Seeing the Sun at the World Trade Center

Jean Gardner


Art is battling expediency in the World Trade Center landscape. What is at stake is the creation of more sustainable relationships with nature than those the attack on the World Trade Center ruptured.  The September 11th assault challenged modernity’s negotiations with three interrelated systems of nature: the nature of human beings, the nature of the material world, and the forces of nature. Many people hoped Daniel Libeskind’s proposal would re-negotiate these systems, making them more sustainable, but doubts cloud the horizon.

The pulverizing of the gleaming towers of the World Trade Center has come to symbolize the demise of the modern landscape of surety — of human control over the future. Architect Daniel Libeskind describes his winning design for the site’s rebuilding as a re-affirmation of that surety. His proposal reasserts modern values of freedom, democracy, civility and sustainability. A close scrutiny of the continuing evolution of Libeskind’s design reveals, however, a contested landscape whose fractured forms are settling into the all-too-familiar, compromised patterns of necessity.

Under pressure from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and The Port Authority, features of Libeskind’s initial design are changing. Less than two months after surpassing six rival proposals, he has eliminated all 1.7 million square feet of residential space from his plan and increased the original 7.6 million square feet of office space to 10 million. The Park of Heroes has disappeared and Libeskind’s prediction that the sun will shine in his Wedge of Light open space is being questioned.  To make room for a new transportation center, Libeskind’s 70-foot deep pit marking the original World Trade Center foundations has been filled to 30 feet. Only a tiny sliver of the original hollow now remains in the northwest corner. Its tokenism, along with other changes to the initial design, is an alarming indication of Libeskind’s vision of the human relation to nature. He is minimizing it and in the process creating an unsustainable future.

I, along with many others, believed that by retaining the pit in his competition design, Libeskind displayed an understanding of human nature not evident in the other competition designs. His design negotiated with human nature in ways that resonated with those who feel the pit is a grave for the thousands killed whose bodies are still unaccounted for. We thought he was responding to the raw emotional depths the suicide attack opened. By incorporating the pit into the future of the site, Libeskind touched a deep chord of human yearning to remember, to make a place in the present for those who have died. Now the pit is reduced to a mere shadow of its original power.

Besides human nature, architects must also negotiate with the physical world of nature — the world of trees, rocks, and other animals that provides resources to build with. Although Libeskind claims that his present design has material features considered sustainable, there are no specifics available supporting his assertion. Scrutinizing his presentation reveals no photovoltaic panels, green materials, windmills, passive solar alignments or other indices of sustainable design. The retaining of the Croxton Collaborative, renowned for its sustainable rehab of the National Audubon Society Headquarters in New York City, should infuse the design with these much-needed features.

What we do see in the current design that is an aspect of sustainability is Libeskind’s negotiation with a force of nature — the sun. The Wedge of Light is a place designed for yearly experiences of the sunrays on the morning of September 11th. Libeskind claims that the sun will shine on this triangulated space between the hours of 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed. Critics are asking serious questions about whether the sun will only be reflected rather than shine directly into the space during that time. Although Libeskind is trying to play down the debate, the difference between these two sources of light —  reflected and direct — is momentous.

None of the character of the September sun when it is nearly at its mid-point, autumnal equinox is evident in the presentation image. There is no evidence of a sense of the quality of the morning autumnal light shining on the Island of Manhattan. This light differs markedly in its density, intensity, and reflectivity from that in winter, spring or summer. One reason for Libeskind’s failure is perhaps that he is shaping a space whose dimensions and features computer software calculated, not personal experience.

A modern master at this very ancient art of revealing through design the invisible affecting power of the sun is James Turrell. This former painter has spent the last thirty years fashioning a relationship between the human species and the sun and other planets. His materials are the Earth in the Roden Crater, a hole that a meteorite blasted in the Arizona desert. A crater in the desert may at first glance seem to have little to inform a commemorative design within an enormous pit dug into the edge of Manhattan Island and the Hudson River. But there are illuminating points of contact.

The sun is the source on the Earth of multiple forms of energy. In some cases, that energy is destructive — an example being the fires that raged in the Twin Towers after the planes exploded. In the open space of The Wedge of Light, Libeskind is bringing into play the sun’s nutritive power to heal. He is creating a restorative space by relating us to a force of nature present during the hours of the tragedy. In his design the sun is now a witness, not to tragedy, but to everyday life. By so doing Libeskind intends to influence our emotions — to help us heal — by enabling us to experience September 11th positively.

From Libeskind’s imaging of the Wedge of Light we can see how he intends to use architectural materials, vegetation, building siting and massing as well as the sky to create a space where we can experience the recuperative power of the sun.

Disappointingly, the main features of the Wedge of Light fail to energize the place with life-buoying emotions. The flat planes of blue, red, gray, and white glass, their reflective qualities, the gray surfacing material of pathways and plazas, the numerous “Xs” formed by metal bracing, the diagonal shapes of building masses, all produce a flat, lifeless space. 

Turrell molded an existing hole in the earth, continuing a centuries-old tradition practiced by the near-by Hopi Indians in their sacred underground Kivas. He has surfaced the inner earth volumes with colors, textures, and oculii. In so doing, he has aligned us in relation to both the earth and the sky, which is what Lieskind hopes to do.

From protected womb spaces in the Roden Crater, we witness the sky’s ever-changing, cyclical light and darkness, its patterns of stars and planets shifting with the earth’s rotations around the sun. We become sailors on the skywaters of space. Neither ruler or ruled, we form multiple, temporal and complex relationships to a life-sustaining force of nature. The sun’s energy, which industrial society has confined for nearly two hundred years to mechanical outlets, envelops us once again in its life-originating pulse.

The experience of Roden Crater could provide inspiration for Libeskind to create a space at the World Trade Center that truly heals. Where to begin? …perhaps with the poet Wallace Stevens, we might

Begin… by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.

Jean Gardner is the Co-Chair of the Sustainable Design Task Force for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and Senior Faculty in the Architecture, Interior Design, & Lighting Department, Parsons School of Design, The New School University. Ms. Gardner is on the Steering Committee for Rebuild Downtown Our Town, which works to revitalize Lower Manhattan sustainability.

This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.

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Libeskind illustrations ©Libeskind Studio

Roden Crater photo ©James Turrell