The Future of Memory
Looking past the controversy and rhetoric, architect David Hotson considers Lower Manhattan
Staff -- Interior Design, 9/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
September 11 was an intensely personal experience, particularly for those of us confronted daily with destruction while working or living downtown. Architect David Hotson has done both. His eponymous firm—which codirected the high-profile competition for digital-arts organization Eyebeam's future Chelsea museum and recently completed Aveda's SoHo offices with long-term collaborator Maya Lin—operates out of offices in Little Italy. Hotson was also displaced from his Financial District apartment when the World Trade Center collapsed. Returning home after nearly a month, he faced limited vehicular access, National Guard troops, and ongoing demolition and construction noise. A year later, he has much to reflect on.
Why live in the Financial District?
Lower Manhattan constantly offers the unexpected. As urban fabric, it's the richest place in the country. We've built and rebuilt it so rapidly, so many times—it's like an accelerated version of Rome. You feel Manhattan's topography and the echo of the Dutch colony crowded between those monumental early skyscrapers. Every street is underlaid by subway tunnels and overlaid by ramps uncoiling from the Brooklyn Bridge. And all these historical and physical layers are inhabited by the most diverse people and activities.
What was it like to move back into the area last year?
The most troubling sensations came with distance and perspective, when returning from out of town and heading right into the epicenter of this event that was galvanizing global attention. It was chilling: the smell, the floodlights, the crust of dust from the pulverized towers covering our building for months.
And how is it a year later?
It remains troubling. It's hard to contend with the tourists and souvenir vendors crowding the streets. People may be making a pilgrimage to pay their respects, but it can feel like a carnival sideshow. The strengths of the neighborhood are so great, though, that this will eventually be one of the best places to live and work in New York City—if the present practical and symbolic opportunities aren't missed.
Do the World Trade Center proposals satisfy you?
In my view, they exhibit a superficial and sentimental notion of historical sensitivity by reimposing an earlier street pattern on the superblock cleared to build the trade center. Despite that piece of ground's rich history, the most significant event that ever occurred there happened on September 11, 2001. To erase that event in the service of some sentimental idea of our "history" is very confused. New York has always been about energy and activity and drive, not about nostalgia or reverie. Passing up an opportunity for a vivid, present-oriented urban statement is counter to the city's traditions.
What ideas should the redevelopment address?
I loved the twin towers in the skyline, but I always felt that Liberty Street, West Street, and the Church Street parking zone had an antiurban scale. We now have the opportunity to create a presence on the skyline while preserving and defining the site itself. I think it should be buffered from activity, become a foil to the surrounding density. You could have this spectacular downtown filled out by new development, with the superblock as a total contrast.
What might a memorial communicate about New York—and about our country?
We could communicate one predominant American and New York image, which is that business rules, money rules, and the real-estate forces of maximizing rentable square footage are basically the religion of our culture. Sadly, that's what the current proposals do. Or we could communicate an essential part of our identity worth emulating, memorializing, and defending: the notion that this site was a microcosm of our shared pluralist universe, where people from all different spheres, countries, ethnic groups, religions, and races coexisted and ultimately cohered. Somehow, the memorial should recognize the people in those buildings, on that particular day in September 2001, as the tragic representatives of all New Yorkers, all Americans, and—by virtue of our embrace of every strain of humanity—all the inhabitants of the planet. It's going to take some talent and some vision to pull that off. But it's what New York deserves.