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Heading toward dawn in New York

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in chief

 

While I was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in the profound quiet of the early morning, the lights of the city were out. Directly ahead lay the void where the World Trade Center towers had stood. In the darkness, New York seemed organic, incomplete, poised for conception.

I was beating the dawn into the city to join the media throng that would gather later in the day for the announcement of an architectural team for the WTC site. Already the drums were beating the news: Studio Libeskind had been selected. In a few hours, crowds would converge just across the way from my car at the World Financial Center to hear the formal pronouncement, but already the word was out.

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How vastly different the trip across that same bridge had been on September 11, when we had escaped the collapsing towers, an event that tore the veil from our innocence. In the smoldering weeks and months that followed, tumbling events seemed to be propelling us all toward the mundane, when all along we knew the defining, historic imperative before us: this was the existential moment, the time to act and declare who we are.

Every day has brought new drama, complicating the scenario and obscuring the goal. What do the fractious interest groups say? How can the surviving families be accommodated? What to do with the demands for office space, when so little is needed now? Which project does Herbert Muschamp favor? Where, please, is the governor in all of this? Who’s on first?

Events roiled like smoke and threatened to consume us. Yet here I drove on February 27, toward a city that had made up its mind. The decision was foreshadowed in December, when seven teams of architects presented their visions for the future of the southwest quadrant of lower Manhattan. As soon as he spoke and the images jumped across the screen, Daniel Libeskind had captured the moment.

With the passion of an émigré, the confidence of a showman, and the architecture to back it up, he kicked off the presentations with a singular idea—to save the original foundation wall that remained. Surrounding and surmounting this historic shard were crystalline forms rising to a dizzying height, yet asymmetrical and modulated against the prickly skyline of lower Manhattan. The project rose and fell with the city’s own rhythms, kicking in with its own powerful lyricism. It dropped to bedrock and reached for the stars: Libeskind’s project fit the city.

Nearly universal critical acclaim ensued, including a powerful endorsement from Ada Louise Huxtable and an editorial in the New York Times; this magazine backed the scheme as well. More especially, the Libeskind plan struck a nerve with ordinary people. How amazing to hear friends outside the architectural inner circle debating its merits, comparing Libeskind to Think, probing, doubting, but hooked.

Daniel and his wife Nina pursued the successful decision with an enthusiastic singleness of purpose that betrayed force and commitment. Both qualities will be required in the future, as commercial and political interests gather like stormclouds.

We owe all of the teams a profound debt for taking personal and professional risks, for committing extensive resources, and for caring as strongly as they did. In hindsight, their actions were heroic, accompanied by limited compensation and an uncertain chance for execution. While the Think team must be both exhausted and disappointed, their actions advanced and heightened the debate. We were all elevated by the poetry of the twin towers they proposed, and intrigued.

Ultimately, Libeskind and Think, Norman Foster and SOM all joined in the rejuvenation of New York. By envisioning what we might become, and arguing strongly for their ideas, they lifted us all to a fresh, new place—a prospect for viewing our city as it might become. While the final decision might have been miscast as a competition, the only true winners were New Yorkers themselves, who embraced design, and architecture, in a strong new way.

We rumbled off the bridge and headed toward the lights.

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