Up from ground zero: Finding the higher ground

Ground zero confronts us with three realities: tragedy, politics, and real estate.

Its future has been the source of innumerable articles, exhibitions, and manifestos. At New York's Max Protetch Gallery, artists and architects present their visions for the site: sensory, visionary, and improbable. A collaboration of designers has proposed redevelopment initiatives on a website - www.nynv.aiga.com - advocating transportation links, green architecture, mixed use, and memorials. All are sensible, balanced goals.

A public commission has convened to balance the rights, rules, and civic and commercial interests on this vast site, and set standards for development. A new design for 7 World Trade Center is advancing and generating hot debate.

If we fast-forward to a decade from now, we will likely find businesses, housing, shopping, a stirring memorial, and other amenities. The crater will be a memory. With so much dialogue, initiative, and good intentions, why does this prospect feel so flat?

Perhaps we are reluctant to demand what we really want. We want a better place than the obvious, a place of greater inspiration, and far less practicality than the site we lost. This place demands vision, not just efficiency. Families of victims have put it bluntly and rightly: These ashes shall not be buried under commerce alone.

So in this case, design matters.

The reverential walk to ground zero is bound by barricades, with the wooden viewing platform a tragic scaffold. But the light, the views, the openness are unforgettable. This broad swath is not a typical site in any financial district. It offers more than breathing room: a completely new view of the city, a panorama, a memory, and a possibility.

The site begs for healing, but not by normative standards. Speed is part of the dilemma. Those who have experienced tragedy, loss, acts of violence would counsel time. But ours is a culture of resolution, expediting, problem-solving. In this case, speed does not provide vision.

The process of rebuilding will be more successful if participants enter a dialogue about their city, addressing history, urbanism, successful and failed prototypes.

Cities gain from the example of others. Consider Berlin. War, change, and the urban landscape collide in this city, now extensively rebuilt, a turnaround with dazzling results. Berlin boasts new housing, government and commercial buildings, and incorporates new memorials and new museums. Berlin makes no bones about the city's difficult past, but it also aggressively asserts its future.

Paris has three examples: the Cité de la Musique, the Parc André Citroën, and the entire La Defense areas, which have reconciled interests of businesses, culture, parks, and housing in compelling design statements.

These new city precincts share their unflagging versions of common ground, of recreation and culture, of business in dialogue with civic life. They are unique expressions of their city's determination to excite, to inspire, to invite outsiders, and to build pride and energy in daily life. They looked to architects and artists from a global stage to participate. They offered a dialogue about the intentions of a city for the next century. Their design is strong, clear, and gutsy, and the results are memorable and stirring.

The towers of light are a hopeful first step. That is the job of the ground-zero revitalization: to move beyond the inevitability of obvious solutions and develop unique models. Not re-creating, but inventing.

The deconstruction of New York City's core was so horrendous that the only enduring response will be made from a higher ground, taking on design and planning initiatives that address the very things we value most in our communities: our parks, our homes, our schools, our spiritual and cultural resources, and new ideas lodged in a dialogue about the betterment of a city.

That may be a more fitting memorial, a vision for the future.

At that higher level of thinking, the importance of a human scale, the values of building for the next generation, the quality and purpose of the buildings will dignify the site. Remember those lost with music and art and with places for their children and for families.

Don't bury losses and rebuild a city with acts of convenience or compromise. A higher ground is the vantage point for this debate.

• Ann Beha is the president of Ann Beha Architects in Boston.

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