; when I emerge from the station on the park’s west side, I try not to look to the south.) It’s easy enough to get drawn into the horror, or fear of the future, but “A New World Trade Center” provided a way to look forward beyond the immediacy of sifting through rubble and recovering bodies, beyond the loss of so many and so much and into the cycle of rebirth. Several of my co-workers are in favor of rebuilding the Towers exactly as they were, but I disagree; it would be almost like rushing out to buy a new puppy to replace the one that was hit by a car. Rebuilding identical towers may have a certain “chutzpah” appeal (“we won’t let terrorists dictate our urban planning”--though ironically, terrorist thug-in-chief Mohammad Atta, who flew the first plane into the North Tower, had studied urban planning), but I don’t think it really acknowledges what happened and how it’s changed our world. For me, whatever replaces the WTC must on one hand honor those who died and all who stepped forward to help, giving so freely of themselves in our time of need, and on the other hand it must look to the future, to help shape our course through these perilous times while retaining our highest ideals, to have something truly bold and wondrous rise from the site of such loss and devastation. I found that just visiting the show helped improve my mood, and feel like I was beginning to live in the solution and not always in the problem.

The show was dedicated to an architect named Samuel Mockbee (1941-2001), who related his own ideas to Protetch from his deathbed: two towers, taller than the originals, and between them a well or shaft sunk 911 feet into the ground, with a memorial reflection pool, a chapel, and a cultural center at the bottom. It can be reached either by elevators or by descending a spiral staircase that encircles the well, sort of like a “reverse Guggenheim”. Many of the projects included one or many towers, in some cases evocative of the originals though usually quite different. In several cases, they were made of materials that could change color or appearance to reflect weather, occasion, etc. Almost all were integrated with a memorial, often highlighting in some way the null-space left after the destruction of the towers. (One of the memorials actually came to be, the Towers of Light ) Many designs contained ample green space, bringing trees, gardens, pools, in one case a stream onto the 16 acres; others were futuristic (though rather sterile) constructs of metal and glass. Many tried to integrate the WTC site, which had been set off by itself, into the surrounding community. Many of those asked to contribute balked at first, saying it was too soon to even visualize what would come after, but often went back and came up with something related to the subject, often purely conceptual, such as Reflect/Remember , with the empty skyline but spectral towers reflected in the river. One intriguing proposal consisted of a World Bridge spanning the Hudson, leading to World Forum memorial with huge globe, cultural and information centers.

The show provided a large body of ideas, food for thought in considering what will actually be constructed on the site. A number of city officials and urban planners attended the show; I hope it will help them in developing a final plan for the site.

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