Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, July 17, 2002
Okay, my 2c on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's plans for rebuilding on the WTC site:

(1) I think they did a very good job laying out the options in terms of use of space. If we can agree that building on top of the footprint of the towers is acceptable, then the Promenade design (the last one of the list) is by far the best. The greenway leading to the tip of lower Manhattan is beautiful, a real enhancement to life in the area and symbolically powerful. And the memorial park is also best integrated into the rest of the area in this design: the stela will be far more significant coming at the end of the promenade then it would be alone in a park, and the shape of the park harmonizes with the Wintergarden and the WFC - this is a very good plan. Adopting it would require accepting that the footprints of the towers would be built upon, however, and I'm not sure we'll all agree on that. (The Park design is similar in conception but done on the cheap, without the Promenade. It's not obvious to me that it's worth alienating those who oppose building on the tower footprint if you aren't going to get the promenade for your labors.)

(2) If we don't agree that we can rebuild on the old tower footprints, then the Square design is to be preferred. At least we still get the promenade, though it is now poorly integrated into the site (it effectively terminates at the back door). We get the consolation prize of an elevated ring around the park, which would be lovely and would set the park off as more of a "special" space, protected in a way - appropriate for a memorial park. I also think the idea of putting a major cultural attraction downtown is a good one, and City Opera is a particularly good choice since they need to move anyhow. This plan is also the most open, spatially, with the towers spaced well apart.

(3) The worst designs are the Triangle and Garden plans. What are they thinking? There's no effort to make the area work aesthetically, no effort to make the cultural buildings worlk (the museums are even in bizarre shapes), no promenade and - to move on to my next point - the buildings are particularly ugly.

(4) Which brings me to the biggest failure of all the plans: the buildings are ugly. Inelegant in shape, bunched together illogically, too short and just bad all around. There should be a few simple principles to making attractive skyscrapers:

(a) the shapes should be simple, classical and pleasing, not strange blocky scultures;
(b) they should have clear, strong entrances at ground level, including the use of ornament, and should ideally taper or have ornament or some non-kitchy design feature at the top to hold the eye there;
(c) the cladding should age well, and should include a pleasing mix of stone, glass and steel;
(d) the buildings should be intelligently space to allow light and air to pass between, but not so regular as to appear a row of dominos.

In the case of this development in particular, there should be a few additional rules:

(a) there needs to be a signature skyline element to anchor the southern end of Manhattan in the popular imagination;
(b) some part or all of that element should be doubled, to evoke the lost towers;
(c) that element should be as tall as economically and aesthetically feasible, so we don't look like we're afraid to build tall;
(d) the shape, color and style of the buildings should harmonize well with the WFC, which are generally attractive buildings though not remarkable in any way.

The Promenade and Park designs come closest to fulfilling these principles, not by being particularly attractive but by not being hideously ugly. But the towers are too short. All the other designs have buildings so ugly I am actually shocked.

(5) I don't know if all the plans tried to rebuild 100% of the lost office space, but there is no decisive need to do so. New York City has a glut of office space right now, and downtown is not the best place to build a massive amount of such space. The future of downtown is mixed-use, not as a primarily commercial zone. If we want to build a new commercial zone, we should do it in the far West Side (north of Chelsea, near the Javitz Center). We are building a new neighborhood here, and residential, cultural and retail space is at least as important as the office space. Many people have referred to Rockerfeller Center as a model, and I think that's right. You could probably pack more office space into Rockerfeller Center than is there now, but the design creates a unique urban space that is a magnet for tourism and recreation and a prime location for top-tier retailing. That's what we should be aiming for here, and if it costs more money - as the any of the plans with a promenade will - we should spend it. It will pay off in a way that the old WTC never did or could.