1WTC_NYC_Untapped Cities_bhushan mondkar

A note from Untapped Cities founder, Michelle Young: 

9/11 happened on the first day of registration my sophomore year in college. I was sleeping and I remember hearing bounding footsteps in the hallway of our thinly-walled dorms at Harvard and someone saying that the World Trade Center had fallen. It seemed like something out of a crazy dream, so I kept on sleeping. I woke up to instant messages (remember those on AOL?) from New York, where I’m from. Friends at Columbia University had seen the whole thing happen from their skyscraper dorms in Morningside Heights. 

A year later, while in the architecture program, I was in a two-person tutorial with professor Neil Levine. It was the fall of 2002 and it seemed apropos to study the redevelopment plans of the new World Trade Center, which were already fraught with controversy. The first plans had been thoroughly rejected by all as bland, without community participation, and without the input of those who had lost loved ones in the attacks.

Yesterday. thirteen years after the Twin Towers fell, the new 1 WTC opened. On Quartz and City Lab, an article on “The Failure of One World Trade Center,” was published, finally saying what architecture critics and writers have been trying to say for over a decade–that through compromise, faux community involvement, and the farce of architectural competitions–we have something as bland (or more so) than the rejected first proposals. 

NYC_City Hall Subway_WTC

In late 2002, I compared two proposals from the competition. The below is an excerpt of the paper, which begins with a brief history of the architectural critique of the original World Trade Center along with a recap of the fraught process to rebuild the site after 9/11.  It concludes with a comparison of two of the proposals from an urban planning perspective, and my recommendation to select the Daniel Liebeskind plan. As we know today, though the Liebeskind plan was selected, and elements of his master plan implemented, the architecture of the buildings look vastly different than the execution. I’ve continued to follow the evolution of the World Trade Center, with disappointment, and visiting to document the construction process. 

Here were six of the architectural renderings submitted in the competition, meant as an accompaniment to the master plan which was the main purpose of the competition. 

Foster and Partners:

Foster and Partners-World Trade Center Plan-NYC

Studio Daniel Libeskind:

Daniel Liebeskind Skyline-World Trade Center Proposal-Competition 2002-NYC

Richard Meier & Partners:
Richard Meier-World Trade Center-Competition Plan-NYC-2002

THINK Architecture (including Shigeru Ban):

THINK Architecture-World Trade Center Competitoin 2002-Shigeru Ban-NYC

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill: 

SOM's plan for World Trade CenterImage © SOM

United Architects:

United Architects-World Trade Center Proposal-2002-NYC


Remember, Rebuild, Renew. The deceptively succinct slogan of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation masks a complex objective that remains highly contested nearly eighteen months after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Amidst a clash of competing interest groups, never has there been so much economic value at stake in a location of such unprecedented emotional turmoil.

Among the contentious issues are the conflicting components of the renewal program: a permanent memorial versus commercial space, the reintegration of the World Trade Center site with the city fabric versus the space-consuming demand for monumental architecture and an extensive park system. Nevertheless, the program and the plans in progress have incorporated the ideals of contemporary urban planning theories, including New Urbanism and the principles of CIAM.

The purpose here is to evaluate the recent World Trade Center design concepts in the framework of the aforementioned urban design strategies. First however, a discussion of the major virtues and shortcomings of the original World Trade Center, as well as the history of the site since September 11th is necessary to contextualize the current programmatic demands within the historical moment.

The primary purpose of the original World Trade Center project was the provision of a new international headquarters for the Port of New York Authority. Ironically, the secondary requirement was the creation of an icon not only to symbolize the United States’ dominance in the global economy but its commitment to world peace as well. A commissioned artwork by Fritz Koenig, one of the few artworks recovered from the rubble, was originally dedicated to global peace. Reaching 110 stories at its completion in 1977, the World Trade Center was hailed as a triumph of technical innovation.

It was, however, widely criticized on the basis of architectural and preservationist grounds. With its inhuman steel-bearing walls and bleak five-acre plaza, the design by Minoru Yamasaki was found to be architecturally uninspiring. Ada Louise Huxtable, the resident architectural critic of The New York Times of the era, found Yamasaki’s New Formalism, “too new to be International Style and too old to be postmodern.” In 1970, Lewis Mumford cited the World Trade Center as a “characteristic example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibition that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.” Preservationists lamented the destruction of Radio Row, a vibrant community of electronic gadget stores, and the demolishment of Cass Gilbert’s 1907 Beaux Arts Baroque Customs House, a city landmark.

The site design was rooted in the superblock style bequeathed by Le Corbusier and his “Radiant City,” but in 1998 the Port Authority commissioned David Brody Bond, Ltd. to develop a plan to reintegrate the site with the rest of the city and enliven the public space by accommodating a human in its scale.The center was also widely recognized as an emblematic example of the self-glorifying monumentalism that resulted from the decision of unaccountable public authorities.

Although Paul Goldberger has claimed that in the sentimental post-tragedy reminiscence, “architectural criticism of [the original World Trade Center] will cease all together,” the urbanist critique from the time of its dedication to its fall has strongly influenced the program for the new center. Both urban designers and the city of New York are eager to rectify the problems created by the sixteen-acre superblock and reintegrate the site with lower Manhattan.

On November 30, 2001, Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudoph Guiliani established the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site and downtown Manhattan. The joint state-city corporation coordinates with the Port Authority and other agencies from the city, state and federal levels, along with Larry Silverstein, the owner of the World Trade Center. Most importantly, following the widespread public denouncement of the six original concept plans by Beyer Blinder Belle, the LMDC has instituted conduits of accountability, ranging from advisory councils, to public hearings, and regularly meetings with civic organizations and public officials.

Early attempts at community involvement began on February 7th 2002 in the LMDC sponsored “Listening to the City” forum which gathered a variety of interest groups—families of victims and survivors, downtown residents and workers, rescue workers, business groups and community leaders—to chart a vision for the future of the region. In April 2002, the LMDC approved the first preliminary guidelines for the rebuilding entitled Principles and Revised Preliminary Blueprint for the Future of Lower Manhattan. Given the primarily structuralist and logistical nature of this document, is clear in retrospect that this was one of the root causes for the banality of the Beyer, Blinder Belle plans released three months later.

A large component of the blueprint focused on the restoration of services and infrastructure, coordination of mass transit, facilities to accommodate tourism and vehicular traffic, and restoration of the street grid to reintegrate the site with lower Manhattan. While these technical concerns were vital to resolve confusion in the months following the attacks, the long-term provisions for the enhancement of residential life and design excellence were still under review in the developmental stage.

World Trade Center-Proposals-Beyer Blinder Belle-2Proposals for World Trade Center by Beyer Blinder Belle, architects and planners. Released July 16, 2002.

The critical response to the Beyer Blinder Belle plans was overwhelming negative. Benjamin Forgey, the architectural critic for the Washington Post wrote, “It is rather like taking the downtown skyline of some average American burg and plopping it in one of the most prominent and symbolically important sites of our times.” Paul Goldberger believed the plans were limited by the requirement to create income-producing space.

World Trade Center-Proposals-Beyer Blinder BelleProposals for World Trade Center by Beyer Blinder Belle, architects and planners. Released July 16, 2002.

Four days after the release of the initial plans, 5000 citizens attended the second “Listening to the City” event at the Jacob Javits Center to evaluate and express their dissatisfaction with the plans. A common complaint was the lack of monumentality in the architecture, while families of the victims protested the inadequacy of the memorial and the covering of the footprints. Architects called for the bureaucrats to relinquish some power to allow for a more visionary project.

In general, the Beyer Blinder Belle plans are merely rearrangements of four major elements—cultural building, memorial, commercial space, and transit hub—around open space. The shape of the park is mostly dictated by the residual space left following the placement of buildings, rather than treated as a formative element. The lack of compelling architecture and residential housing would result once again in sharp contrasts between daytime and evening activity, with the area becoming an effective ghost town after the workday. Apart from the obvious architectural, commemorative and urban design shortcomings, the goal of a 24-hour city with a mixed-use vibrant neighborhood would be impossible with the Beyer Blinder Belle blueprints. The function of the human as an active participant in the space is unincorporated in the designs.

Though the LMDC originally intended to select a master plan by the end of 2002, public response forced the corporation to seek additional concepts through a global design study. Meanwhile, the Port Authority agreed to reduce its requirement for office space and increase the time frame for finalizing proposals. Based on the public comments, a revised set of priorities, entitled A Vision for Lower Manhattan: Context and Program for the Innovative Design Study, was established. The main elements of the new program were more monumental: preservation of the footprints of the Twin Towers, restoration of a tall, powerful and symbolic skyline, improving connectivity to Lower Manhattan and the creation of a grand promenade along West Street.

On September 26, the LMDC narrowed the applicant pool to six architectural teams and allocated $40,000 in funding to each group to design a new World Trade Center. The participants chosen were Foster and Partners, Peterson/Littenberg, Richard Meier and Partners, SOM, Studio Daniel Liebeskind, THINK design team and United Architects. On December 18th, 2002, the seven teams released nine plans for public review at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center.

It should be noted however, that the LMDC has since absolved itself of taking full account of the public opinion, claiming that to satisfy everyone would be impossible. The final decision will still remain in the bureaucratic hands of the LMDC and the Port Authority.

Read on for a comparison of two of the master plans submitted, one by Daniel Liebeskind and one by Norman Foster & Partners.