Compromise versus vision?

Times Staff Writer

If you think this week's announcement that Studio Daniel Libeskind has been selected to redesign the World Trade Center site is a victory for architecture, you are partly right.

Libeskind's design was chosen over a proposal by Think, a team led by Rafael Vinoly, Frederic Schwartz and Shigeru Ban. And of the two finalists' proposals, Libeskind's was the more promising. When it was unveiled in December, Libeskind's scheme seemed to capture the complexity of a site layered with contradictory meanings.

Its central concept -- the creation of a dense cluster of faceted towers anchored by a vast memorial pit -- embodied the dual themes of memory and resurrection that could potentially imbue the development with genuine symbolic resonance.

But the design selected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. was not the same design that was unveiled to the public. Both teams were forced to significantly revise their proposals to meet conditions set by the development corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In the process, both projects lost a great deal of conceptual clarity. The results were timid, polite versions of the original designs.

Those who care about architecture may take solace in the fact that Libeskind's design is not final. Officials, for example, have yet to settle on the site's specific cultural components. Once they do, it remains unclear which buildings Libeskind will get to design. But more important, the competition process has demonstrated the degree to which political considerations still threaten to compromise the creation of any strong architectural statement at ground zero.

Libeskind is essentially the survivor of an architectural competition that ranks among the most contentious in American history. The political jockeying began last July, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. unveiled the first six proposals for the site. Those designs -- a banal collection of pseudo-traditional schemes designed by the architectural firm Beyer Binder Belle -- were met with widespread public derision.

Since then, the development corporation has struggled to prove that it is willing to invest in first-rate design. The selection process took a promising turn in September, when the agency launched a limited competition that included many of the world's most celebrated architectural talents. The agency narrowed the field to the two finalists in early February.

At some point during this final round, however, the process seems to have reverted to politics as usual. Both teams faced often hostile public scrutiny. Both became well-versed in the skills of self-promotion. Meanwhile, they have spent endless hours adapting their designs to satisfy the concerns of city, state, development corporation and Port Authority officials. The architecture suffered.

In Libeskind's initial scheme, for example, the site was anchored by a vast 6-acre void that descended 70 feet into the ground, exposing both the concrete slurry wall that protected the site from the Hudson River and the bedrock on which the city rests. A museum, enclosed within a shimmering glass-and-steel cube, would hover over the void's northeast corner.

Opponents of the plan have attacked the void as a morbid reference to the past -- a gigantic tomb for the nearly 3,000 dead. In fact, the void's power stemmed from the ambiguity of its meaning. The exposed bedrock, according to Libeskind, is meant to represent the foundations of American democracy. The slurry wall acts as a metaphor for the moral strength needed to support those values. As the country marches toward war, the void also conjures a more chilling image: It serves as a reminder that Sept. 11 was also the moment at which America began to aggressively defend its interests through military means.

But to accommodate the Port Authority's demand for several levels of underground bus parking, Libeskind was forced to reduce the depth of the void to a mere 30 feet. Libeskind sought to preserve the idea of exposing the bedrock by creating a smaller trench -- this one the length of a football field -- at one corner of the memorial space. He has also added a slender glass wall along the footprint of the former north tower, allowing light to spill into the concourse below. Nonetheless, the overall effect is subdued. The meaning of the original gesture is at risk of being entirely lost.

In another significant compromise, Libeskind had to increase the required commercial space in the towers from 7.25 million square feet to 8.25 million. The bulkier towers lack the slim elegance of the originals. Instead, they share an uncanny resemblance to the World Financial Center across West Street, an unimaginative cluster of 1980s-era corporate office buildings. What is more, the new towers threaten to dwarf the wedge-like parks that carve through the plan and are one of its most dynamic features.

What was sacrificed, finally, was the sense of visual proportion that gave the project its creative impact. The power of Libeskind's initial composition stemmed from the tension between its various elements -- the weight of the void, the instability of the museum building, the lightness of the towers. Lessen that tension and the project inevitably suffers.

Libeskind was not the only one forced to make such compromises. The key features of Think's proposal were two 1,665-foot latticework towers, their hollow frames supporting a series of loosely stacked cultural buildings. The building's odd-shaped forms -- a library, performing arts space, museum, conference center and memorial gardens -- seemed to float within their vertical cages. Ghost-like apparitions, they were clearly intended to evoke the memory of the former World Trade Center.

But as the design evolved, that image seemed harder to realize. Once the architects dealt with structural and mechanical issues, the towers would have lost the delicacy implied by the original renderings. As such, most of the cultural buildings were removed. A museum was relocated to the lower portion of one of the towers. All that remained above were two memorial platforms. As such, the two towers would have become redundant, a pair of empty frames that would have existed as a sentimental emblem of what once stood on the site.

In another strategic move, Vinoly, the team's most visible player, began telephoning a number of internationally renowned architects to see if they would be willing to work with Think if its plan won. Vinoly's idea seemed to be that aspects of his design could be parceled off -- a transportation hub by Frank Gehry, for example, or an office building by Zaha Hadid or Greg Lynn, who was a member of the competing United Architects team.

That notion was somewhat intriguing. In a sense, Think's project would have become a sort of Trojan horse, allowing some of the world's great talents to slip into the design process through the back door.

In the end, the fact that the visions of both design teams were so severely compromised after only three weeks of tinkering is a telling indication of what Libeskind faces next.

The development corporation has made significant progress since last July's ludicrous public relations disaster. But the various forces that control the World Trade Center site's future continue to show a disturbing willingness to sacrifice architectural vision for the sake of political expediency. They are quick to succumb to commercial pressures.

Libeskind may be better equipped than most for such a challenge. He is no stranger to politically charged commissions. He first made his name with the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a project that sought to address Germany's legacy during the Holocaust. As can be imagined, that project caused a high degree of hand-wringing and soul-searching on the part of the German government. Libeskind weathered the storm. The result was a remarkably eloquent expression of the Jewish experience in Germany, from the horrors of the Holocaust to ultimate salvation.

In New York, Libeskind will have to demonstrate a similar strength of conviction. He will have to find a way to reassert the kind of architectural language that could lead to the creation of a lasting aesthetic experience. He will have to resist being pushed into irrelevance. In a sense, he must become a public spokesman for architecture.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and Port Authority, meanwhile, will have to prove that they have a genuine interest in creating an architecture of substance, not simply in quieting public expectations. Hiring a name-brand talent is not enough.

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