A Conversation With Rick Bell and Fred Bernstein

On Friday, December 5, 2003, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with architectural experts Rick Bell and Fred Bernstein.



Gotham Gazette
Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for coming to Gotham Gazette's live chat event. With us are Rick Bell, head of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Fred Bernstein, an architectural writer whose memorial design was chosen as a finalist, but later disqualified. Mr. Bell and Mr. Bernstein are here to talk with us about the 9/11 memorials.

Gotham Gazette
Good afternoon Mr. Bell and Mr. Bernstein.

Rick Bell
Good afternoon

Fred Bernstein
Hi.

Gotham Gazette
This is not the first time since 9/11 that New York has been involved in a public design competition. What's different this time around?

Rick Bell
This is a competition that impacts everyone; the memorial has meaning to all, regardless of your understanding of site plan issues.

Fred Bernstein
The huge number of entries -- reportedly over 5,000 -- made this competition unique.

Gotham Gazette
What about the public reaction? How is that different than the reaction to the overall design?

Fred Bernstein
The public reaction, at least to me, seems quite subdued.

Gotham Gazette
Why do you think that is?

Rick Bell
Perhaps because of the proposals themselves. Perhaps also because the public comment process is only partially defined.

Gotham Gazette
How so?

Rick Bell
Imagine New York held workshops for public feedback, there was an open meeting organized by New York New Visions, and the community boards and various commentators have weighed in.

However, what is needed, in my opinion, is an organized mechanism for public comment to reach the jury. While the jury necessarily needs to keep its independence, having a two-stage competition allowing for public comment and analysis is a good thing, and takes time.

Gotham Gazette
You worked on drafting New York New Visions' response to the eight plans. Can you tell us what the group is and what it had to say about the plans?

Rick Bell
New York New Visions is a pro-bono coalition of 21 design and planning organizations. It recently wrote an open letter to the memorial jury, right before Thanksgiving, suggesting that their further deliberations be influenced by sixteen "veils"; sixteen ideas that go beyond, in some respects, the mission statement and program. Among them were relation to access points, to the slurry wall, and to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation/Libeskind site plan. Other issues included concern over phasing and maintenance, and, most importantly, over the quality of the open space and "authenticity".

We spoke as well of the importance of connecting the memorial and site planning processes, and suggested one or two ways the jury might proceed to a decision.

Gotham Gazette
What impact do you hope to have? Have you gotten a reaction?

Rick Bell
We hope to influence the thought processes of this strong and independent jury, and in so doing foster a greater connectivity to both the site planning that has been underway, and some of its individual components. There has been some reaction from various individuals and writers. It was certainly not intended as a denial of the Lower Manhattan Development Corpoation process, but rather an enhancement.

Gotham Gazette
Mr. Bernstein, the New York Post reported today that a judge decided against forcing the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to allow your memorial design in as a finalist. For those who haven’t been following it, can you tell us a little bit about the controversy surrounding your plan?

Fred Bernstein
Sure. I had an idea, almost two years ago, for a memorial in the form of two piers in New York Harbor. The piers would be the precise size of the World Trade Center towers. I posted the idea at www.twinpiers.com almost two years ago. It's still there. But by the time the competition rolled around this year, I was sure the Twin Piers didn't have a chance, becuase the guidelines were based on the Libeskind site plan. So I began working on another idea, that fit the site plan, and I entered that in the competition. But my partner, Chuck, who always loved the Twin Piers, didn't want the idea to die. So he asked if he could enter the Twin Piers in the competition. Of course I said yes.

Rick Bell
Fred has written eloquently, in reviewing the Van Alen memorial exhibit, that "the best memorial may not be a memorial per se, but a city that emerges from tragedy better than it was."

Fred Bernstein
The jury picked the Twin Piers to be a finalist, which was incredibly exciting. And then we went from elation to despair when we discovered that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had "investigated" us and decided to disqualify the Twin Piers.

Chuck brought an action against the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, in order to reverse the disqualification, so that the jury could consider the Twin Piers in the final round of voting. But he lost. So now the jury will have to decide among the eight announced finalists.

Rick, thank you for quoting my review. I would say that the events of 9/11 -- and the buildings that were destroyed -- were so enormous, that no small or generic memorial will do.

Jasonik
The competition and the jury process itself seems to have eclipsed the designs in terms of discussion, and media coverage. Juried competitions by their very nature presume that the public is incapable of collectively choosing a design. How does one reconcile this with the desire for, or appearance of, a democratic process that integrates public input and jury expertise?

Rick Bell
Fred, I agree with you about the importance of meaning, and about the necessity of de-politicizing the selection process. That gets to Jasonik's question.

A two-stage competition allows the public to weigh in. But a strong and independent jury assures that there is no political manipulation possible.

Alex
Can't Fred appeal that decision? Are there any more legal steps open to him?

Fred Bernstein
Thanks for asking that. Chuck, who was the plaintiff in the case, could appeal, for sure. And we might even win. We really didn't violate the rules. The rules don't prevent one person from entering another person's idea.

Gotham Gazette
Earlier this week, Kevin Rampe, the president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, said that the jury may change the plans, or pick and choose from several. How would this work?

Rick Bell
I would like to think that the jury has several different option, short of starting over.

One is to pick the best of the schemes, and see how they can be developed to have greater resonance, and greater cohesion with the best aspects of the site plan. Perhaps the integration of the planning and memorial processes could start now, even before a final selection is made. Perhaps Studio Libeskind should have a greater role.

Gotham Gazette
You just implied that they might still start fresh. Last summer, when the first six site plans were released, there was widespread public disapproval, and the plans ended up being scrapped. Do you think that could happen here?

Rick Bell
Personally I do not think so, though some others in New York New Visions have suggested that could happen.

I think the concept of a strong jury making an independent decision is inviolable.

Fred Bernstein
My only comment is that there could, theoretically, be an unofficial and an official memorial. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation could move ahead with its competition for a small memorial at Ground Zero, which is necessarily limited by the site plan.

Rick Bell
Interesting thought, Fred.

Tal Barzilai
Is the amount of space for the memorial really that important?

Rick Bell
The amount of space is important for several reasons, one of which relates to the large number of visitors to the site anticipated.

Izeklah
From what I've seen, all the memorial plans use the same ideas. Is that a coincidence, or could it be because of the competition guidelines?

Gotham Gazette
This is similar to the feeling that David Dunlap expressed when he wrote in the New York Times that "conventional wisdom says that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation followed a textbook process. Perhaps that is why it got textbook results"; How much did the structure of the competition influence what these plans ended up looking like?

Rick Bell
I think that the competition guidelines were not restrictive. In addition, the instructions to the jurors allowed them to ignore or obviate these guidelines. The memorial program called for a "unique and powerful setting" and "space for contemplation." These are hardly restrictive in scope.

Fred Bernstein
Well, if the competion guidelines had not expressed -- at the very least -- a strong preference for the Libeskind site plan, I would have submitted the Twin Piers myself and there never would have been a disqualification.

Izeklah
How do you explain the fact that all of the finalists look the same?

Rick Bell
There is a significant degree of similarity, but one must also look at the differences. Two of the schemes do start to play around with the site plan. One does a figure-ground reversal, significantly different from all of the others.

Gotham Gazette
Instead of speaking generally, can we go through each of the eight plans and tell us what to look for in each one?

Gotham Gazette
Votives in Suspension

Rick Bell
Well, this scheme by Norman Lee and Michael Lewis, in my opinion, is the most culturally referential. The votives are a very strong emotive element, dominating other aspects of the presentation.

New York New Visions will be doing a more comprehensive analysis in the next week, but the quality of open space is one rubric that this scheme, Votives in Suspension, must be looked at with. As well as the issues of technology and maintenance.

Andrew Oliff
Why is there no historic context regarding what was there before, that is, no artifacts from the remains of the Twin Towers themselves? 

Rick Bell
That is a question that many others have asked, including New York New Visions and those attending the Imagine New York workshops. It seems to me that there is nothing in these eight schemes that precludes addition of artifacts, such as the Fritz Koenig sphere.

One assumption is that the "authenticity" of the remembrance of the site conditions was to be coming from a relation to the slurry wall. At this point, this is not evident particularly in most of the schemes.

Gotham Gazette
Very quickly, let's go through the rest of them. Gardens of Light?

Rick Bell
The scheme by Pierre David speaks to light and plantings. The descriptive language is poetic, but the drawings are very subtle. This is the scheme that includes a glass wall surrounding a garden of lights, open the hours between the first impact and the collapse.

Gotham Gazette
Lower Waters?

Rick Bell
Bradley Campbell and Matthias Neumann take out the north building from the site plan and fill the north footprint with a structure that might serve as an interpretive center. The materials are carefully selected, and quite somber. The larger question is whether the building deletion improves the quality of the open space or not.

On this I would prefer to reserve judgment until next week, but it seems that the plaza opening out to the north is not an enhancement.

Gotham Gazette
Passages of Light: The Memorial Cloud?

Rick Bell
BBC art + architecture creates a strong visual bridge between the surface and a myriad of light sources below ground. One concern expressed is about the translucent plaza surface at grade, is this durable? Will it survive?

Gotham Gazette
Inversion of Light?

Rick Bell
Toshio Sasaki's scheme, Inversion of Light, talks to connectiveness of the Northeast and Southwest points of the 4.6 acre memorial setting. A large open space in Sasaki's scheme may need better differentiation over time, but the differences between the two footprints are addressed.

Gotham Gazette
Suspending Memory?

Rick Bell
Joseph Karadin, in Suspending Memory, reverses the footprint/void relation by having the two footprints be islands in a lake, planted islands. A very emotively powerful void, but not adequately addressing, at first analysis, where large numbers of people will congregate outside, unless in boats.....

Tal Barzilai
Why is it that the memorial can only go on the footprints and not anywhere else on the site?

Rick Bell
The memorial site designated was the 4.6 acres "bathtub", not just the footprints. There is nothing that precludes the memorial from visually starting far from that 4.6 acre site, and in so doing creating a signficant arrival sequence.

Gotham Gazette
Is it plausible to leave the footprints open down to 70 ft?

Rick Bell
Yes, the relation to the footprints, except for technical issues of the PATH station and tracks, is completely open, and perhaps mutable in some of these schemes as they develop.

Gotham Gazette
We have two more designs left. Dual Memory?

Rick Bell
Brian Strawn and Karla Sierralta have differentiated individual and collective remembrance. Using different treatments of the footprints is the core of the concept. Some have expressed reservations about the particular plantings selected. But this scheme is not predicated necessarily on using sugar maples.

Gotham Gazette
Reflecting Absence?

Rick Bell
Michael Arad's scheme has garnered much attention, it changes the site plan most radically by eliminating the cultural buildings on the north and the east of the site plan. And, instead, substituting a new screen building on the west side, adjacent to West Street, a very large and undifferentiated plaza opens then to the north and east.

This is very minimialist, at least at this point, and one either likes it or not.

Gotham Gazette
What's your personal reaction?

Rick Bell
I personally liked the "sheltering" aspects of the north and east cultural facilities separaing the more sacred zone from the living memorial of the rest of the site.

Andrew Oliff
All the designs make us descend into pits, as if the victims worked in the basement or in a mine shaft.  Why is there nothing in the plans that make the visitor look UP to the skies, where the victims worked?

Rick Bell
I'm not sure I agree, even now on the temporary PATH station platforms, it is hard not to look upwards to the sky. (and kudos to the Port Authority and its Chief Architect Bob Davidson for allowing us this access to the site).

EE
Is it true that the jurors and the 8 finalists have been sworn not to discuss the 'process' for 2 years! and if so would that preclude the jury's desire to exhibit all 5,200 entries for 2 years as well?

Rick Bell
I can't say; I imagine the exhibit of all 5,200 entries will take place much sooner.

(I can't say because I don't know, not because of any vows of secrecy).

Gotham Gazette
Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times that the memorials "represent the triumph of atmosphere over atrocity, mood over meaning. The designs are more concerned with the play of light on water than the play of darkness on life"; Are the designs too "architectural" and not emotional enough?

Rick Bell
The lack of emotion, of "rawness" has been an almost universal response.

As an architect, it is perhaps important to say that rendering buildings, open space, or memorials in a manner that they can be understood, does not preclude emotion, meaning and significance. I think that this will out as the process continues. At least I sincerely hope so!

Gotham Gazette
Was there something about the requirements of the competition that made this so, or is it just a reflection of the jury's personal taste?

Rick Bell
New York New Visions has been calling for two years for the integration of the memorial process and the site planning process. The eight schemes selected, to a very significant degree, seem to reflect a denial of the current state of the site planning process, or at least a questioning of it. Libeskind's Jewish museum in Berlin is an example of how a strongly emotional setting, a strong architectural vocabulary, can co-exist with its contents, with the artifacts and historical overlay of meaning applied through an understanding of the lives lost.

Gotham Gazette
What do you think will happen now?

Rick Bell
I think the jury will continue its deliberations, and narrow down these eight schemes to three finalists, as Joyce Purnick predicted in the Times ten days ago. Whether the three finalists will be revealed before a single selection is made is a question that might be asked. I would like to think that the public comment, the civic comment, the questions posed by Gotham Gazette and elsewhere, will impact the jury's ongoing discussions, but the jury's decision is final.

Perhaps, as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had said previously for the site plan innovative study, they will be picking a team, not a scheme. The finalist selected will develop just as the site plan may, with greater information coming from market conditions, from public opinion, from the imminent design guidelines, and a variety of other factors that will unfold with time.

Gotham Gazette
Are you saying that the memorial that is eventually built at Ground Zero may look nothing like any of the eight designs?

Rick Bell
Kevin Rampe certainly implied that.

I think, however, that at least three or four of the current schemes can be further developed and still retain their central thoughts.

Izeklah
When do you think construction of a memorial would start?

Rick Bell
Not to be glib, but I sincerely think that the PATH temporary station presents us with a temporary memorial on site, that construction has actually started, though not of these schemes as yet.

First, of course, the jury must decide, then funding must be realized, and then the operation of the memorial area be better understood, through an Lower Manhattan Development Corporation-created foundation or in some other way not yet addressed.

I think there is such a need, that this will not take long. The LMDC to their credit has started addressing these funding and operational issues.

Gotham Gazette
How much will the memorial end up costing?

Rick Bell
For any of these schemes, the cost of the material can be calculated, the cost of the labor can be calculated, the cost of the plantings can be calculated, the cost of the memorial should be priceless.

Gotham Gazette
We've been talking to Rick Bell and Fred Bernstein. Thank you very much to both of our guests, and thank you to our viewers for participating. And remember to continue discussing the memorials on our memorial message board.


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