Not everyone agrees that WTC design is a winner
Competition results spark controversy
By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 3/7/2004
"The entire process was a fraud and Maya Lin's bland concept is being shoved down our throats. We are all fighting to have it stopped."
That language isn't atypical of a number of e-mails I received after I wrote, two weeks ago, about the winning design for a memorial to the deceased at the World Trade Center in Manhattan. I said it should be built. I still think so. But my e-mails raise some interesting questions.
The e-mailer I've just quoted was one of the 5,200 people, including 155 from Massachusetts, who submitted designs that lost. (Readers with time to spare, having just finished rereading Proust, can access all 5,201 designs at www.wtcsitememorial.org.)
She's something of a conspiracy theorist. She suspects the competition jury deliberately picked the winning design, by architect Michael Arad, because it looked the most like a sketch done by Lin for The New York Times more than a year ago. Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was herself one of the World Trade Center jurors.
At least one organized group hopes to stop the winning design from getting built. Called the World Trade Center Memorial Focus Group, it consists of losing competitors and is led by an employee of the New York City transit authority named Jeff Johns.
Johns is on the phone. "We have 300 to 400 members," he says. "A lawsuit is about to be filed. We feel we entered into a legal contract." He thinks the contract was broken when the 13-person jury chose Arad's design, which violates the competition guidelines. The guidelines were written by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency that controls the World Trade Center site.
Johns and his group list two major problems:
The guidelines said the memorial competitors should work within the master plan for the whole World Trade Center, created by Daniel Libeskind. But in Libeskind's plan, the memorial site was to be located in an area sunk 30 feet below street level. The winner brought it up to street level.
The guidelines said nobody was allowed to be a member of more than one competing team. But after being chosen as a finalist, Arad added to his team a well-known landscape architect, Peter Walker, who had previously submitted a losing entry of his own.
Beyond that, the opposition argument gets a little sketchier. Several of my e-mails, like the one quoted above, assume the competition was wired in favor of the Lin drawing. Writes one: "The circumstances of the competition and the lax manner in which the rules have been embraced indicate that it was all along the intention of the LMDC that one of the Jurors would be the principal designer of the memorial in fact if not in name."
Writes another: "The whole competition stinks of collusion, rule-breaking, and fraud."
I doubt it. There were 13 members on that jury, most of them people with strong opinions. I don't think they lined up for anyone.
Situations like this bring out the paranoia in everyone. Some of my e-mailers are shocked, shocked, to learn that Lin has worked in the past with landscaper Walker. (Why shouldn't she? They both do outdoor memorials and landscapes.) Or that Arad's father is a friend of New York's governor, George Pataki, and New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg. (Again, why not? The man is our ambassador to Israel.) Or that Lin and Roland Betts, an influential board member of the LMDC, are both trustees of Yale. (So? Betts is a college pal of President Bush, too. Should we suspect White House interference?)
All 5,201 designs were judged anonymously. Until they got down to the eight finalists, the jurors didn't know whose work they were looking at. Unless it turns out that a juror was in cahoots with one of the entrants -- which would be totally unethical -- I don't see the problem.
The jurors didn't write the guidelines. They disagreed with the guidelines and made a point of saying so -- or, at least, broadly hinting so -- at the press conference where their names were announced.
I check this out with one of those jurors, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenbergh.
"A big deal was made at the press conference and on the website that we asked people to be willing to think outside of the box. This was dwelled upon [he emphasizes the words] at the press conference when the competition was announced."
He adds: "It's hard to lose a competition, especially if you feel you've been snookered by a jury that decided that rule bending or breaking was OK. I feel bad in a way for the people who are grousing. But they ought to just get over it. I feel the enormity of what the jury was trying to solve warranted stretching the boundaries."
As for the issue of Walker's entering twice, Van Valkenbergh says: "Every finalist was asked to add technical or design expertise to their team. That happened for everybody. Who they chose to add was the decision of the competitor." Jurors didn't know Arad had picked Walker until after he'd done so. They didn't think the choice broke any rules.
The opponents do raise other concerns. Most seem to believe that artifacts from the disaster, such as the unforgettable broken and twisted steel columns, should be part of the memorial. There won't be room for them in Arad's proposed underground museum.
They also cite practical problems. Arad's design calls for a 1,600-foot length of waterfall some 30 feet high. An opponent, Robert Jarvik, says that if the waterfalls are only half an inch thick, the flow will be 15,000 gallons a minute, or 5 million tons a day, equal to one-fifth the flow of the American side of Niagara Falls. An enormous amount of energy will be required to keep the water pumped.
It's not unusual for architectural competitions to be challenged in this way. Intense efforts were made to stop Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, now regarded as a masterpiece. And the World War II Memorial survived a court challenge and is now set to be dedicated on the Mall May 29. Opponents argued that it would undermine the foundations of the Washington Monument, several hundred yards away.
Nor is it unusual for competition juries to bend the rules. This writer was a juror once in a competition for a master plan and student center for a major university. We gave the prize to a competitor who broke a major rule. His was the best design. What are you supposed to do? You want the optimum result. (It's since been built and is considered a success.)
One could put the World Trade Center conundrum this way: The smart competitors figured out you should break the rules.
Or maybe this way: In a design competition, the wise competitors are those who go for what they truly believe is the best result, regardless of rules.
So what's the conclusion? Thanks, guys, for all the e-mails. It's no fun to lose. But I see no useful purpose in trying to sabotage the winning entry. Granted, the competition was a little messy. It would have been better if the jurors had rewritten the guidelines upfront. Or if they had announced their love of rule breakers to every competitor rather than only the ones who caught the press conference or read the fine print on the website.
But that's in the past. It's time to move on. Of course there are problems with Arad's design. The thing you do with problems is solve them. Let Arad and his team address the problems and build the design.
Robert Campbell can be reached at [email protected]