Within hours of the first rubble hitting ground zero, prominent architects were already fielding calls from reporters: Should we rank the towers among our finest skyscraper designs, and what should we now build in their void? Opinions were sharply divided—just as the World Trade Center has stirred controversy since its plans were first unveiled in 1964.
Its minimalist striped shafts have been called audacious acts of late modernism and soulless, intimidating boxes. The only traces of ornament on their aluminum-alloy skin, the rows of pointed arches at their peaks and ground floors, have been hailed as touches of humaneness and castigated as precursors of postmodernism. “I couldn’t stand that Gothic base,” said Phyllis Lambert, founding director and chair of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. “I took those buildings for granted,” she added. “They were anodyne as architecture. I don’t think I ever went up them.”
Two features of the towers, however, have drawn universal praise in recent weeks, largely because they saved thousands of lives. The blandly oversize plaza allowed occupants to flee the showers of debris without trampling one another, and the structural systems withstood purposeful hits from Boeing 767s at full speed (they were designed to endure the impact of a 707) far longer than the engineers anticipated, finally imploding rather than toppling over to one side.
Uncannily, as architectural historian Samuel Albert of Hebrew University in Jerusalem points out, the towers were the second set of buildings by the center’s lead architect, the late Minoru Yamasaki, to collapse as the world watched. In the mid-1950s Yamasaki designed a housing project in St. Louis called Pruitt-Igoe, replacing a 19th-century slum; by the early ’70s, Pruitt-Igoe itself had become such a drug-infested complex that the city had it blown up. News footage of the demolition, replayed in countless documentaries and architecture-school classrooms, signaled the demise of modernist urban renewal plans. The site where Pruitt-Igoe stood is still largely derelict.
The twin towers, too, were an example of downtown clear-cutting: blocks of vintage buildings, including a ca. 1908 train station, had been razed to make room for them. And although they never became as obsolete as Pruitt-Igoe, they hadn’t exactly kept pace with the financial district’s radical changes over the past 30 years, notes architect Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (a firm whose high-profile projects around town include a 1996 remake of the now-lost Windows on the World). Residential and cultural complexes now dot the neighborhood. Numerous older skyscrapers, with floor plates too small and mechanical systems too primitive to suit modern business needs, have been transformed into trendy loft homes. Battery Park City, with its combination of apartments, town houses, office buildings, museums, and parkland, has arisen on landfill created by the towers’ original excavation.
To fill the new 16-acre hole, a number of architects have proposed mixed-use complexes along the lines of Battery Park City. For instance, Susana Torre, former chair of the Parsons School of Design’s architecture program and a principal with Team Design Associates, suggested that a midrise commercial tower adjoin “a new World Arts Center for the display, performance, and research of cultures across space and time,” perhaps in structures designed by Frank Gehry. Diane Lewis, an architect and professor of architectural urbanism at the Cooper Union, said that a team of globally scattered architects could be invited to collaborate on various “civic humanist institutions” for the property, including an institute for antiterrorism research. “It would be a sacred act,” she said. “It would be a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Most of the recent proposals also include an explicit sculptural memorial at ground zero, such as a stone column or pavement, or tower-shaped troughs etched with victims’ names (as proposed by artists as diverse as Louise Bourgeois, Shirin Neshat, and New Yorker illustrator Steve Brodner), or a twisted facade shard (per both Barbara Kruger and Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello). Neshat, as well as John Baldessari and architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, have argued that the bulk of the property should be left hauntingly empty. Old-guard architects including Robert A. M. Stern, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier, meanwhile, insist that some kind of far-reaching tower must reclaim the land, in defiance of the terrorists’ desire to humble the skyline.
Eve M. Kahn writes about art and architecture from New York.