Foster and Partners: A Professed New Urbanism

Foster and Partners-World Trade Center Plan-NYC

The mission statement of the Foster and Partners concept plan (Appendix I) attempts to be all encompassing, addressing all of the major points of the new program: extension of the grid to revitalize street life, transportation hub, distinctive skyline, public space and cultural amenities, and the need for a respectful memorial. The elements of New Urbanism seem to infuse the mission statement and concept plan. The plan by Foster and Partners is the only concept to explicitly utilize the neighborhood unit as the building block of development: “We can repair and rebuild the neighborhood street.” Additionally, at the press conference on December 18th, 2002, Norman Foster spoke on the nature of the plan:

“’Architecture is a response to needs. This project starts with the needs of the local community – the neighborhood – it extends out to embrace the City.”

In accordance with New Urbanism, the plan is also structured by the use of public space, it is diverse and hierarchical, its circulation system supports the pedestrian, and it is characterized by discernible edges. Pedestrian streets unite the large park and memorial with a mix of commercial, business and residential components.

Foster and Partners-World Trade Center-Plan-2002

Analysis of the site plan reveals however, that while the elements of New Urbanism are present, integration is lacking. Although claiming to be concerned with the neighborhood unit, his focus in actuality has been the technological innovations of his towers and, according to Paul Goldberger, “he made little attempt to integrate his plan with the rest of Lower Manhattan. Utilizing the Charter of the New Urbanism as a framework for comparison, we will assess the Foster and Partners concept plan for its correspondence to the principles of urbanism and its applicability to the needs of Lower Manhattan.

The fifth principle of the New Urbanism Charter states that “where appropriate, new development contiguous to urban boundaries should be organized as neighborhoods and districts, and be integrated with the existing urban pattern.” Goldberger cites Foster’s eagerness to remind us that he is familiar with New York, as “he tossed off references to four subway lines and the PATH trains.” The northern edge of the Foster and Partners plan is allocated for cafes, a cinema and retail facilities. However, ignoring the already extant commercial and residential infrastructure of the surrounding area is the first major shortcoming of this plan.

An analysis of Battery Park City would show that the northern end of the residential development already includes a multiplex cinema and large restaurants. The area below the World Financial center is populated only by residential businesses such as supermarkets, drycleaners and a video rental store, and would derive higher benefit from such amenities. Locating the cafés and cinema at the southern end of the site would better serve the residents of Battery Park City and retain the competitiveness of commercial interests around the World Financial Center.

Similarly, the streets to the north and east of the World Trade Center site already have significant commercial interests, such as the Century 21 department store and businesses along Broadway. Though walkways connecting the site to Battery Park City are included, the park location in the southwest corner once again isolates Battery Park City from the lively areas. I believe that the plan allocates too much room for park space (20 acres), thereby pushing the commercial buildings and civic institutions to the periphery of the plan.

The second principle of the charter states, “the metropolis is made of centers…each with its own identifiable center and edges.” Norman Foster has claimed that his plan “is about recreating edges. However, he establishes the edges with the only buildings offered in the plan, thereby isolating the cultural institutions at the southern edge from the commercial buildings at the northern rim. Thus, Foster precludes the implementation of principle sixteen of the New Urbanism Charter—“concentration of civic, institutional and commercial activity should embedded, not isolated in remote, single use complexes.”

Regarding the accessibility of transportation, principle eight of the charter states, “the physical organization of the region should be supported by a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region.” Created on landfill from the land excavated from the World Trade Center site, Battery Park has never been directly accessible via subway. By including three entrances to the transportation interchange, the plan increases accessibility on the north-south axis, but still isolates the World Financial Center and Battery Park to the west from a close entrance to the New York subway system. In addition, to reach the transportation interchange in the location currently planned would require traversing the large park, which could prove dangerous at night without security.

The New Urbanist critique of the original World Trade Center was based in part on the superblock construction derived from the CIAM principles. In addition to eliminating the social purpose of streets, Jane Jacobs asserts that Le Corbusier did not think of the large number of cars in his Radiant City. In an attempt to rectify the decline in street life since the 1970s, the program asked for a new street grid. The Foster and Partners plan turns Greenwich and Fulton Streets into pedestrian thoroughfares, improving social connectivity but retaining the traffic patterns of a superblock. According to Goldberger, “his tower is striking, even magnificent, but it could not be built in phases, and it seems comfortable only on a superblock.”

New Urbanism also calls for a range of parks to be “distributed within neighborhoods. Conservation areas and open lands should be used to define and connect different neighborhoods and districts.” To its credit, the park aesthetically conceals the connection between Battery Park and the World Trade Center and unites two areas separated by the West Way since their inception in the 1970. However, the park is bound by the World Financial Center on the west, the West Side Highway on the south, and the void/memorials to the east. Without transportation entrances or pedestrian streets within the park, the space would lack constant pedestrian usage after the workday.

The structure of the memorial space also poses problems for the park design. Foster and Partners has chosen to use the footprints themselves as the memorial, erecting seventy foot walls of stone and steel around the voids. In addition, Foster claims that from the voids, no buildings or trees can be seen from below. The walls prevent the memorials to be integrated with the park surrounding it and the park must therefore be increased in size to accommodate the height of the memorial. As planned, the memorials are surrounded by twenty acres of parkland, isolating the residential and business structures from the park and memorial. However, the “parks in the sky,” located within the skyscraper itself, is a unique solution to the New Urbanist demand for well-integrated garden space.

The architectural element of the Foster and Partners plan also does not incorporate the New Urbanist dictates on style within the programmatic demand for a “distinctive skyline.” Principle twenty of the New Urbanism charter states, “individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” Foster’s buildings would usurp the title as the world’s tallest building at 1,764 feet, three hundred feet taller than the original World Trade Center.

To a certain extent, the Foster and Partners towers preserve the architectural context provided by Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center, by virtue of its resemblance to the original World Trade Center buildings. Goldberger surmises that, “perhaps because it looked like an updated version of the twin towers, or because he made much of his belief that it was essential to build the world’s tallest building on the site, Foster’s project seemed to be the most popular, [winning] an instant poll on CNN.”[32] Pelli inteded the four varied-height buildings of the World Financial Center to slowly step up to the World Trade Center and give the towers a sense of scale.

Although the Foster and Partners concept plan includes many elements of New Urbanism—the neighborhood unit, garden space, reinstitution of the street and definable edges—it does not integrate these individual components within the site itself or more importantly, to the Lower Manhattan region. The memorial and the monument are separate and irreconcilable.

Read on for an analysis of Daniel Liebeskind’s master plan.

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