Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York

By Paul Goldberger. Random House. 273 pp. $24.95

Architecture, the most public and stationary of arts, requires taking the long view. Buildings that were disparaged upon unveiling can, over time, begin to accrue the soft glow of fond remembrance; even the Eiffel Tower had legions of early detractors. A similar fate, writes the New Yorker's architecture critic Paul Goldberger in Up From Zero, seemed to have been bestowed upon Minoru Yamasaki's World Trade Center.

When the Twin Towers opened in 1973, Goldberger himself described them as "boring, so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha." Still, the towers began to find a place in Manhattan's hard skyline. "Like all architecture, it is there," writes Goldberger, "and you cannot avoid it the way you can choose not to listen to a piece of music you dislike." Architectural fashion changed too: "Crisp metal boxes did not seem so harsh, and sometimes they even seemed refreshing." The World Trade Center became part of the scenery.

Al Qaeda's destruction of the towers on Sept. 11, 2001, brought the public's evolving rapprochement with them to a tragic, murderous close. Suddenly there was a gaping hole in the city's skyline and, not surprisingly, a clamor over how to repair it. Architecture, an art of time-lapse slowness, had entered a realm of heated emotional response: There were as many people calling for the towers to be rebuilt instantly as there were arguing that Ground Zero should be never be built upon again.

"Rebuilding Ground Zero," writes Goldberger in his authoritative telling of the complex work-in-progress in Lower Manhattan, was to become "the first great urban-design problem of the twenty-first century." It was also to become the most closely watched and most passionately argued architectural debate in New York City's history.

This is generally not the stuff of high-wire narrative -- which is why architecture critics usually concentrate on the end result -- but this process was a watershed. Indeed, Goldberger's description of the pivotal public hearing on the timorous first round of proposed designs, held in the sprawling Javits Convention Center, seems more like an old-style political convention than a planning hearing. "The schemes are not ambitious enough, and the buildings are too short," said one speaker, to thunderous applause. "Nothing here is truly monumental -- it feels like Albany."

Something had changed, Goldberger notes. "People were demanding a level of vision and imagination in the public realm that they had not called for in New York for more than a generation." A city used to banding together to stop public projects was getting together to start one -- no mere building but an emotionally charged memorial, an act of closure, and an implicit referendum on the future of both the city and the country.

Amid the flurry of competing interests and factions, the architect best suited for the fray was Daniel Libeskind. "None of the other architects could speak so convincingly to a lay audience," Goldberger writes. Where most architects tend to rely on drawings and models, Libeskind was able to use language to bolster his case: his immigrant's tale of coming to New York, his fervently optimistic "stump speeches," the easy-to-grasp concepts like "Wedge of Light" and "Freedom Tower."

With Up From Zero, Goldberger has assigned himself no easy task: crafting a compelling tale out of the normally unfertile grounds of design competitions and bureaucratic committees. (Architecture, like sausage and legislation, is not really something you want to see being made.) While his architectural criticism is always deft, incisive and admirably lucid, one often wants a more textured sense of the many players involved. This is New York City, after all; one longs for more backroom dealings, more combustible personalities. (We do get some, however; the competing architects are prone to sniping at each other's work, and Libeskind calls Rafael Vinoly's entry "skeletons in the sky," while Vinoly dubs Libeskind's "the wailing wall.")

Up From Zero is hardly a triumphal tale, as Libeskind's role in the project becomes increasingly marginal (despite his game-face assertions to the contrary) and architecture's necessary realities -- politics and money -- enter the picture. Larry Silverstein, the developer who held the lease on the original World Trade Center, is portrayed here as a seasoned blackjack player, waiting patiently as cards are dealt. Not surprisingly, the developer decided the way to recoup his losses was not avant-garde architecture or public cultural facilities but office space.

Whether Lower Manhattan was ready for another large influx of such commercial space seemed as tertiary an issue as it did when the towers themselves were built. "Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the entire saga of planning Ground Zero," writes Goldberger, "was the possibility that the Freedom Tower might turn out to be less a symbol of renewal than of how little had been learned from the troubled history of the original World Trade Center. In mid-2004, the Freedom Tower seemed less to signify innovation than history repeating itself." And yet, Goldberger notes, it was not just business as usual. A traumatized public did raise its voice, and it was heard. Still, the ending of Goldberger's book is not really an ending -- just a fleeting moment in architectural time. When Ground Zero is rebuilt, another story will begin. *

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of "Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America."

An artist's rendering shows Daniel Libeskind's design of the Freedom Tower, which will be built on the site of the former World Trade Center.