What shall we put at Ground Zero? For two years, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has been trying to answer that question, with the help of the Port Authority, the Mayor's office, and representatives of every "community group" with three members and access to a mimeograph machine. The question has been thrown open to public comment at a series of meetings; the various plans for the site submitted by teams of architects were published in every newspaper to make sure that even the indifferent got a chance to form an opinion. In the interest of inclusiveness, the LMDC even consulted Larry Silverstein, the man who holds the lease on the property, and who will be providing the insurance money to fund the reconstruction.
The result of all of this frantic activity? It has been two years since the towers fell; the site is scrubbed clean and ready for building, and the trains are ready to stop there once again. And we still don't know the answer to that basic question: what shall we put at Ground Zero?
The answers that have been so far offered by the LMDC have been thoroughly unsatisfactory. None of the proposed designs for the site got a reaction warmer than "tepid" from the public; the most you could say for the winning design by Daniel Libeskind was that it might just be the best of a bad lot. The others were high-concept office parks, or disjointed hodge-podges of ideas that nowhere married form and function: the bits that were interesting weren't practical, and the bits that were practical could have been built just as well in Skokie, Illinois.
They weren't very good designs. But, of course, even if they had been very good designs, that wouldn't have been sufficient. Two years ago, New York suffered the worst terrorist attack in human history on that ground; only something truly great would be worthy to stand there. And if there is anything that mitigates against greatness in art, it is working -- as the LMDC required -- by committee.
Libeskind's original design was, in my opinion, well intentioned but more than a little silly. Then the "community" got involved. Now Libeskind is engaged in the Sisyphean task of trying to please all constituencies, most recently by altering the design at the behest of the victims families to leave the footprints of the twin towers untouched. Though I personally applaud that last gesture, the result of all the changes is that his design has become sillier, not to mention incoherent. And it looks likely to get still worse. The outcry for alterations continues from other parties who believe they are entitled to have their say in the design, and Libeskind seems prepared to obey. "Only death is set in stone," he told the AP.
(Ouch. Clearly we have a ways to go before Mr. Libeskind is, er, fully in touch with the mind of the community. What the proposal will look like then, I shudder to think.)
Nothing Out of Something
But, then, anyone can carp from the safety of the sidelines. If I am going to tear down Mr. Libeskind, I should really have a solution of my own to offer. And as it happens, I do.
If we cannot have a great new building -- and it seems we can't -- let me make a suggestion that has been woefully underrepresented in the discussion: let's build nothing.
I think we want whatever we put on that site to above all help us, and those who come after us, comprehend what happened there on 9/11. This is no easy task. I worked on the site for over a year, from the first days after the attack when the site was covered by an eight story pile of smoking rubble, through the long months when the bones of the buildings were cut up and carted away, to the time when the site had been scoured to the foundations and the slurry wall that holds back the Hudson was its most visible feature. During all that time I went for walks around the site, staring at the rubble, and later the empty space that replaced it, trying to get a handle on what had happened there. I was waiting for a moment when the enormity of what had happened there washed over me and I finally grasped the whole terrible thing. Eventually I realized that I would never have such a moment, because what happened on September 11th was too big for a single human's understanding.
But from walking the site I did get one important thing, which is an intimate awareness of the sheer hugeness of the destruction that was wrought. And I began to think that you cannot begin to comprehend what happened unless you are first slapped with the immensity of it: the vastness of what is no longer there. The only way for that to happen is for us to leave that space open and uninterrupted so that standing on any side you can see the tiny people dotting the far edge and realize just how much is missing between you and them.
If I were in charge of the site, I would make it a simple sheet of grass, with flat stones set into the earth to mark the outlines of the missing buildings. There would be no other memorial on the site but the shape of what was absent; if you must have a statue or some such, you can put it next to the site of 7 World Trade Center, which is already being rebuilt. But on the site itself, just a grassy space, with enough room for people to reconstruct the site in their imaginations if they wish -- and enough room for those who don't so wish to sit on the grass and enjoy life's short moments in the sun.
There are two main objections, I think, that will be raised to this plan. The first is that it is somehow giving in to the terrorists if we do not rebuild office buildings. But this is silly. Are we "letting the Confederacy win" because there are no longer farms at Gettysburg? We don't have to show the South they haven't licked us by painstakingly reconstructing a reasonable facsimile of what was there before; we showed them that by winning the war. It is losers who have to put a good face on things and pretend that nothing has changed, because their puffed-up ego is all they have left. If we smash al-Qaeda, I don't think we need to be afraid to show the world that the loss of more than 3,000 innocent lives has caused us unutterable pain.
The other objection I anticipate is that we need all that office space to replace what we lost on September 11th. But in the current economic climate, the last thing that New York City needs is more commercial office space. With a prolonged slump in the financial services industry, which has been the engine of New York's economy for decades, and scores of firms deciding to move key assets out of New York so that a terror attack won't incapacitate their organization, the City Comptroller reports that New York's commercial vacancy rate has jumped to 12.5%. And if office buildings are already a drag on the market, how much harder still will it be to rent out space in a building that tenants reasonably suspect might be a terrorist target?
In fact, renting space in the World Trade Center was a problem long before the current recession. For most of the twin towers' existence, the Port Authority struggled to find tenants to fill all that space, far away from New York's fine restaurants and theaters and suburban commuter trains; that's why the City and the PA had so many offices in the building. Only the internet bubble, flooding financial firms with cash, drove demand for office space high enough to fill the towers. It is unlikely that we will see those levels of demand for some time to come.
Moreover, in the event that more office space is needed in lower Manhattan, there are other places to put it. There are several underutilized sites in the area, such as the lot which before 9/11 housed a tiny Orthodox Church and a large parking lot, both destroyed in the collapse. If the city wanted to, it could use its power of eminent domain, and an expedited approval process, to give Mr. Silverstein enough land to replace all the office space he lost. And since the twin towers weren't very good office space to begin with (the top floors had breathtaking views, but getting to them took fifteen minutes in two separate elevators), both sides would actually be better off. Better office space, after all, means better profits -- and better tax revenue. And with a big, important public space for workers and residents and (let's be honest) tourists, the reconstruction might actually have some hope of breathing new life into downtown.
This plan will not satisfy everybody, of course. But I'm not trying to satisfy everybody; that's the folly that got us where we are now. I think my idea would satisfy more people than anything I've yet seen proposed. It would be quick and easy to implement. And it would mean that years from now, when there is no one left who can remember what the world was like before 9/11, there will be at least one place where the outlines of September 10th are still preserved.
Megan McArdle is deputy countries editor of Economist.com. Her weblog can be found at www.janegalt.net.