A Conversation With Rick Bell About The New Plans

On Thursday December 19, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with Rick Bell, Executive Director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He presented an overview of each of the nine plans and answered questions about public participation in the rebuilding, how the new plans would be funded and what criteria people should use to judge the plans. Find out what he had to say below.
Gotham Gazette: Good morning, everyone and thanks for coming. Today we are talking about the new World Trade Center plans with architect Rick Bell. Good morning, Mr. Bell.

Rick Bell: Good morning.

GG: Mr. Bell, how have you participated in the rebuilding effort in the past year, and what has been your involvement with the newly released plans?

Bell: I have been involved with the New York New Visions coalition. New York New Visions has assisted the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. We have helped, for example, with the selection of the teams who submitted designs yesterday and with a critique of the planning process on an ongoing basis.

GG: Could you briefly describe what New York New Visions is?

Bell: Certainly. New York New Visions is a coalition of 21 design and planning groups including the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the American Society of Landscape Architects along with activist groups such as the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and the Pratt Center (PICCED). We have prepared reports but also helped with tangible activities like designing the conceptual plans for the Viewing Wall around the World Trade Center site. The website is http://www.newyorknewvisions.org

GG: Nine plans were unveiled for the World Trade Center site yesterday. What is your personal reaction, and the reaction of New York New Visions to these new plans?

Bell: My personal reaction is very very positive. A lot of creativity was shown. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority should be commended for bringing in this level of creative energy, and allowing the seven teams a certain degree of flexibility particularly in relation to the memorial siting and the program components. By program components I mean the range and location of office space, the method of addressing the transportation infrastructure,including the PATH trains, and the relation of retail space to pedestrian districts and connections to the rest of Lower Manhattan. New York New Visions is studying the plans in much more detail since it is hard to tell the intricacies of these relations after short presentations or press accounts. I encourage everyone to visit the exhibit site at the Winter Garden when it opens tomorrow because the images in the newspapers and to some degree online stress only the towers. How it looks on the ground can best be seen in the models in the exhibit.

GG: What should the public look for when evaluating these designs?

Bell: There are at least half a dozen key things, starting, I would say, with the attitude of the designers to the memorial. How does the commemoration of the lives lost and the tragic events get a place of prominence in the design concepts? That is the first veil, the first criterion

GG: Mr. Bell, we have a question about that first criterion. ethan ernest asks, "my question concerns the process that is scheduled to take place in the next phase as indicated by the LMDC... that is the 'international' 'competition' for the design of the memorial...since the program that the 7 teams who introduced their concepts yesterday were mandated to provide an area for a 'memorial'... yet many of the designs... almost by necessity have so circumscribed the memorial aspect of the design... what is left for the competition?"

Bell: That is an excellent question. The competition needs to address, in my opinion, issues beyond the siting. Where the memorial is located is paramount. However, issues of authenticity, meaning and "gut" also should be a starting point. Many if not all of the schemes shown yesterday leave much for the competition entrants, even those schemes which seem most deterministic take a light hand on the specifics.

GG: Mr. Bell, could you tell us what other criteria the public should use in evaluating these new plans?

Bell: Certainly, apart from pedestrian connections, the key third parameter is transit. How the plans relate to the subway lines and the PATH is critical. The Port Authority has very definite ideas about transportation planning that the teams in large part recognized. How the transit hubs are expressed visually at surface level is important.A fourth criterion is how "inspirational" the building forms themselves are able to be. Many have clamored for skyline elements that speak to hope and aspirations. A fifth, well documented in many of yesterday's presentations are environmental concerns. "Green architecture" and energy consciousness are important issues for buildings and site planning of this century. Overarchingly there has to be a poetry, a kind of magic, that recognizes the importance of this site. It is not business as usual. It is not planning or architecture in terms that we have been familiar with.

GG: You've just spoken about a kind of magic in the skyline. We've received several questions that are variations of what Ruth Imperi asks: "Is the idea of rebuilding the Twin Towers as they were or close to it being considered?"

Bell: In a certain sense, yes. That is to say that some of the schemes shown yesterday have "twinned" towers. They are not the same as the World Trade Center towers. But several of the schemes have two towers that are at least as high, or higher, and these towers have a similarity of importance in the skyline and to each other.

GG: Could you go through each of the nine plans and explain the features that make it unique? How do they address the criteria you mentioned? Lets start with Daniel Libeskind’s design.

Bell: Sure. Daniel Libeskind's scheme was characterized, first, by keeping most of the "bathtub" area open, at the current level -- that is to say the area 70 feet down at bedrock level, where the foundations were is bordered by so-called "slurry" walls, which hold back the river and act as a kind of boundary to the site west of Greenwich Street. Libeskind's scheme incorporates this bathtub area and the slurry wall as part of the memorial location, which is entered through a geometrically provocative museum space adjacent to the museum is a very tall building, 1776 feet tall. This tower is quite slender and contains gardens in the air. A train station adjoins a "Wedge of Light", a large plaza defined by the angles of the sun between the time of the first plane and the towers collapse. A very moving, soulful design.

GG: Carlton has a question related to Libeskind's design: "Do you think it is realistically possible to relocate the supposedly temporary PATH train now being built within the tower footprint so that future memorial proposals such as Liebeskind's can be fully implemented?"

Bell: That question has been asked repeatedly of the Port Authority. My understanding is that the temporary platform is most likely in the location likely to become permanent. What Libeskind's scheme addresses is how the PATH can perhaps become part of the memorial sequence. The PATH trains came through the south footprint and will necessarily continue to do so. I saw in his scheme the possibility of the trains themselves becoming a kind of viewing platform. And the station, an evocation of arrival, part of the memorial if you will. I should add that my wife was on the last PATH train to arrive on September 11th. The PATH has particular meaning for me in that context.

GG: Let's talk about the next plan, by Lord Norman Foster.

Bell: Foster's plan, in many ways is the opposite of Liebskind's. It has two tall towers. That have been described as "joined at the waist". They touch in two places as they rise. Two or rather three places, one as Foster called it "a kiss". And one, much closer to the ground, joined at the hip. The towers themselves are geometrically exciting, based on triangles. Lord Foster when he was young worked for Buckminster Fuller, who designed geodesic domes, including that of the United States Pavillion at the Montreal World's Fair. His design here is based on triangles as an organic form. He also has a very strong attitude about the footprints, defining them by new walls which rise above the level of the site. So that people seeing them from below, looking up, do not see adjacent buildings. His environmental consciousness is expressed by gardens in the sky, multi-level gardens that bring in light and air to the office towers.

GG: What does "gardens in the sky" mean? Are they on rooftops?

Bell: In this instance they are three and four story gardens at various levels within the buildings, not at the tops only.

GG: Now Mr. Bell, could you tell us about the plan by Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl?

Bell: The plans by this group are perhaps most radical in the expressed desire to create a new building "typology". The towers are described as "feminine" in that they are not the proverbial phallic points. But rather forms that stress connection, continuity and void.

GG: Some people have said it looks like a tic-tac-toe board.

Bell: Yes, others said that the forms also recalled the "potato chip" remnants of the building facade.

It also relate to the loss of the World Trade Center towers by projecting memorial sites in the shadows of the former towers. Out into the river on finger piers. Defined by trees. And partly on a floating barge. This scheme was described as relating to "fingers" reaching out in various directions.

GG: Let's talk about the plan by UNITED ARCHITECTS

Bell: This scheme was the most ambitious in some ways, a vertical city in the sky. Of five connected towers, forming a crescent. Described as creating an almost cathedral-like void. It was the one scheme that could be characterized as a megastructure, a building approaching the scale of the site. Which also took pains to maintain visual connections to the adjacent streets. So that large building walls did not cut off such connections.

GG: The three designs by THINK?

Bell: OK, the first is a large, 16 acre park atop space that covers the site. It could be developed quickly and privately at relatively low cost. And would create a vast open space, some say desperately needed downtown.

The second scheme is somewhat more costly in that it encloses a space of almost equal size creating a "Great Room", in fact the largest room in the world, partly supported by cylinders that would define and protect the WTC tower footprint locations, which would be reserved as part of the memorial. This great room is unprecedented in New York. The popularity of large spaces such as the Winter Garden and Grand Central make it plausible that this would be very warmly received as New York City's new living room.

GG: How large is the great room compared to Grand Central?

Bell: Bigger. Actually I am not sure, but certainly grander and more transparent

The third scheme is much more ambitious. It creates two framework towers that would define a vertical "city of culture". An open framework filled with cultural facilities. Such as concert halls, museums, galleries and artists studios. The studios recall those that had been in the World Trade Center. The framework towers, like the open steel frame of the Eiffel Tower define the skyline without filling it with office space. They would rise above the level of the World Trade Center and would mark the points, the heights, where the planes hit in a special way, a memorial in the air. Atop this would be observation decks. Windmill turbines would create power for the elevators. Very exciting exterior ramps would also speak to the safety of exiting in a very visible, visual way.

GG: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Bell: Skidmore's scheme creates a series of towers floating above a reflecting pond. The towers are evocative of tombstones in a certain sense, but in a way that recalls monuments of remembrance, say by Peter Eisenman in Berlin. And the plan would create a special district, on the scale of the 16 acre site. Skidmore Owings and Merrill's team had three artists participating. The buildings and their relationships are very poetic, but somewhat difficult to understand from the views of the model seen from a distance. This is a scheme about solid and void. How it looks on the ground when the ground becomes water is either terrific or terrifying, too soon to tell.

GG: The last one presented was by Peterson Littenberg

Bell: Yes, Peterson Littenberg were last but not least. They presented a very coherent, very New York planning concept, a planning concept that created some truly remarkable spaces. Gardens that created sequences of movement through the site and beyond that would certainly and clearly work well for Lower Manhattan, as well as creating building types that could be characterized by mixed-use in the same building. That is to say, set-backs that would allow for gardens and terraces at mid-height with different types of building use above and below.

They had suggested the "Promenade" on West Street previously. And the issues of urban connection were particularly well addressed. They also proposed a "terminal tower" above the PATH station. That would be a skyline marker between a pair of more traditional looking skyline defining towers. Their scheme though was as requested about the planning ideas, less about the architectural forms.

GG: Is there a problem that some of the designs were presented better than others, or more aesthetically appealing at first glance, but might not serve the public as well as others would?

Bell: The presentations were very different, yes. But the truth is in the drawings, in the models. People should form their own impressions, not influenced by the eloquence of the presenters, or the occasional lack of eloquence.

GG: Louis Epstein asks, "The Peterson/Littenberg plan has been accused of being the most like the hated plans of July...the only difference being shorter spires.But Newsweek thinks that the officials really want this one and the other six are smokescreens that are deliberately impractical.Does this seem likely to you?"

Bell: I think they all merit equal and serious consideration. No smokescreens evident.

GG: What is the chance that we will see any of these designs as the final plan for the World Trade Center site?

Bell: These were presented as ideas. The ideas deserve considerable public discussion and debate and will be discussed and debated, starting here. If public reaction significantly favors one over the other, that will become clear at or before the hearings scheduled for January. This reaction, coupled with how the schemes work with transportation issues and phasing as well as, perhaps even along with, "consumer" appeal to both users and builders will be factored into decision-making, I would say.

The important thing is for people to form opinions based on more than a surface reading of the schemes. And communicate those ideas and feelings back.

GG: Devela asks, "A New York Times article today raised doubts about whether there would be funding for these plans. Are these projects feasible or are they today's candy for the eyes?"

Bell: All of the schemes were supposed to present plans for phased build-out. Like Halloween candy a few months later, it should be hoped and expected that the designs have staying power and a certain sweetness (or bitter sweetness). Libeskind's scheme, for example, starts with the memorial, which could be done now. The second phase in his is the transportation infrastructure now under construction. Office buildings as needed should be able to be built out over time, as needed, as Bob Yaro and others have stated.

GG: Last question: There's been criticism that there's not enough time built in for public input. What is your view?

Bell: The more public input the better. I think a lot will depend on how easy it is for the LMDC and the Port Authority to receive and incorporate comments from the exhibit cards and website, and how the hearing scheduled in January turns out. If thousands of people show up at PACE on January 13th that would be great and the hearing could and should go on for days.

There is a sense, though, that decisions are needed. How the decision making process incorporates adequate public response is the larger question. It is about the nature of the participation, its magnitude and its power, not just the timing. Again, the more public participation the better!

GG: Thank you very much for dropping by, Mr. Bell.

Bell: Thank you and goodbye.

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