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That Libeskind touch

The winning design for rebuilding Ground Zero will create a theme park dedicated to victimhood.

Vicky Richardson

Topics Politics

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It’s not often that architects get invited on to the Oprah Winfrey Show. But the recent competition to find a replacement for the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York put architecture centre stage on TV chatshows as well as at Manhattan dinner party conversations.

Even before the dust had settled on Lower Manhattan, the debate about how to replace the Twin Towers was fast, furious and full of emotion. Some architects argued that they should be replaced by a skyscraper even higher than the WTC as a symbol of US defiance. Others said that towers were finished and that the site should be turned into a memorial park.

The first designs commissioned by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) were dismissed as bland and uninspiring – eventually, under pressure from critics, the LMDC organised a competition with an invitation list consisting of nine international ‘starchitects’.

The designs were submitted in December 2002, and by early February 2003 the shortlist was reduced to two – Daniel Libeskind, and a multinational collective called THINK. Even before Libeskind was declared the winner on 27 February, it had became clear that he had won the moral competition by gaining the support of the 9/11 survivors and victims’ families, even if not all the architecture critics were convinced by his design.

The THINK scheme proposed to replace the WTC with a ‘World Cultural Centre’ and was favoured by many because of its magnanimous gesture of creating a pair of open latticework towers that would contain buildings by several different architects. But this would also have been a safe choice – the team was headed by Rafael Vinoly and Frederic Schwarz, two of New York’s most successful commercial architects.

The decision in favour of Libeskind, on the other hand, has been hailed as a victory for the avant garde, and a blow against the architectural establishment. So what is it about the architect’s ideas that so capture the mood in New York?

Libeskind’s design, which he calls ‘Memory Foundations’, epitomises American society’s current morbid preoccupation with death and conflict. The proposal takes as its starting point the empty pit – nicknamed the ‘bathtub’ – where the Twin Towers once stood and where fires raged for days after the attacks. A section of the pit’s bleak concrete walls, of the type you can see on any large building site in the early stages of a construction project, will be left exposed as a permanent reminder of the horror of 11 September. This part of his design was especially well-received by many survivors and victims’ families, who argue that the site is ‘sacred’ or ‘hallowed ground’ and so should be preserved.

In architecture images generally speak louder than words. But during the WTC competition Libeskind became a master at describing his own feelings about the project: ‘I went to look at the site, to see and feel its power, and to listen to its voices, and this is what I heard, felt and saw. The great slurry walls are an engineering wonder designed to hold back the Hudson River. They stood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction, and stood as eloquent as the constitution itself, asserting the durability of democracy, and the value of individual life.’

Every aspect of Libeskind’s design is calculated to pull at the heartstrings. A ‘Park of Heroes’ will have markings in the pavements containing the names of the fire and rescue companies that responded to the attack, with each name set on an axis between the centre of Ground Zero and the rescue company’s home.

So-called ‘Wedge of Light’ buildings are to be angled so that the intersection of Fulton and Greenwich Streets will be flooded with sunlight from 8.46am to 10.28am (the time period between the strike of the first plane and the collapse of the second tower) once a year on 11 September. The final flourish, which would make Walt Disney proud, is an observation tower that stands at exactly 1776 ft high (for anyone whose American history is shaky, 1776 was the date of the Declaration of Independence).

Such devices will be familiar to those who have visited Libeskind’s two completed buildings in Europe: the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. These buildings, characterised by their fractured plans, angular walls and jagged edges, have more in common with war memorials than conventional works of architecture. Indeed Libeskind describes the shards of glass that often feature as representing the ‘permanent state of conflict in society’.

As a contributor to Radio Four’s Thought for the Day commented earlier this week, how different from the approach taken to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral in the UK after the Second World War. Won in a competition by Sir Basil Spence in 1951, the cathedral was designed as a stonewalled structure to convey unity, solidity and permanence, and was filled with ambitious works by the best British artists.

The task of building on Ground Zero is the commission of a lifetime for any architect. But for Libeskind it represents the opportunity to take his emotional approach to the extreme. The architect himself often speaks about how his life has been shaped by war and suffering. Born in Poland, his parents were survivors of the Holocaust and he spent his childhood in Israel before his family moved to New York. Later on he met his wife at a summer camp for children of Holocaust survivors.

Several architecture commentators have pointed out that the subjective nature of his work is something new among architects, who rarely express their own feelings and tend to be more comfortable talking about the functional and technical aspects of buildings. The difference between Libeskind and a cool, rational architect such as Norman Foster is something like the difference between Princess Diana and a regal head of state.

As Libeskind said at one of the many public debates during the judging of the competition: ‘The design and the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre site has to be a spiritual process, not only an architectural one. It’s not only finding the visible angles, but the angles in the soul. It’s not only finding the external skin, but the internal equivalent to that experience.’ (1)

By putting his own feelings about 9/11 at the heart of his design, Libeskind has placed himself almost beyond criticism, as one writer discovered to his cost. On 6 February the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp threw the cat among the pigeons with a startling critique of Libeskind’s proposal, where he described the scheme as ’emotionally manipulative’.

Muschamp went on: ‘Had the competition been intended to capture the fractured state of shock felt soon after 9/11, this plan would probably deserve first place. But why, after all, should a large piece of Manhattan be permanently dedicated to an artistic representation of enemy assault? It is an astonishingly tasteless idea. It has produced a predictably kitsch result.’

Although Muschamp is no stranger to controversy, even he must have been taken aback when the New York Times received a flood of mail calling for him to be sacked. Many of the letters were solicited by Libeskind’s own office manager who had sent a circular email to the great and the good of the architectural profession urging them to write to the editor calling for Muschamp’s dismissal.

But the censorious nature of the debate reached new depths when a fellow design journalist Martin C Pedersen, executive editor of Metropolis magazine, wrote an editorial entitled ‘why the NY Times needs a new architecture critic’.

All this seemed to prove Muschamp’s point, that the danger of Libeskind’s approach is that it returns us to a quasi-religious, pre-Enlightenment condition where reason is replaced by emotion and where criticism itself can be condemned as offensive.

Vicky Richardson is the editor of Blueprint magazine.

View the designs by Studio Daniel Libeskind and THINK

(1) Quoted on the Lower Manhattan info website.

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