May '03 [Home]


The Human Scale:  David Libeskind's Design for the World Trade Center Site

by Christopher A. Miller

"I didn't want to lose the human scale." --Architect Minuro Yamasaki's joking answer as to why he called for two 110-story towers, instead of one 220-story tower, at the World Trade Center.
. . .

Sculptor Richard Serra has said that architecture is not art, and that architects are not artists. Serra, who knows something about public art, explains this loaded statement by noting that

art is purposely useless . . . its significations are symbolic, internal, poetic—a host of other things—whereas architects have to answer to the program, the client, and everything that goes along with the utility function of the building.

In other words, a house must provide comfortable spaces for eating and sleeping. A school must provide safe spaces for discussion and study. A laboratory must provide technical spaces for experiments. Art, say a poem or a painting, must do nothing other than be a poem or a painting. Serra admits there are overlaps between architecture and sculpture. Both can inspire and both can move the viewer in a multitude of ways. Similarly, architecture can be experienced like music or like an epic, as one moves through and around a building and listens to the story it tells in its lines, light, and surfaces. However, if architecture does not fulfill its prescribed requirements as a building, then it has to be considered a failure as architecture, even if it is a success as art. Successful architecture, meaningful architecture, exists in a kind of shadow land between function and beauty.

In New York, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum delivers spaces for viewing art. The open spiral of the gallery presents the paintings displayed on the curved walls uniquely and imaginatively. Patrons stroll along, the building itself leading like a mute curator. Natural light cascades through the gallery, but unobtrusively. Even the floor-level lobby space offers a unique viewing experience:  to sit in the center of a vortex of art. Outside, the lightly stacked loops of the Guggenheim give the building a firm but abstract presence that also serves as the institution's public face. But the Guggenheim bulges without bullying its more genteel Fifth Avenue neighbors. It respects its context. By fulfilling its function as an art museum in such an original, imaginative way, the Guggenheim becomes something more than an art museum, even as it is precisely that.

Conversely, outside Chicago, Mies Van Der Rohe's famous Farnsworth House is a shining collection of creamy white planes and columns veiled with broad sheets of glass, all of it framed by thin black steel posts. Inside are clean, unadorned rectangular spaces, each perfectly measured and compartmented. The Farnsworth house is a jewel box, on display in an expanse of green grass. The embodiment of a design ideal, the Farnsworth House is clearly a work of art. But imagine living in this house. There are no cozy nooks, no bookshelves, no appropriate place where you might place a picture of your child on an heirloom end table, let alone watch a baseball game on television and drink a beer. Imagine trying to keep all the glass and steel clean. Try, if you can, to imagine a cat asleep anywhere in the entire house. It is interesting to note that in published pictures of the Farnsworth a human being never appears. This masterpiece of art is a failure as a house. Although Van Der Rohe would disagree, great architecture is not form following function. Great architecture is the intersection of form and function.

This is not an entirely new concept, but it is rarely realized. Especially in American design, architects deliberately and carefully present themselves as "pure" artists. Many prominent architects, at least publicly, insist upon the realization of personal visions in their work. Clients, according to this type of designer, should be grateful for the opportunity to finance these visions. These architects stress the symbolism and meaning of their designs, and leave details such as whether or not the roof will keep the rain out to engineers and interns. The functions of their buildings, whether as a library, an airport, or a skyscraper, become an afterthought to visual tricks and often ham-handed symbolism.

In New York City, the architecture of Studio Daniel Libeskind will soon begin to take shape at the World Trade Center site. Only time will tell if these buildings and spaces will overlap with art like the Guggenheim, or if they will fade into a kind of aesthetic arbitrariness like the Farnsworth House. Libeskind and the other architects of the studio will ultimately have only slight control over their plan. Other architects, city officials, and many economic interests will see to many of the specifics of the design. But, even in its fluid form, we can speculate on the success or failure of the plan, and consider the value of some of the ideas Libeskind has proposed for the site.

The first thing to consider is how Libeskind addresses the program of the site. The buildings, parks, and streets built on the WTC ground have to serve a wide variety of functions for the neighborhood and for the city. They must also meet certain economic criteria, such as the ability to be built in phases and to house enough commercial square footage to satisfy existing WTC leaseholders. Just as importantly, these new spaces and structures have to remind us of September 11, just as they help us move on.

In 2053, Lower Manhattan will probably be as recognizable to us as today's downtown would be to a resident from 1953. New building technologies and materials may make today's most radical buildings seem quaint. New fashions and economic climates may make today's towers seem like the dreams of some other civilization entirely. The long-term goals of the site as set by the Lower Manhattan Development Committee (LMDC) probably will not all be met. But for the moment, these goals call for the site to:

     —house a new 10-car PATH station,

     —be traversed by a street grid of smaller blocks (smaller than the immense superblock of the WTC),

     —link Lower Manhattan through mass transit to the financial district and to New Jersey,

     —in some way alleviate or eliminate the psychological barrier of the West Side Highway, and

     —have many hundreds of thousands of square feet devoted to shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and possibly residential use as well.

In other words, whatever is built on the site must give people places to eat, work, play, and sleep, and link the site with the rest of the world on every side.

The Libeskind design addresses these requirements, fleetingly. The plan, in its revised form, allocates space for an underground PATH station, restores Greenwich and Fulton Streets to the City's grid, calls for hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and commercial space and, potentially, residential space as well. For the West Side Highway, Libeskind proposes two alternatives. The first calls for a lowered, below-ground street with a park above. The second suggests a finely landscaped boulevard at ground level. Urban planners have pointed out the impossibility of creating complete plans for the WTC site, and the Libeskind plan is admirable for offering a potential solution to every design problem. But, except for the West Side Highway, the long-term, day-to-day functionality of the site is only vaguely realized.

According to the LMDC, it was because the Studio at least addressed the practical requirements that their plan was selected as a finalist, not because of the plan's aesthetic merits. Most architectural critics, and reportedly members of LMDC as well, preferred the Norman Foster plan over all of the other entries, and Rafael Vinoly's THINK group plan (the other finalist) over Libeskind's. But the Foster plan ignored the LMDC's requirement that the site be buildable in phases, and, according to New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, a concerted publicity push from Studio Libeskind landed their team the commission over Vinoly.

Whatever the politics of the competition, the Libeskind design does offer many symbolic and artistic points. First, there is the 1,776-foot tower, which would again make New York City home to the tallest structure in the world. The tower is sleek and pointed, a sharp capsule of bright icy glass caged by a latticework of steel bracing. The tower is not actually a free-standing building, but attached with wicker-like tendrils to an adjoining 70-story office building. When viewed from certain points across the Hudson, this pairing would, in theory, echo the shape of the Statue of Liberty. The tower would be linked with several smaller, but still impressive, skyscrapers. These buildings, like the building linked to the tower, have diamond-shaped roofs that slope in towards the memorial space, located in the center of the site. When all of the buildings are completed, they will stand in a crescent over the footprints of the Twin Towers on their eastern edge.

Libeskind's designs for the memorial to the victims of September 11 are as dramatic as the numerically patriotic tower and its honor guard of skyscrapers. A long, circular walkway winds around and down into the center of the site. One wall of the enormous concrete WTC retaining walls, or the "bathtub," would be left exposed, below-grade. This scarred and scorched surface would form part of the memorial to those killed in the attacks. As in all of the plans submitted for the site, the footprints of the Twin Towers themselves would be left undeveloped. Only the Libeskind plan, though, calls for half of the memorial space around the footprints to be accessible only to relatives of September 11 victims. Another much discussed aspect of Libeskind's plan is the use of light. The smaller cultural buildings built around the edges of the memorial space and the tower, being primarily glass sheaths, could sizzle at night from self-contained light sources. Specifically for the memorial space, a solemn "wedge of light" will fall near the footprints of the Twin Towers at precisely 8:46 on the morning of every September 11, banishing all shadows. If he means only on the morning of September 11, no architect that I know has explained to me how this could be accomplished. Something could block the light every other day of the year, and then be removed on September 11, of course. Such a stunt could be moving if done very, very delicately.

These features expose Libeskind as an architect concentrating on the sensational. The most detailed and publicized aspects of the plan—the height of the tower, the retaining wall, the "wedge of light"—have nothing to do with creating a vibrant, urban space where people will want to work, play, and live. If built as imagined, the Libeskind designs will deliver an architecture that is showy and obvious, and an architecture that will hamper the site's ability to house functional buildings and spaces. The exposed slurry wall, for example, cannot stand on its own for any length of time. In fact, the wall began to show signs of failure during the excavation of the site. Libeskind's underground memorial, the entire WTC site, and a great deal of Lower Manhattan would flood if the wall were left exposed. Supporters of Libeskind's design will correctly point out that the memorial could still contain a section of exposed slurry wall, just not an entire panel. However, this detail is part of a pattern in the plans. Libeskind's designs are riddled with melodramatic, tug-the-heartstrings gestures. They are included at the expense of the site's functionality.

The semi-attached tower has many beautiful features. The latticework of the structural bracings combined with the translucency of the glass curtainwall would make a sleek and inspiring addition to the city's skyline, if it were trimmed by several hundred feet. The jingoistic, arbitrary height of 1,776 feet is grafted onto the slender form, quite possibly repeating the mistake of the original Twin Towers by destroying the scale of the entire neighborhood. I imagine the tower as a glowing shard, a gigantic piece of electric debris stabbed into the city. Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin was deliberately designed in a massing of harsh slashes and stabs, a moral scar upon the city's face. In New York, where structures that note the city's resilience are called for, the tower seems either macho or masochistic. The Libeskind memorial itself, sunk deep into the earth and with swaths of the site set aside for victims' family members only, ensures that the entire site will first and foremost be a place of loss and mourning. The slope of the roofs of the skyscrapers adds to this atmosphere. The roofs, tilted like the planks over the rails of ships when bodies of sailors are slid into the sea, will draw the eye of everyone who sees the skyline and remind them of the thousands who fell and died below. Imagine trying to work in one of these buildings, over your shoulder and out the window a manicured pit where people were crushed and burned. Imagine trying to shop for groceries. Imagine taking a date to see a movie. Or just imagine sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper on a May morning. The LMDC, and the residents of New York City, correctly called for a memorial at the site. What Libeskind proposes is a tomb.

New Yorkers insisted upon better architecture for the WTC site. The original plans developed by the Port Authority's in-house architects delivered predictable designs that met the basic space and infrastructure requirements of the site and little else. The public's demand for more imagination at the site is not encouraging, it is wonderful. Too often architects deliver buildings dictated by short-term economic conditions or, just as bad, design buildings guided by rigid artistic ideals. The involvement of residents and end-users in any project contributes to better architecture by helping to balance functionality and aesthetics. Unfortunately, in the case of the WTC site, the public's wishes seem to have been answered by an either-or choice between purely utilitarian buildings-from-a-box that shouldn't be built and flashy pie-in-the-sky buildings that couldn't be built. The six teams of architects who submitted to the LMDC had an opportunity to deliver feasible, functional, and beautiful architecture. Maybe the overwhelming requirements of the site, and the LMDC's inability to adjust these requirements at all, presented obstacles that no plan could completely overcome. The Libeskind plan responds by glossing over the very real requirements of the site and focusing its attention on artifice.

The residents of New York, the people who will actually work and live in and around the WTC site, do not like the Libeskind design. According to a poll by a local New York City news channel conducted in February, only 21% of those surveyed preferred the Libeskind plan over the THINK team plan. More interestingly, 64% did not like either of the final proposals. The architects who are playing with the site as if it were an unusually large canvas instead of piece of actual ground should listen to this disapproval. It comes from the real clients of the project.

As iconic as the World Trade Center was, and is, it was a failure as architecture. The hulking towers, ponds of granite and glass, and underground chapels of technology and commerce made for many pretty picture plates in architecture books. But the empty expanses of the superblock had a dystopian feel that kept people away after dark, and the Towers themselves were never close to being fully occupied. The World Trade Center designs were the culmination of an architectural movement that believed cities-within-cities would produce beautiful, meaningful buildings, regardless of whether anyone actually wanted to live or work in them.

Skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan, close to transportation, set back gracefully from the sidewalks, and designed in context with their neighbors, bustle with activity from their plazas to their peaks. The Lever House, the Chrysler Building, and the Pan Am Building were all designed by architects who listened to the needs and dreams of their clients, and then applied their individual, unique architectural talents and ideas to creating buildings and spaces that went beyond the functional by stressing the functional. These buildings—each with a unique personality—live like a good poem can live, and also function like a machine can function. Studio Libeskind's designs for the WTC site threaten a bad poem and a broken machine.

(Christopher A. Miller is a graduate of the College of New Jersey's literature program, where he studied with the Trenton poet Peter Wood. He has lived and traveled extensively across the US, especially in the cities of the East Coast, and makes his living as an architectural writer. He recently completed a first novel and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.)