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May 20, 2005

A Temple of Contemplation and Conflict

FOR architects who find inspiration in conflict, ground zero can be perversely fascinating. From the battles over money and security to the nasty political elbowing, all of the ingredients are there.

The strains are evident in the design for a new museum that will house the International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center, unveiled yesterday by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The building, by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, is strangely seductive: with some fine-tuning, it could even become a fascinating work. It is already closer to the standard set by Santiago Calatrava's soaring glass-and-steel transportation hub than that of the site's troubled Freedom Tower, for example.

But ultimately, the museum is more about politics than architecture - a theme-park view of American ideals in an alluring wrapper.

Under a master plan drafted by the architect Daniel Libeskind, the building would rise on a one-acre site at the northeast corner of the memorial park. This is envisioned as ground zero's main cultural intersection, with Frank Gehry's proposed theater complex across Fulton Street to the north and Mr. Calatrava's transportation hub to the east. Two memorial pools mimicking the footprints of the former Twin Towers are to frame the complex to the south and west.

Snohetta's design, a hulking structure clad in a skin of wood and glass, is a clever response to the challenges posed by the site's bickering constituencies. The museum building lies directly above Mr. Calatrava's train station, for example, and he insisted that its supporting columns not intrude into his space. He also demanded that the design allow light to flow down onto the train platforms.

Then, halfway through the design process, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey informed Snohetta that the museum building would somehow have to absorb up to 40,000 square feet of vents and mechanical equipment, bloating its scale.

Tracking the firm's efforts to come to terms with these conflicting requirements is like watching a circus contortionist. The architects began by lifting the entire building on massive steel-and-concrete pillars to make room for a large ground-level plaza. A 90-foot mirrored light well is carved through the building's core, funneling light to the plaza and - theoretically, at least - onto the underground train platforms.

The decision to vault the building into the air is ingenious, and it should come as a relief to Mr. Calatrava. Approached from the east, the center will provide a striking backdrop for his station. Together with two towers that are part of the larger master plan, it will frame three sides of a public square that is nearly the size of St. Mark's Square in Venice, with the birdlike form of Mr. Calatrava's glass-and-steel structure rising out of its center.

Visitors will be able to stride directly underneath the Freedom Center and on to the memorial park. At its northern end, the underbelly of the museum slopes downward, framing a view of the memorial pools to the west.

Over all, the building creates a series of surprises that draw you along a carefully spaced architectural narrative. Visitors can enter the building from two directions, for example. A broad ramp leads up from the plaza through the light well to the main entrance; a smaller ramp leads into the building from Fulton Street. The entry points converge in an open-air lobby that cantilevers out toward the site of a planned theater complex, linking the museum to part of a bigger cultural nexus. From there, visitors can file into the Drawing Center galleries or continue up another ramp to the Freedom Center.

This entry sequence reinforces what's best about the design, the sense that you are traveling along a series of shifting horizontal planes that gently lift you up out of the hurly-burly of the city into the contemplative world of the galleries. It could also be interpreted as a counterpoint - a moment of psychological relief - to the descent into the voids left by the twin towers.

But the experience soon becomes Orwellian. The center's upper-level galleries will be arranged in a spiral around the central light well. Under the current design, visitors will have to ride an elevator to the top and then walk back down along the spiral on a so-called "Freedom Walk." This kind of manipulation seems silly, especially in a museum that celebrates freedom. By echoing the ramps down into the memorial pools, the downward spiral implies a direct connection between the cataclysm of 9/11 and a global struggle for "freedom" - a bit of simplistic propaganda. (An early rendering of the Freedom Center that was circulated at the development corporation's offices included an image of a woman flashing a victory sign after voting in the recent Iraqi elections; that image has been replaced by a photo of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

No doubt, the tortuous choices faced by the architects - and the skill with which they dealt with them - will make this building an intriguing case study for architecture students 50 years from now.

Even so, the architects' finesse could take the building only so far. If the design works in relation to Mr. Calatrava's transportation hub, it fails completely in relation to the memorial site. Given what they were forced to pack into the museum building, it is grossly overscaled. Its enormous blank facade looms over the memorial pools, occupying an area that would have been better served by a public park. And the building's height detracts from the horizontal flow that is its most promising feature.

(Note: because the current plans do not take into account the additional 40,000 square feet of mechanical space demanded by the Port Authority, the renderings unveiled yesterday are a fiction of sorts; the building would be a full story and a half taller than shown.)

Some of these issues could be resolved. The facade overlooking the north memorial pool, for example, could be shaved back, eliminating some of the pressure it places on the memorial area and allowing for a more generous passageway onto the site from the north. And the architects are now working on a facade composed of hundreds of glass prisms to give the building a more ethereal quality.

But this doesn't solve the broader problem at ground zero: clutter. In addition to the Freedom Center, the development corporation has added an underground "memorial center" that will link to the memorial pools as well as to rooms for grieving relatives of the dead. More recently, city and state officials have suggested adding an information center at the base of the museum building to help tourists navigate the area, an idea that would be more appropriate in a theme park.

The clutter results from a tendency to parcel off sections of the site to different political constituencies, be it the developer, Larry Silverstein, the victims' families, or the cultural institutions. Notably, this has not been a bipartisan effort. Both Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki have invoked ground zero to advance their own agendas; neither of the state's Democratic senators has been invited to appear at recent news conferences on the site's development. And the Freedom Center is bound to be viewed by much of the world as a jingoistic propaganda tool.

What is missing at ground zero is a sense of humility. This is something that cannot be remedied by reducing the scale of a building. We should refocus attention on what matters most: remembering the human beings who were lost at ground zero, while allowing life to return to the void there. The rest is a pointless distraction.