One Design Rises Above The Rest

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Architecture now has a Harry Houdini and his name is Daniel Libeskind. Alone among the modernists who brought forth bold new visions for Ground Zero on Wednesday, the Berlin-based Libeskind escaped the seemingly inescapable trap of crushing commercial space and monstrous mega-structures. He avoided, too, the pitfall of the postmodernists - a nostalgic throwback to the days when no one worried about hijacked jetliners smashing into office buildings.

Libeskind's plan for the former World Trade Center site at once offers a deeply moving memorial to those who died in the terrorist attacks and a joyous but dignified celebration of New York's street life and skyline, with a design that would create the world's tallest building.

It is a brilliant work of urban design that performs exactly the right tightrope walk for Ground Zero - balancing the acts of commemorating the dead and building a living city. Among the field, which includes at least three other world's-tallest-building schemes, it is without peer, proving that bigger is only better when it addresses the ground as well as the sky.

Already New York's developers are hissing that all the architects' proposals are mere fantasies and the market will - and should - be the prime shaper of the 16-acre site. Which is, in a sense, true: The new designs are simply suggestions of what might go at Ground Zero.

But if only the market matters, and not the public realm, then we have just been treated to one of the greatest charades of all time and can fully expect an urban planning disaster to be heaped upon the human tragedy already executed by the terrorists.

Officials invited seven teams to brainstorm ideas after the first six World Trade Center designs were derided for their stultifying sameness and for overstuffing Ground Zero with office space. The officials got real diversity. But while most of the new designs are rich in ideas, they would not create a richly textured cityscape.

Among them are several mega-structures, interconnected sets of high-rises rather than conventional, freestanding buildings. Their architects offer a wide variety of reasons for doing such structures, including more escape routes if terrorists strike again. It sounds great until you see the scaleless gigantism of what actually would get built.

The five interconnected towers by the team called United Architects, which would form a curving "veil" around a memorial, are easily the most spectacular of this bunch. But look more closely and you see that more care has gone into creating free-form, so-called "blob" architecture in the air than making human-scaled spaces on the ground.

The faceted twin towers of Britain's Lord Norman Foster are a disappointment coming from this distinguished architect - more fit for Shanghai than New York.

Manhattan's Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and associates propose an L-shaped group of five joined towers. Their ideal is to shape a grand civic space like Rockefeller Center. The reality is a supersized picket fence, graceless and uninspiring.

And so the mega-structure monstrosities go, from the team called Think's pair of giant, largely unoccupied lattices (unthinkable because they would cost so much and contain so little) to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's bizarre cluster of nine high-rises, which would render Ground Zero a glum forest.

After seeing these nightmarish, "Blade Runner" landscapes, it is a relief to encounter the traditional urbanism in the design by Peterson Littenberg Architects of Manhattan, with set-back towers and grand boulevards.

But the Peterson Littenberg scheme turns out to be the architectural equivalent of comfort food. It never truly comes to terms with the psychic shock of what transpired when the terrorists struck.

Libeskind's does, which will be no surprise to those who have visited his previous best-known work, the searingly powerful Jewish Museum in Berlin.

At the core of Libeskind's vision, both physically and emotionally, is the memorial - two 70-foot-deep holes that would extend down to the foundations that once supported the Twin Towers. Though the square holes would suggest a crypt, the design is not morbid. A museum would wrap the footprints at ground level. Libeskind includes an elevated walkway that encircles the site.

"Now everyone can see not only Ground Zero," he said, "but the resurgence of life."

In contrast to the mega-structures, which offer streets and parks in the skyscrapers' upper reaches, Libeskind wisely restricts his public spaces to ground level, realizing that pulsing streets are every bit as much the essence of Manhattan as tall buildings.

Yet his towers are reasonably good, recalling the romantic spires of lower Manhattan but displaying sliced tops that evoke the explosions that transformed this site. They're a family of freestanding buildings, the tallest surmounted by an iconic spire the architect calls a "vertical park."

Forget the cloying, patriotic symbolism of its height - 1,776 feet. Its gardens would spiral gracefully toward the heavens, recapturing the spiritual essence of the "Tribute in Light," the ghostly towers of light that captivated the nation earlier this year.

There are pragmatic, as well as aesthetic, reasons to support this plan. In contrast to the mega-structures, its skyscrapers could be built one by one, as the struggling market for new office space in lower Manhattan gradually revives.

But the ultimate appeal of Libeskind's design is that it superbly marries the poetic with the pragmatic, remembering and renewing. It has roughly as much office space as the original six designs and its competitors in the latest round. Yet miraculously, it wriggles out of these chains and gives us something magic.

Blair Kamin is the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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