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Design Contest for WTC Site Goes on Tour - 2002-07-05

The collapse of the World Trade Center last September left a striking change in New York City's skyline and a 6.5-hectare void in its downtown area, a once-bustling community of thousands of workers from all walks of life. In the days that followed, many residents of lower Manhattan wondered what they could do to help their community recover and move forward.

One gallery owner decided to invite more than 100 artists and architects from around the world to submit their ideas about what might be built in the Trade Center's place. The result was one of the most popular exhibitions ever presented in a New York art gallery. The exhibition was recently in Washington on its first stop of a world tour.

At the National Building Museum in Washington, more than 50 architectural proposals for the World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan were on display, including drawings, photographs, three-dimensional models and computer-generated images. Chief Curator of the National Building Museum, Howard Decker describes the exhibition as "part of a dialogue," and says that the designs are representative of the public's wide range of emotions when confronted with the subject.

"I think that the exhibition represents a kind of continuum," Mr. Decker said, "a line if you will, between, on one hand, those in the exhibition who propose that nothing should be done on the site ever. That it represents hallowed ground and should remain forever clear and the other end of the spectrum, the proposals in the exhibition that suggest a very, very tall building, extremely dense development, and everything in between in that continuum."

The proposals on exhibit were chosen from the designs submitted to New York gallery owner Max Protetch earlier this year. Mr. Protetch saw the building proposals as an opportunity for the public to have a forum in which to share their own ideas about the redevelopment of the Trade Center site.

The first panel on the wall as you enter the exhibition is a photograph of the early days of construction of the former World Trade Center, to give visitors a context in which to view the building proposals. From there you see a simple drawing of the Manhattan skyline at night with the twin towers reflected in the water below, but invisible in the skyline. It is accompanied by the words, "reflect, remember 9/1l/2001, postpone conclusions."

Another design presents an image of two tall towers standing adjacent to a 277-meter-deep (911 foot) excavation, a reference to "9-11", that reaches through a series of ramps that take you down to the bottom, where there is an auditorium, a pool of water and a memorial as a place of contemplation.

Another presentation uses sound as its medium. National Building Museum Curator, Howard Decker explained, "The sound that you're hearing is the work of artist Inigo Manglano. This work is a digital audio creation. What this artist did was he went to the top of the World Trade Centers in April of 2001 and recorded the ambient noise, 1350 feet (411 meters) above Manhattan's streets. So what you're hearing is the actual sound of New York from atop the World Trade Center. It's extraordinary."

Howard Decker says the redevelopment of the massive site will be complex and difficult, because it will have to aim to please many people of varying interests, emotions and constituencies.

"Lower Manhattan was never historically a highly populated neighborhood, but it has become one in recent years," he said. "And now there's a real community there. They want to say something about what should happen. The business owners want to say something. The New York/New Jersey Port Authority who own the land want to say something, the governors have a stake in the outcome. The developer who leases the land where the former trade centers stood wants to have a say in what happens there; the families of the victims of the attacks, certainly want to have a say in what happens there. It is an enormously complicated process and trying to achieve consensus is going to be extraordinarily difficult thing to do."

At the National Building Museum exhibition, several people had their own opinions about what should be done, including a woman from California, who said, "I couldn't make a decision on that or a comment because I don't' live there. And I think it's more important for the people who live in the city to make those sorts of decisions. As Americans we all share in it, but not the degree that the citizens of New York City share in it and so I don't need to attach myself to what really is a decision that belongs to them."

Barbara Blakemore, an Episcopal priest from Richmond, Virginia, was in Washington attending a conference. "I think something should go back up," she said. "I would hope that a lot of time would be spent to choose the right things and to include lots of different groups in the decision. I think to too quickly rebuild office towers somehow seems to quickly move from what we've been through without really...I think that's kind of an American way of doing things, sometimes, is to try to get on with the normal. And I think we found out that the 'normal' is going to be very different."

A man from Syracuse, New York commented, "I want them to build it back exactly as it was before. If people are scared to go up to the top, they can use that for a memorial, but I think they need to put it back. It's not about a victory over terrorism or anything like that. It's that that was part of New York. You look at that skyline, you come in from the air, from water, it is New York. Just as much as the Empire State building [and] if that went down, people would want it back. You knock down the Statue of Liberty, you'd want that back. And people who have never been on top of the World Trade Center, looking over the city and seeing Connecticut and New Jersey and everything else, they'll never get to see it if they don't put it back."

Another visitor named Elise actually worked in the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks, escaping with her life before the buildings' collapse. Elise still carried an emotional weight from the events of September 11 and declined to talk very much. But she shared some of what she was feeling. "I thought I would have all the time in the world to take my children to see the views from above. And that opportunity is gone," she said. "So I guess you have to do things when you first think of them and not wait."

When asked if she would like to see the building replaced, she answered, "Yes, I would love to see the area rebuilt to what it was. I think that would be a tremendous statement of this country and its bravery and its continuity."

As visitors leave the exhibition, they are encouraged to note their ideas or questions about the design proposals they just saw in a "comment book". It is another way, says National Building Museum curator Howard Decker, for people to feel they are active participants in the redevelopment of Trade Center site.

The New World Trade Center exhibition will travel to Venice for the Biennale International Exhibition of Art and then to other European cities later this year.