This is more like it. The World Trade Center PATH Terminal by Santiago Calatrava, the renowned Spanish architect and engineer, is what we should have at ground zero. Not modified suburban malls with water fountains, but a major cultural contribution to our city.
Here is how it happened: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, acting on its own, invited qualified professionals to apply for the job and selected Mr. Calatrava, the presiding master builder of bridges, airports and rail stations. No jury. No pandering to populism. No public performances. Alternate proposals were not displayed and debated. The result was presented, and the reaction has been appropriately ecstatic.
Too bad the memorial hasn't turned out so well. But then, the process was different. An open competition, ballyhooed as a democratic, grass-roots enterprise, elicited 5,201 entries from around the world, which the jury, stuck with those choices, dutifully whittled down to eight mediocre finalists, and later to three. Notwithstanding all the noble rhetoric about the openness of the competition, jurors then did what was necessary: they demanded changes and help from outside experts. The design by Michael Arad, a young architect with the New York City Housing Authority, won only after he brought on Peter Walker, a well-known veteran landscape architect from Berkeley, Calif., as a full partner. Mr. Walker had an idea about how to make Mr. Arad's concept more winning; he turned the rough and barren plaza, centered on two voids where the towers used to be, into an orchestrated grove of sycamore, locust and linden trees.
But perhaps more important, Mr. Walker had a 45-year track record. During that time he has headed his own firm ó working on Millennium Park for the Sydney Olympics, on a large fountain at Harvard, on the Toyota Museum and on Disney City in Orlando, Fla. ó and served as chairman of the departments of landscape architecture at Harvard and at the University of California at Berkeley. His inclusion enhanced public confidence and satisfied jurors.
Call this tactic elitism, if you want. I did, writing in Arts & Leisure in December that jurors should scrap the populist palaver and seek out better ideas from the most talented people they could find. Elitism is an incendiary word. When the article appeared, the jury bristled. "Smug cultural superiority" was reportedly how one juror reacted. With art, however, elitism is a blunt term for expertise. And clearly the jury wanted that quality: as Vartan Gregorian, its chairman, put it after the winning design was announced: "Without Walker there would be no Arad."
Then public attention moved on. We're a distracted and impatient society. It was similar with the evolution of ground zero's signature tower. Daniel Libeskind, who has never built a skyscraper, proposed a design with big problems. The developer felt nervous and insisted on involving his own expert on high-rise architecture, David M. Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who has built many skyscrapers. Mr. Libeskind was ordered to work with Mr. Childs. Their joint design turned out to look better than expected.
So, two nominally public processes, altered by the authoritative imposition of outside expertise, produced plans that have come as a relief to many people who feared the worst. Relief. Not, on the whole, as with Mr. Calatrava's work, ecstasy.
Ironing out the details of the memorial will now require experts besides Mr. Walker to join in: engineers, horticulturists, electricians, plumbers. According to the plan, water is supposed to drop from the plaza into reflecting pools matching the tower footprints, then again into smaller rectangular shafts even deeper down. Visitors will be able to descend below ground to see a museum of artifacts. Mr. Arad has said he doesn't want any glass between the water and the public in those spaces.
But as Eric Lipton reported in The New York Times last weekend, cold, wind and ice are among various predictable problems that the design faces. Many public fountains don't function. They are pathetic. This memorial should be inspiring and haunting. The plan has already been significantly altered from its original scheme with the changes by Mr. Walker and now requires further practical modifications. It's not clear how much its eventual form will resemble the design we've been shown.
Rhetoric versus reality: advertising the competition as a model of democracy and ending up with a dose of constructive elitism is not the only example of what seems like political dissembling at ground zero. Officials insist that having the best memorial is the site's top priority. But if that were true, they would have waited until enough time had passed to grasp the proper historic meaning of the event being remembered. Instead, there has been a rush. Partly to console the grieving. But also driven by the need to show big corporate employers downtown that their workers will not be walking indefinitely past what looks like a war zone.
That's understandable. Maybe there was no alternative to haste. Jobs and the economy are critical, after all; they're about survival, too. More square footage at ground zero will go to retail shopping than to the memorial. But everybody should at least be frank about the agenda behind the timetable.
Speed itself isn't even the issue. It's possible to work well quickly, if the goal of the project is clear. Mr. Calatrava has proved that. At this point his design, with its soaring wings and cathedral-like space, opening to the sky, may be the best memorial we have. It certainly brings people together.
Some people find spirituality and rebirth in the voids and flowing water of Mr. Arad's and Mr. Walker's design. Others see a polar bear grotto and spider holes. Kinship with a monumental work by the artist Michael Heizer at the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, N.Y., has also been noted.
Mr. Heizer's "North, East, South, West," a variation of a sculpture he did in the 1960's, consists of four big vertigo-inducing steel-lined holes cut into a concrete floor, up to 20 feet deep, in the shapes of a wedge, a cone, part of an upturned cone and a double-stepped square, very similar to the voids Mr. Arad has for his waterfall fountains. Those voids exploit what Mr. Heizer has called "negative sculpture" to preserve the footprints of the towers, the most profound act of memorialization in the design.
The power of Mr. Heizer's minimalist work derives from its necessary scale and abstract simplicity. Whether the addition of water and trees at the memorial elevates the concept or dilutes it remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Mr. Calatrava's rapturous plan for the terminal, conceived in collaboration with the Downtown Design Partnership of DMJM & Harris and the STV Group, has its own historical precedents in the work of engineering-minded artists and builders like Robert Maillart, Felix Candela, Anton Pevsner, El Lissitzky, Eero Saarinen and Robert Ricolais. The allusion to a bird might be hokey, but here strong form born from creative engineering saves it from kitsch. The central metaphor also rescues flight from the violent image of the planes crashing into the towers and raises it poetically to the level of something beautiful and romantic.
We can thank an enlightened patron. The Port Authority might have hired Hack & Hack. The terminal might have been awful. But the authority acted civically. Everybody should be grateful. Building a PATH station is, of course, less emotionally, politically and morally vexing than designing a memorial. Even so, the public hungers for models of uncompromising excellence, and to repeat the truism that no memorial could please everyone is to settle on an easy excuse for compromise.
The lesson is not that commissions without oversight are better than open competitions. It is that substance trumps rhetoric and quality is what people value in the end. Maya Lin's black granite wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is not prized because it won an open competition. It is prized for its eloquence.
The quality of Mr. Calatrava's design speaks to the most serious aspirations of the nation. Inventive and transcendent, it establishes a metaphor and benchmark for the evolution of downtown as a place of cultural significance and symbolic weight. The standard for development has been raised. The stakes could not be much higher. Now we should demand that everything at ground zero rise to this challenge.
Correction: Feb. 15, 2004, Sunday An article on Feb. 1 comparing the design selection processes for the World Trade Center PATH Terminal and the ground zero memorial misstated the name of an architect whose work could be seen as a precedent for Santiago Calatrava's design for the terminal. He was Robert Le Ricolais, not Robert Ricolais.
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