The Future of Ground Zero: Daniel Libeskind's Perverse Vision

Article excerpt

"AN ARCHITECT FROM Berlin has received the commission for the most spectacular and surely also the most delicate building project in the world," a news anchor announces. The "architect from Berlin" is Daniel Libeskind, and his commission is "to put something new in the place of the World Trade Center." There follow the well-known images of the World Trade towers imploding. "It was a murderous visitation as on September 11, 2001 the twin towers of the World Trade Center were reduced to rubble," the voiceover explains in distinctly religious tones: "The limitless drive upwards, the optimistic vitality of this city seemed broken. Now it has a new vision--thanks to Daniel Libeskind, the winner of the competition for the reconstruction of Ground Zero." The earlier scenes of destruction are replaced by images of glittering skyscrapers encircling a verdant field where happy families stroll--this is no mere reconstruction, it would seem, but the veritable resurrection of New York. "The decision was made unanimously by the jury," the voiceover continues. The report dates from February 27, 2003, and it comes from the German public television channel ZDF. It was recently shown in a continuous loop as part of the exhibition "Counterpoint: The Architecture of Daniel Libeskind" at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

But there is one problem with the report: As most New Yorkers will recall, the decision in favor of Libeskind was hardly unanimous. Indeed, on February 25, just two days before the announcement of the selection of the Libeskind design, the site planning committee of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the body specifically created to oversee the reconstruction of downtown Manhattan in the aftermath of 9-11, decided against the latter and in favor of the rival proposal from Raphael Vinoly and Frederic Schwartz's "THINK" architectural team. Despite a massive and sometimes sordid public relations effort by the Libeskind camp--including a campaign to get a prominent critic in the press fired and an apparent attempt to pad support for the Libeskind entry in two high-profile web-based polls--this choice seemed to reflect the tendency of public opinion, which the LMDC had been specifically tasked to canvas. Although neither of the two design competition finalists ever managed to generate much enthusiasm among New Yorkers, when, for instance, Jennifer Rainville of the local television news station NY1 reported from the opening of an LMDC-sponsored exhibition of the two models on February 4, she found a strong movement of support toward the THINK design and its lattice-work invocation of the old twin towers. Yet, belying repeated assurances about the "open" and "democratic" character of the process of deliberations on the future of Ground Zero, New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose to ignore the LMDC recommendation and go with the Libeskind design anyway.

Why was there this misrepresentation in the ZDF report, and why was it allowed to stand in the Libeskind exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum when the curators surely were aware of the controversy surrounding the selection? To answer that question is to consider the exalted status enjoyed by Daniel Libeskind in contemporary German public discourse. It was his work in Germany, after all, that established Libeskind's "worldwide renown," as Jewish Museum director Michael Blumenthal has put it. In fact, up until now Libeskind has been known, first and foremost, as the designer of the Jewish Museum itself. Before winning the design competition for the latter, Libeskind's designs had been widely regarded as unbuildable. Still today, his resume of built designs includes only museums or museum extensions and an artist's studio on Mallorca.

To reflect on the sources of Libeskind's German success might also help us understand how a supposed architectural "visionary" with no relevant experience in urban planning or skyscraper design should have been entrusted with devising the "master plan" for a massive complex of high-rise office buildings and pedestrian spaces upon which the revitalization of southern Manhattan and, to a certain extent, the future of New York itself will depend. …