The lead sentence of a front-page New York Times story on February 28 spoke of a “solemn memorial pit” and “soaring gardens in the sky” — the two most striking features of Daniel Libeskind’s design for rebuilding the World Trade Center site, as he submitted it last December. The final version of Libeskind’s proposal — which won the competition — cuts out the sky gardens, which is a shame; it was one reason so many people were drawn to this design.
Last May I published my own proposals in NR. A “solemn memorial pit” and a “soaring garden in sky” were two of my big selling points. Libeskind didn’t get his ideas from me; the latest surveys suggest that exactly one licensed architect in the country reads NR, and I’m married to her. And in any case, Libeskind’s realizations are different from mine. Nonetheless, there is a moral to this story.
In May ‘02, I wrote that
Major skyscrapers ought to provide public spaces all the way up . . . A restaurant, shopping mall, or garden could be strung out vertically along the whole length of the shaft . . . In the post-war era, Manhattan made zoning concessions in return for outdoor public plazas. Today we need more public space inside our towers, at every level.
In his December ‘02 submission, Libeskind obliged. His plan was dominated by a soaring, pointy glass shaft, housing what he called a “vertical world garden”; his renderings showed gardens strung out vertically along the whole length of the shaft.
A 9/11 memorial, everyone agreed, had to be part of the new building. My idea was that
Walking closer you would find stairs leading down into this void, beckoning you into the region directly beneath the building . . . [T]his would be a good place for a memorial to the 9/11 dead. . . . Although the space itself might be shadowy . . . I might look up to discover an illuminated interior dome, tiled in something like natural mica.
My (single) tower was built right over the old WTC foundations, and so my memorial — a basement closed on top but open to the sky on all sides, except for piers at the corners — occupied the old WTC foundations. Libeskind puts his memorial in exactly the same place: “We have to be able to enter this hallowed, sacred ground,” he has written, “while creating a quiet, meditative and spiritual space. We need to journey down, some 70 feet into Ground Zero . . .” His memorial focuses on the surviving foundation walls. His new towers are off to the side; the sunken memorial is (evidently) an open plaza.
I like Libeskind’s ideas, but I like mine better. It is symbolically wrong to let terrorists push our buildings aside. The new structures ought to stand defiantly just where the old ones stood — and let memorial-goers sense their oppressive weight overhead.
I prefer my proposals in other ways too, but that’s not surprising; even theoretical architects (like me) are egomaniacs. Still: The winning entry is fine, and I congratulate Mr. Libeskind.
What to conclude? Add my piece to hundreds of others by all sorts of artists, critics, and thinkers in this magazine and its intellectual friends and descendants, and you discover something interesting. Nowadays, the country’s best art-writing is a near-monopoly of the Right. True, only the New York Times has the resources to cover the city’s daily art scene in depth — but even that is likely to change, courtesy of a new electronic news daily (my guess is) that will redefine “electronic newspaper.” That’s only a guess, but the real news is this: To find out what’s been happening in the art-and-ideas world, read the Times. To find out what’s going to happen, may I recommend National Review?
— David Gelernter, a contributor to National Review, is a professor of computer science at Yale University. Among his books is 1939: The Lost World of the Fair.