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Should the World Trade Center be rebuilt?

by James Panero

Posted: Mar 16, 2005 02:58 PM

The question of whether the World Trade Center towers should be rebuilt is probably one more of us should have asked three and a half years ago. Maybe we had other things in mind. Indeed, we did. But while most of us were engaged in old-fashioned activities like mourning, a cadre of planners and politicians convened a quasi-official organization called the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and made the decision for us. The winner of LMDC’s planning "competition" for Ground Zero was Daniel Libeskind, the architectural equivalent of an ambulance chaser. Govenor Pataki, Ronald Lauder, and the Bronx High School of Science all make up the Venn Diagram that influenced this outcome. No one liked Libeskind, no one liked his plans, but the collective sigh of all New Yorkers was that, well, whatever was going to happen, you knew it wouldn’t be good. The best proposal and most twin-tower like entry in the competition came from the team of Shigeru Ban, Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith, Rafael Vinoly--all interesting designers--called THINK, and that took unofficial second place to Libeskind.

It probably should have come as more of a shock that not one of the design finalists in the LMDC’s competition suggested rebuilding the twin towers as they once stood. That’s not the way celebrity architects work, of course. And the assumption went round that if the twin towers could possibly be replaced, surely someone would have suggested it by now.

All along I had a slightly different take on the proceedings. My father was one of the original architects for the World Trade Center. In the photograph above, dated October 1962, he can be seen to the right of Minoru Yamasaki (Dad’s the one holding a model building). Of course, when the towers fell I asked my father what he thought of the prospects of rebuilding them. He rebuffed the idea: Economically impossible; no one would want to work there; no political will; and so forth. This combined in my mind with the knowledge of long-standing criticism from new urbanists and the like over the Trade-Center superblock and the scale of the original buildings. The criticism came from all sides, including conservative planners. It seemed like a done deal: the Twin Towers were out of the running. I agreed with my father without much further thought.

A recent visit to an architectural studio with Ken Gardner has again raised the issue for me. I went at the request of Deroy Murdock, who has been writing convincingly about our need to reconsider plans for Ground Zero for years. His most recent column is now available at NRO.

An engineer as well as a designer, Mr. Gardner began by waging a grassroots campaign to rebuild the towers, stronger, cheaper, and safer. He set up a website called TwinTowersII.com (formerly makenynyagain.com) and began soliciting volunteers. He also proceeded to design the best ways to utilize the Ground-Zero footprint with thought to such particulars as PATH train service, the slurry walls, and the desire to keep open the footprints of the original buildings as memorials, and he is now years into these plans.

Mr. Gardner has built two architectural models of his final design. I went to see the smaller one with Deroy.

Seeing these models can be almost Proustian--they have a power unlike any other proposal. You can’t help but conclude that the unique issues surrounding Ground Zero should have required us long ago to think beyond architecture and beyond making the site suit our aesthetic taste: not about carving up the superblock or building a tower that reflected the architectural styles of today. Libeskind’s plans have been met with an unenthusiastic response because there was always only one true option for what to do with Ground Zero. It is the unspoken solution among the intellectual class--but this should never have been an issue put to the intellectual class: to rebuild the towers as a definitive statement against terrorism. Libeskind’s postmodernist plans by contrast, straight out of the grief-industry handbook, would be the skyline reminder of terror--a monument to terrorism.

As groundbreaking on the Libeskind’s "Freedom Tower" grounds out, it may just be that a popular movement is afoot to bring such a decision--yes, a popular vote--to a head on Ground Zero. Eggheads like Libeskind and politicians like Pataki rely on intimidation--intellectual intimidation against the popular will and political intimidation against amenable developers and celebrity support. But a popular referendum on Ground Zero could not be ignored. It should happen. We can bring democracy to the Middle East, but democracy in lower Manhattan? Perhaps even Pericles couldn’t hope for that. Nevertheless, as MSNBC’s David Schuster recently discovered through a survey on Ground Zero plans: 80 percent of his respondents would vote to rebuild the towers.

If you think about it, no surprise. This is a project that the country could get behind like nothing else in recent American history. Fortunately, thanks to planners like Mr. Gardner and his partner Herbert Belton working for years behind the scenes, we wouldn’t have to start from ground zero: Gardner’s twin towers would be cheaper to build than Libeskind’s ’Freedom Tower’ and offer a host of new safety standards: reenforced outer-wall construction, cement-encased fire stairs, and additional engineering feats that would put these towers in a new category of safe-skyscraper design.

"They would be the most presigious addresses in the world," suggested Mr. Gardner. I couldn’t think of a better tribute to the heroes of September 11. Dad, in this one case, I know you wouldn’t mind being proved wrong. Twin Towers II is at least worth our consideration... and there’s still some time.

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