WTC Plans Should Reach the Stars

May 20, 2002

Eli Attia, architect,
New York

Deciding how to rebuild the World Trade Center is a moment in our history that calls for greatness. But the choices made by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have all but guaranteed mediocrity. The rules established for the selection of the architects who will design the buildings to be constructed on this site eliminate from consideration every great architect in the entire world. Rather than employing the vision of extraordinary architects, the buildings will be the product of commercial architects not known for their design ability.

Furthermore, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority are already seriously considering imposing a series of design constraints on the site before the project designer is even brought on board: taking away the site's uniqueness by subdividing it with a series of roads, predetermining the area of the site to be devoted to a memorial for the victims of 9/11, and limiting the height of the buildings.

In his final address as mayor, Rudolph Giuliani said, "We have to create something here that enshrines this forever, [a place] to feel the great power and strength and emotion of what it means to be an American." Instead, the plan will inevitably result in ordinary mixed-use towers. And that is a tragedy.

Architecture consists of two separate yet complementary worlds - design and production. The design architect is the creator, who transforms imagined and required abstracts into tangible forms. It is the work of the design architect that determines the greatness or triviality of a building. The production architects translate the work of the design architect into a building.

In its haste to begin this massive project, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority have limited participation to the very largest architectural firms, firms that have completed at least three $100-million urban planning and transportation infrastructure projects in the New York metropolitan areas within the last decade. Quick: Name a single building of note constructed in this area in the last decade by such firms.

You can't do it because no such project exists. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority are seeking the strongest production firms, firms that have great expertise in converting design to finished product. But they are doing so at the expense of the design, the heart and soul of the project. As every architectural critic will agree, not a single building of note has been designed by a qualifying firm. What is happening here is analogous to awarding a highly prestigious catering contract to a fast-food chain because it has served billions and billions of meals.

Not long ago Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times architecture critic, wrote on exactly this same issue, "This is not the moment to accommodate second-rate minds." If this plan is permitted to go forward, that is precisely what will happen.

The selection process makes certain that the best that America can devise regarding the rebuilding of Ground Zero will never be tapped. For example, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority had concluded that it is impossible to produce a 100-story building that will resist terrorist attacks. That's nonsense. Although it may never be possible to create any building completely safe from terrorist attack, as an architect who has devoted his career to designing tall buildings I can state without reservation that not only is any 100-story building safer than any 50-story building, but also that it is possible to vastly improve their safety. The structure of these 100-story buildings has to be built stronger than the 50-story buildings just to withstand the lateral forces imposed by high winds and earthquakes that grow exponentially with the height of the building. Regrettably they are automatically precluding the taller, safer buildings.

The only mechanism in existence for obtaining a design commensurate with the significance of the site is an open competition to plan the project from top to bottom. This would allow the resulting project to serve the spirit as well as the flesh by inviting the participation of the world's greatest architects and by not encumbering them with the limitations that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority want to impose.

I would also suggest that this competition be judged by the people of New York, or the nation. The design that is selected can then be produced by one of these large firms. That's what they do best.

For many obvious reasons, this site mandates an urban gesture of international importance. What eventually rises from Ground Zero must reflect the best of what we are as a people; exhibiting our aspirations, our creativity and our industry. This is the place where America's heart was broken and its spirit emboldened. And unless an open competition takes place, this site will be forever marked by ordinary corporate buildings. What a shame, what a terrible shame.

Eli Attia Eli Attia is an architect based in New York City whose designs include 101 Park Avenue, the Republic National Bank world headquarters, and the Millennium Hotel.