Design for Living

Could The World Trade Center Become The World Cultural Center?

Imagine scaffolds erected to protect the ghosts of the lost twin towers. Two open latticework structures would surround the footprints (but not touch them), rising higher than the originals. Suspended inside this scaffolding would be distinct individual buildings related to culture—a performing arts center, a conference center, an open amphitheater, a library, viewing platforms at exactly the height they used to be, and a 9-11 museum, connecting the towers at the two points where hijacked airplanes hit the buildings. But much of the structure would remain empty. It would not cast a shadow. At night, the latticework would light up in the shape of a double helix, with a glow emanating from the top like the popular Towers of Light. Memorials could be constructed on the footprints and/or the viewing platforms.'

When architect Rafael Viñoly unveiled this proposal for a World Cultural Center to replace the World Trade Center, he called it "a little bit extreme." On closer inspection, however, this plan developed by the THINK team (Shigeru Ban, Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith, and Viñoly) opens new possibilities even as it opens the sky. Among the nine new designs broached for ground zero, this was the only one not focused on office space. This at a time when the city already has millions of square feet of unused office space, when a proposed World Trade Center has no potential tenant, and no one knows whether a single corporation will venture back to that site to move into a skyscraper.'

"The mission of reconstructing the skyline is one that is proposed at a cultural level," says Viñoly. "Should we reconstruct it with the offices of Merrill Lynch? We don't think so. The need is a cultural need. Almost in the same way, the Eiffel Tower became the symbol of Paris, and it is an empty building. This is an empty building."'

THINK did fulfill the requirements for office and commercial space laid out by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, but parceled out the square footage into smaller buildings (20 to 60 stories) around the edges of the site, buildings that could be phased in as needed. Companies might venture back downtown to locate near something prestigious, and THINK's World Cultural Center would be, if nothing else, one of the new century's great engineering feats—a "destination" building. "We have the world's greatest engineers working with us," says architect Schwartz. "We did computer studies and modeling to know that this building would work."

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Chances are, of course, that none of the new designs will be realized in their present form. The LMDC simply intends to make a decision about land use. Where will the buildings be? And the memorial? Details later. But presumably this means they'll have to choose one of these designs by their self-imposed deadline of January 31.

After the drawn-out period of reflection afforded those terrible first designs last summer, the process has moved into fast-forward. The notion of a World Cultural Center has not even been discussed officially. Unofficially, though, it's been part of the downtown dialogue.

"We think it's a superb idea," says Beverly Willis, co-chair of R.Dot (Rebuild Downtown Our Town), an umbrella organization for many individuals and groups below Canal Street. R.Dot has been discussing the possibility for months, and will soon release a paper recommending a major emphasis on culture downtown. R.Dot even has a plan for subsidizing an arts complex. "It's the responsibility of the developer," Willis declares. She thinks Larry Silverstein's lease will have to be dramatically renegotiated. After all, he's getting new buildings and a new regional transportation system, funded in large part by billions of our tax dollars. "We believe part of cutting this deal should be a requirement for the cultural," says Willis. "And I don't think that's an unreasonable demand, particularly when there's such a payoff for the developer in terms of getting tenants and increasing his rents. This is public land. The public has got to get something out of this deal."

Meanwhile, Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, convener of the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, has drawn a similar conclusion. "Do we want to put our money into subsidized commercial office space? Or do we want to put it into something like this? That's the big question that has to be answered." Yaro says the idea of a World Cultural Center came up recently at a Civic Alliance planning workshop. He hopes the public will get to debate it.

A cultural center might also be the best fit with Bloomberg's new vision for lower Manhattan as a "global hub of culture and commerce." Indeed, when the mayor presented his plan during a speech to the Association for a Better New York on December 12, he seemed to go out of his way to criticize the old Trade Center, whose "voracious appetite for tenants weakened the entire downtown real estate market."

Meanwhile, downtown arts administrators are reacting with cautious enthusiasm.

Liz Thompson, executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, once located in WTC Building Five, says of the THINK team's Cultural Center: "The cultural institutions hug the memorial site, which is a better juxtaposition than retail or finance. On the other hand, that might put constraints on the kind of art that people feel should be there. My concern always with magnificent buildings made for art is that there may be no room for experimentation, for the young, for conversation about the controversial."

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