A Conversation With Barbara Littenberg

On Tuesday January 14, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with architect Barbara Littenberg from Peterson/Littenberg, which created one of the designs for the World Trade Center site and also produced the urban design concepts of the mayor's plan for lower Manhattan.
Gotham Gazette: Welcome everyone, and thanks for coming. Today we are talking to Barbara Littenberg of architecture firm Peterson/Littenberg, designers of one of the new plans for Ground Zero. Good afternoon, Ms. Littenberg.

Barbara Littenberg: Good afternoon.

GG: Ms. Littenberg, can you tell us briefly how your firm got involved in the process of coming up with designs for the new World Trade Center site?

Littenberg: We were invited to continue our work for the LMDC and Port Authority done in the early spring. We were to provide continuity with the work of July and to further explore the concept of the memorial promenade.

GG: Were you the only firm to work on both the first six plans and this latest round of designs?

Littenberg: Yes.

GG: Did you watch or attend last night’s public hearing on the new plans for Ground Zero at Pace University? What did you think?

Littenberg: I watched on New York 1 and was interested to note that many of the same constituencies are still alive and well from the July debate.

GG: Did you learn anything new from the hearing?

Littenberg: I guess it reaffirms the difficulty with which it will be possible to truly satisfy everyone. It was a little like Goldilocks - the first designs were too timid, the second were too bombastic (mine excluded).

GG: Speaking of your plan, could you please take us briefly through the details? Let’s begin with the memorial aspect of the site.

Littenberg: Our idea was to derive a new plan from the geometry of the World Trade Center footprints In doing so, we created a 6 acre garden - not a park - but a real garden to contain memory, allegory, history, and repose as the great gardens of the world are capable. New buildings surround and protect the garden - like standing watch - and they get larger at the periphery forming a protective circle of towers. The project also allows completion of the surrounding urban fabric St. Paul's Square is a new square to honor the chapel across Church Street. Liberty Circle terminates the new West Street promenade. The new Theater District provides amenities for Battery Park City, and a new library and public pavillion.

GG: Steve Brant asks, "What was your firm's motivation for designing a plan that blends in with the surrounding architecture rather than boldy departing from it?"

Littenberg: That is what I believe is the role of urban design - to heal. This plan is about restoring the structure of the city. The individual buildings placed in the plan can be more radical and depart from the surroundings.

GG: Alex Butziger asks, " You said you want human scale for the WTC site. Don't you think that only heroic scale can be appropriate for rebuilding?"

Littenberg: Heroic scale can occur with a major new public space and boulevard - not only gigantic objects. This is more meaningful because these can be used by the general public. To monumentalize the buildings alone seems too commercial - we can demonstrate our might though subtler means.

GG: One of your ideas for a public space is a 2,797 seat amphitheater, one seat for every person that died on September 11. What kind of events would take place there?

Littenberg: The amphitheater becomes a place to commune with 3000 people. It is open air and is not intended as a commercial enterprise. Concerts, Shakespeare, etc. could happen when appropriate. The space below the seats, which goes to bedrock, will be a museum to the events of 9/11, lit through the risers of the seats.

GG: Another primary element of your plans is a promenade on West Street. At the hearing, a Battery Park City resident said that he opposed the idea, saying that it would be a "hiking trail for tourists." What is your response to this and other criticisms of the promenade?

Littenberg: There has been some confusion about the fact that our promenade is at the existing grade of West Street as well as the traffic - no tunnel is necessary. The tourists will be coming no matter what - this seemed like a good way to get them off the local streets so that residents can go about their everyday lives.

GG: You also drafted the mayor’s vision for lower Manhattan. How were you selected for this?

Littenberg: We were asked to contribute because of previous work done in 1994 for the Battery Park City authority which gave us insights and knowledge about the neighborhood.

GG: How does the plan for the mayor fit in with the plan you've developed for the sixteen acres? How are they different?

Littenberg: Many of the difficulties - economic and physical - of downtown identified in 1994 remain unchanged. We believe the plans are very compatible. They are predicated on energizing street life, street level retail, and developing a 24/7 neighborhood, as well as the need to create more park and open spaces to accommodate an increasing residential population and improved access to the East River waterfront.

GG: You mentioned economic and physical difficulties of downtown. What are they specifically, and how does your plan address them?

Littenberg: Economically - the boom bust cycle has continued since David Rockefeller identified the problem in the 1960's. The exodus to the suburbs has made access to midtown easier and more convenient for executives. Improved transportation is essential. Physically - there is very poor connection across the island east to west. The 16th century plan and the 19th century buildings make for difficulty in getting around. Older historic buildings were no longer suitable for class A office space - but they are too beautiful to tear down. Residential conversions are essential.

GG: Do you think that any one of the nine designs for Ground Zero will be built?

Littenberg: I doubt it! I believe that we were trying to arrive at an exceptional ground plan at this first stage. Many of the innovative architectural ideas can be incorporated when the program and feasibility are more certain.

GG: Do you think these nine designs will help rebuilding officials come up with a better master plan?

Littenberg: I would like to hope so!!! But I believe the complexity of the issues will require consensus forming aroung partial ideas - not whole "visions". Too many people keep looking for an architect/messiah. The issues are too difficult to understand in public forums. A wonderful plan will happen with continued imput and development. The process must move forward.

GG: If people are looking for an "architect/messiah", and the issues are too difficult to understand in public forums, how do you think the final decisions about what to build should be made?

Littenberg: You have to break the problem down into smaller pieces. Do we want to have another superblock or should streets (pedestrian or not)be introduced? Does New York really want the tallest building in the world - yes or no? Is the site so big that it should be divided into smaller parcels - like it once was - so that uses can emerge over time and building be done incrementally? Or do we want a futuristic megastructure?

GG: Last question: As an architect involved in the process, when do you think we'll have the answers to those questions? One year, five years, ten years?

Littenberg: I can't say - I am not in charge! Perhaps the political will has to be there first.

GG: Thanks for dropping by, Ms. Littenberg.

Littenberg: Thanks for having me. This was fun.


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