Michael Bierut | Essays

Four Years After

Ground Zero, Ellsworth Kelly, 2003

The attacks on World Trade Center once seemed to me like something that demanded a clear, unequivocal design response. But after four years of political jockeying, architectural gestures, litigious countergestures, and cynical commitments to culture that barely qualify as lipservice, the role of design at that charged, emotional site seems more ambiguous, and contested, than ever.

In September 2003, the artist Ellsworth Kelly sent architectural critic Herbert Muschamp a collage representing his proposal for the site: nothing. Or, rather, a simple rounded carpet of green grass. "I feel strongly that what is needed is a 'visual experience,' not additional buildings, a museum, a list of names or proposals for a freedom monument." These, wrote Kelly, would be "distractions from a spiritual vision for the site: a vision for the future."

The urgency of a massive new building project in an overbuilt market, at a moment when hundreds of thousands of Americans have been rendered newly homeless, is worth questioning. Kelly's proposal, which stuck me as a copout two years ago, now seems honorable and wise. There will be time enough for building.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [11]

I don't see the value of a skyscraper unless it can power itself sustainably, because in 30 years there may not be energy to run the A/C or the elevators. The curious byproduct of 9/11 has been a sharp jump in awareness of how much the West's energy infrastructure is teetering on a precipice. A true 'freedom tower,' to me, would be free from needing massive energy inputs, be largely self-sufficient, human-scaled and adaptable to New York's four seasons. The cost of Manhattan real estate dictates that something will be built there, but why not build down (taking advantage of geothermal energy), or sideways (so it doesn't block out the sun for miles), or as some sort of sloped structure that maximises solar inputs, whgile avoiding becoming another heat island - using natural energy flows (water, plants, green roofs, heat pumps, PV glass, etc.) to the fullest?

It's hard not to be disappointed over how the WTC site's redesign has been diluted by all the politicking and bigwig haggling. But the New Orleans tragedy indirectly highlights a greater tragedy—that too many (of us, too) might have let the design debate and self-serving conjecture begin to obscure the original point of the project.

Many bespeak the benefits of art, design, architecture—that it provides alone the transcendence people need to persevere. But too often this conceit feels self-serving, if not a cop out from actually getting out of the studio to help in more direct ways. (I am not without sin myself.)

Tragic incidents such as these erase boundaries between us, rendering our specific roles in society almost moot. Our responses should be, first, as human beings, not designers. If design is the means, so be it, but not to design's end should our responses be directed. I personally am quite moved and humbled by the efforts of the Winterhouse folks, the AIGA, and Displaced Designer among others, since these actions are simply about assisting others—no fancy posters or websites espousing self-righteous polemics or fingerpointing. No "blame game" here. (Though I do await a searing indictment of FEMA from William D. in a future post.)

As I sit here and type, late on a Sunday and into Monday morning, between backlogged projects that need to be finished, in between newscasts from New Orleans and New York, before I head to Boston with the rest of you 3,000 like-minded folk to exchange ideas and pleasantries over cocktails, I pause to think not only about the ways design might make the world a slightly more liveable place, but how I might be a better human being and not let my design work get in the way of that progress.
Eric Heiman

Very few of the suggestions I have seen for the 9/11 memorial have been without the pompous and clichéed jibberish that is bound to accompany projects like this.
I personally feel very detatched from the whole incident (although my life too has been effected by it to a great extent), but can still understand the difficult situation you're in.

The problem is that for a wound so deep as the 9/11-incident, no architectural wonder is going to be enough.

I find it fascinating how often the demolition/destruction of massive buildings can open and revitalize urban areas that were previously left for dead. See what the '89 earthquake did for San Francisco's Embarcadero, previously ringed by a freeway. Also in San Francisco, the removal of the Central Freeway made Hayes street viable again. Similar plans for Boston to make the freeway (once it's removed) into an urban park will make central Boston much more appealing. So whether through disasters (earthquakes, terrorism) or civic plans (big dig) we can find examples of the benefits of removing large structures and opening up urban spaces. Unfortunately Kelly's plan looks too modest - where's the swaggering monumentalism? - and would be regarded as defeatist by many factions. But I think it's a great idea. Everyone knows already that the Calatrava transit center will be the de facto centerpiece of the site, so why not leave the rest of it subtle?


For my money the most unique and impactful identity designed in the New Millennium thus far.



Neil, I agree completely with you -- and think that the last thing Manhattan needs is another assemblage of sun-blocking behemoths. While re-creating something like the WTC on the site may seem to some like a courageous gesture of defiance in the face of terror (and part of me would concede the point), I return repeatedly to the idea that we should first react as human beings.

And so a certain circumspection seems only appropriate. And open space seems like a great start to such a use of that area.

Before moving out of Boston last year, I walked along the route of the former elevated highway downtown -- and while ground level was still largely a construction site, the feeling of sunlight and openness was wonderful, and has the power to completely transform that city. If the local politics don't kill the promise.


• Of course the skyscraper is part of the New York identity, and the skyline an essential part of its image. But when I walk around Manhattan, my favorite parts are 4 to 12 stories tall, like the rowhouse blocks in the Village, or lower Fifth Avenue, which is so much more pleasant for walking than Fifth Avenue in midtown. There is more sunlight and sky, the sidewalks are busy but not crowded, and the masonry loft buildings have more character and provide more spatial enclosure than the all-glass buildings uptown.

We don't need more towers. The comment about problems with energy use in the future is right.

• When you stand in the middle of Freedom Square, you'll think you're in New Houston. Look here. How is it that Libeskind thinks this is avant garde, and Childs thinks his building is "innovative"?

There are many here who appreciate Modernism. Does anyone disagree with what I said above?
john massengale

The PBS documentary referred to here, in commentary, was narrated with concerns about the lack of housing in lower Manhattan; the 'fault' of the twin tower developers. If the city was to give back to this generation what the 'progress oriented' mayor took from citizens back when those changes were made to the urban landscape, a modicum of balance would be achieved. If you'd built something and had second thoughts about it (the documentary was produced before the tragic event) once it's destroyed by forces beyond your control would you rebuild it with the same characteristics that were giving you cause for concern? Wouldn't you be taking advantage of growing knowledge and technologies, to better the space you have to build on? Manhattan could benefit from mixed lower to moderate income housing in the area including a park with a memorial to the victims of the collapse of the towers. New York should give first pick to survivor families who are getting on with their lives and have no problem with living on the site.
Call it 'If Central Park is central then this is Lower Hemisphere Park' : )
Rebuilding in low-lying areas in New Orleans parallels.
I consider it foolish squandering of resources.
So build the green hill and make sure it slopes gently for most of the peripheral area to allow for future housing. It may as well have a good 'climb', or two, to provide extra fat-burning opportunities for park visitors.

I think it's naive to think that prime NYC realestate will having anything less than bldgs on it....Maybe we'll have a monument too but it will certainly not be at the expense of rental income!

After all, this is America....and I think we believe in capitalism first.


Just to clear up any confusion, today the Freedom Center was officially removed from the World Trade Center site. To quote Donald Rumsfeld in a slightly different context, ""Freedom's untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." So we can rest assured in the knowledge that, at least on these 19 acres, untidiness will be kept to a minimum.

Miss Representation weighs in with few more choice words here.
Michael Bierut

The concept of a simple rounded plot of grass brings to mind Einstein's comments... when Einsten was asked (after witnessing the destruction of the atomic bombs that hastended the end to WWII) to speculate on the weapons he envisioned in the future, he replied something along the lines of ... "I do not know what weapons of World War III will look like, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and rocks"... if 9/11 was the foreshadowing of WWIII, then our monument may need to look like WWIV... grass, sticks and rocks.
Rick Dowell

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