New York must stop being defensive

One of the low moments in the history of New York came last week. That was when David Childs of the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill firm of architects unveiled yet another disappointing revision of plans for the Freedom Tower. George Pataki, the state's governor, struggled for a comment that would convey official approval of the structure to replace the Twin Towers at Ground Zero. Finally he came up with one: "I think it will be very safe."

This was telling for what it left out. The job of the Freedom Tower is to comfort Americans by sending a courageous and coherent message about the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet after nearly four years of discussions, meetings and drawings, the current plan for the Freedom Tower is neither inspiring nor coherent. The early asymmetrical plan was already frightening (is it old-fashioned to expect freedom to be symmetrical?). After the most recent alterations, hastily added following demands for greater security by the police commissioner, the Freedom Tower is more symmetrical, but not improved. Indeed it looks like a skyscraper from Coruscant, the ominous city in Star Wars. The 20-storey base of concrete is designed to discourage the approach of car bombers, but it also puts off others. Overall, as the critics have commented, "Freedom" is looking like a fortress. What is more, plans for the rest of Ground Zero are in similar disarray. And the rows over the content of the International Freedom Center, a museum to sit adjacent to the tower, are escalating.

This is sad because New York has been a master of proud and coherent monuments. There are the very old ones - the Customs House, not far from Ground Zero. And there are the newer ones - Robert Moses's Jones Beach on Long Island, a tribute to the working man, leisure and the car. Skyscrapers? Countless, including Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building. (Mies knew a lot about monuments. He called architecture: "The will of an epoch translated into space.") Adversity? New Yorkers have historically transcended it through fabulous architecture. This, after all, is the city that reacted to another blow - the 1929 market crash - by erecting the Empire State Building. And that within 13 months. The tallest building of its day, the Empire State represented a promise that when the economy came back, New York would be ready. It was no fortress. Indeed, architects fashioned its tip to serve as a mooring for dirigibles bearing adventurous visitors.

So why the Ground Zero defensiveness, incoherence and delay? How has a city that calls its firemen "New York's Bravest" reduced itself to fussing about "being safe"? The police changes made sense in security terms. But let us face it: Ground Zero will never be as safe as New York would like it to be. Terrorists could strike again. So Ground Zero may as well be about being brave.

The most discussed reason for Ground Zero's problems is national ambivalence about the meaning of the September 11 event itself. Over the years some Americans have taken the European view: that the thousands of deaths that occurred that day were a horrible but isolated event. Others believe that September 11 was something the US brought upon itself. Yet a third group, the largest, believes that September 11 was the Pearl Harbor that forced the US into its current war. If an epoch does not know what it stands for, to paraphrase Mies, then it will have trouble translating itself into space.

But there is also a larger obstacle here. Immediately after the terror attacks, the tragedy unified those affected. But these people have long since divided themselves into typical interest groups. And over the years, as in any municipal controversy, those groups have solidified, becoming something close to monuments themselves. There is the Board of the International Freedom Center, who seek to present a global message about freedom. There are the Families of the Survivors of September 11, who would prefer a narrower focus on the day itself. There is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a regional entity. There is Ray Kelly, the police commissioner - who prevailed in the case of the security changes. Add in Senator Hillary Clinton - and the White House. Every group wants something more than it wants a coherent Ground Zero. Whatever they will produce will be more about consensus than vision.

The interest-group problem also stands between New York and progress in areas that have nothing to do with war. New York leaders have spent millions on the bid for the 2012 Olympics. Yet though the Olympic Committee has made it clear it desires a certain kind of stadium, irate West Siders and the Madison Square Garden venue have blocked it. Brooklyn needs a park on the waterfront, but it may not get one: Brooklynites are up in arms. Some new projects are certainly worth questioning. Others deserve swift advancement. In all cases, uncertainty is a cost the city must bear.

Ground Zero structures are now scheduled for completion in 2010 - a timetable eight times longer than that for the Empire State Building. If New York is to sustain its grandeur, let alone honour its dead, it needs to find a way to proceed more forcefully. As Mies said: "Build. Don't talk."

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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