A secular cathedral for ground zero

Posted: Mar 06, 2003 12:00 AM

Ground Zero is to be turned into Ground Plus. Daniel Libeskind's design has been chosen for the structure to replace the World Trade Center knocked down by the evil men of Sept. 11.

Not since the Vietnam War memorial was described as a black hole in the ground has so much controversy been ventilated over a design subject to the crosscurrents of politics, economics, aesthetics and competing concepts of imagination and memory. The costs of culture and cultural cantankerousness can be high.

If architecture is "frozen music," as Goethe described it, the early concepts of rebuilding the World Trade Center were dissonant chords in the babble of the towers. Rather than music as the food of love and memory, these designs were merely fast food, without the plebian simplicity of McDonald's golden arches.

The designs suffered from a gluttonous desire to replace nearly all of the 11 million square feet of lost commercial space. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which oversaw the first design competition for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, didn't even reflect good business, ignoring the neighbors with a cold tribute to tragedy.

In the anguish of destruction, many thought the twin towers should be rebuilt as tall as the original structures in defiance of al-Qaida. The folly of that idea was captured in a cartoon of the new structure with a bull's eye painted on the top floors. Ironically, the controversy echoed the dispute over the original twin towers as first devised by Nelson and David Rockefeller. Those who opposed them then lost, big. This time those who wanted to replace them lost, big.

The winning design attempts to redeem past mistakes by meshing commerce with compassion, linking an appreciation for emotional and material loss with a concern for both market and mourners, renewing both space and spirit. In fact, the controversies over what to rebuild on Ground Zero have actually been good for all of us. Even if we don't want to live in New York, most of us want to visit New York, or like knowing it's there in all its muscular glory. The design competition focused the response to the terrorists.

Separation of church and state was written into our Constitution, but we're among the most religious of people, as public-opinion polls continue to show, so it's fitting that the Libeskind design asserts itself like a secular cathedral, testifying to the unconquerable human spirit. The Parthenon was borne similarly 2,500 years ago. Athens had just been defeated by the Persians, who invaded and burned the wooden buildings on the acropolis.

The Greeks debated endlessly whether to rebuild on the site. Many wanted the charred wood to remain as blackened memories, reminders of what the Persians had tried and failed to accomplish. Many Athenians argued that marble buildings were too expensive, that the grandeur of the Parthenon would make it easy to forget that the Persians had tried to destroy their liberties, too.

The architects and sculptors were viciously attacked, and corruption and factional disputes almost ended the enterprise. But Pericles prevailed with his argument that the monuments would celebrate the future while not forgetting the past. The vulgarians lost and the Acropolis reflected the triumph of memory. ("There are no pink flamingos on the acropolis," a favorite professor of mine said in a lecture on Greek architecture.)

Daniel Libeskind's design can't be compared to the Parthenon, nor is it clear that his vision will ultimately triumph over the push and pull of politics or the arguments over aesthetics. New York invented contentiousness, after all. But the feisty architect has shown himself to be up to the task, variously described as a " charismatic salesman," a "bare-knuckled bruiser from the Bronx" (where he grew up) and "a Jewish cowboy born from Poland" (where he was born).

He wears ostrich boots, black suits and dark glasses and waxes schmaltzy as he describes himself, the son of Holocaust survivors, arriving in America on the S.S. Constitution at the age of 12 and glimpsing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

When Gov. George Pataki announced the winning design, he noted that Libeskind had won it after 15 months of debate among public officials, families in mourning, civic and urban groups. Ultimately, he said, the architect was able to create "an inspiring symbol that will reach into the sky and that will let the world know that the terrorists have failed."

This isn't Periclean Athens. Ground Zero isn't the Acropolis. But it ain't bad.

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