The press conference announcing the choice of Daniel Libeskind's design for Ground Zero often seemed like a graduation ceremony. Governor George Pataki quoted Winston Churchill, and said that it was "a great day for New York and a historic day for America." The top rebuilding officials each publicly thanked one another, repeatedly. The chosen architect stepped up to the podium and gave a triumphant tour through his design.
If the day seemed valedictory, it is because a huge part of the long, fractious, sometimes inspiring and often confusing process to design the World Trade Center site is now behind us. "We've come a long way, baby," said key Lower Manhattan Development Corporation board member Roland Betts at the February 27 announcement.
First there were six plans, released to widespread dismay in July 2002. These were scrapped, and then there were nine, prepared by some of the most famous architects in the world and unveiled to the public in December 2002 in a showy press conference at a restored Winter Garden.
These plans were then winnowed down to two very different visions, by Libeskind and the THINK team, led by Rafael Vinoly. While Libeskind's design went underground, exposing the foundations of the Twin Towers, THINK's latticework towers put cultural buildings at different places in the sky.
Both finalists then worked on modifying their plans for Ground Zero, and wooing the public. In the weeks leading up to the decision, the finalists met with civic groups, repeatedly showed up in the New York Times style section, and made regular appearances on local and national television, including the Oprah show. "Not since Gary Cooper appeared in The Fountainhead has the public been so riveted by architecture and architects," wrote Julie Iovine in the New York Times.
As the decision drew closer, the debate grew harsh, with Times critic Herbert Muschamp driving home his preference for the THINK design, calling Libeskind's proposal "astonishingly tasteless" and "predictably kitch." The architects themselves, careful up until this point not to attack the competition, started making pointed criticisms. In a chat with Gotham Gazette, Libeskind called the THINK towers "skeletons in the sky."
Now that Libeskind's design has been selected [take a virtual tour of his plan], civic groups and others say that one of their next steps will be ensuring that his design is actually built, and not compromised by commercial, political or developers' interests. The proposal suggests building the memorial, museum and cultural buildings, transportation center and the single iconic 1776 foot tall office tower first. The other buildings would come later. [frequently asked questions about the design, and the process]
Libeskind has said that he is confident that his vision will prevail. "As an architect who has had the good fortune to build primarily public projects, I believe that one of the most important roles is to be a strong and persuasive advocate. I believe that the urban idea has to be strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of both developers and politicians," Libeskind said.
But some say that no matter what is built downtown, new buildings will never be able to really help New Yorkers recover from the September 11 attacks. Philip Nobel, in a Nation article, suggested that people are investing too much hope that the aesthetics of architecture will heal the city or provide solutions. "The shaken should look elsewhere [besides architecture] for solace," he writes.
Of course, Libeskind, who is trying to provide this very solace, disagrees. "I believe architecture to be a communicative public art that tells a story, not just of its own making, but much more importantly the story of its context," he said.