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People Win at Ground Zero

February 28, 2003



Architects for big projects aren't used to working with millions of clients at once. Like the fictional architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's 1943 novel "The Fountainhead," they often see themselves as sole creators,ba trying to refine a corrupt society, not work with it.

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But something historic happened to the architectural profession in the selection of a design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. New York City's citizens, along with the families of Sept. 11 victims, made sure their concerns were heard.

Thursday, a design by Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind was chosen because it most closely matched the public's criteria: a fitting memorial, a tall symbol on the skyline, civic and cultural amenities, open space, and integration with the neighborhood.

The public was involved in the selection process from the start. Mr. Libeskind and other competing architects were made to parade their plans before a skeptical community. More than 100,000 people visited an exhibit of the final nine designs, offering 7,000 comments. An additional 12,000 comments were made on a website that displayed the plans. Hearings were held, and the two finalists appeared on Oprah Winfrey and in other scrutinizing venues. This was no soft sell in a cozy boardroom.

Other cities planning big projects should take note: Rid architecture of its elitism. Too many inconvenient, impractical, or ugly modern buildings now mar the urban landscape. Take a cue from Winston Churchill who once stated: "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." Those who will work or live near new buildings should be looped in.

Much of the Libeskind design may not survive the rest of the process. A new complex may not be built for years, and developers have the final say on key details. The design is a concept at this point, but one that has brought the city together to decide how to remember those lost, how to recreate lower Manhattan, and how to make sure architecture better reflects both private and public needs.

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