GSD Panel Addresses Ground Zero Plans

David E. Stein

Columbia Professor MICHAEL BELL discusses plans to rebuild Ground Zero at a Graduate School of Design panel yesterday.

Several prominent architects squared off over projected plans for the rebuilding of Ground Zero yesterday at a panel held at the Graduate School of Design.

The discussion occurred two days after the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced its selection of two finalists for a redesigned World Trade Center site.

Yesterday’s panel included Toshiko Mori, the chair of the Design School’s architecture program and a member of the LMDC’s selection committee, which sifted through the hundreds of designs that were submitted.

Mori, who lives just blocks above ground zero in TriBeCa, began by reminding the audience that the redesign process is both a personal and communal experience.

“It was my neighborhood,” she said. “The media was at my doorstep, and as an individual I lived this tragedy.”

Mori summarized the finalists’ proposals and outlined the basic criteria that the LMDC committee used to choose designs—including the creation of a distinctive skyline and the consideration of space for commercial, residential and cultural purposes.

She noted that many architects responded personally to the emotional aspects of the tragedy.

“September 11 was an attack on civilization and architecture,” Mori said. “Whatever we can do, we will contribute to make this city come alive.”

Sarah W. Goldhagen, a lecturer in architectural history at the Design School, said that the redesign process was particularly difficult given the conflicting claims to the land at Ground Zero.

As a result, the approach has been too bureaucratic, she said.

“The process has been so opaque,” she said. “We need to raise the level of public discourse.”

Panelists disagreed over what form the new design should take.

Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology Antoine Picon, said that physical damage of buildings seems less unusual for Europeans like himself.

“We are used to cities having scars,” he said.

Picon cited the beams of light that illuminated ground zero for a month after the incident and asked, “Why think only in terms of concrete and steel?”

Associate Professor of Architecture Preston Scott Cohen cautioned against what he called “giant tombstone architecture” and reminded those present to think of Sept. 11 as one person’s death 6,000 times and not as mass murder.

Cohen said the redesign process should avoid the tendency to “turn the actuality of all these individualities into an abstract kitsch memorial.”

“I would prefer the city just continue to move forward rather than make a spectacle of an expression of sympathy,” he said.

Other panelists added that making the building too much of a display would create security issues and could create a new target.

Many of the panelists agreed that a large-scale memorial with an imposed significance was not the best option.

And one pointed to Harvard’s own Memorial Hall as an excellent model.

“Annenberg is a memorial to those who died in the Civil War,” said Robinson Professor in Architecture Jorge Silvetti. “It makes you pause, but it is very functional in everyday life.”

A good memorial, he said, should be subtle.

“That would be the triumph of architecture in memorializing something. To have it exist on an everyday basis, but not be forced to suffer it,” he said.

—Staff writer Wendy D. Widman can be reached at widman@fas.harvard.edu.