The story of the rebuilding of the devastated World Trade Center site is enormously complicated. The process has involved many people and parties. Some believed that nothing at all should be built there, but it was a certainty that whatever was built would be far from ordinary. All the challenges, controversies, and accomplishments are covered well in 16 Acres, a film that opened last September in Zurich and shows at the Center for Contemporary Arts on Wednesday, April 10. Presented by the Santa Fe chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the film features an assemblage of news snippets, new footage, and interviews with major players, among them developer Larry Silverstein, Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, architects David Childs and Daniel Libeskind, and Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother died at the site on 9/11 and who worked to make sure con- cerned families’ voices were heard in the planning process.
“I started out with this project basically filming and doing a lot of videos as an independent producer working for the Port Authority and Silverstein Properties since 2004,” said producer Mike Marcucci, who made the film with screenwriter/co-producer Matt Kapp and director Richard Hankin. “The first hire was Matt. We got through the timeline and then we hired Richard. He was a typical New Yorker, who was not aware of a lot of the drama that was going on. People tuned out early on and just stopped listening to everything about the site.”
“It’s such a complex story,” Kapp said in a conference call with Marcucci, “and I kind of felt more like a cartographer, mapping out and organizing everything and reading hundreds of articles and books. One of the reasons we brought Richard in is that he’s one of the top guys out there in terms of structuring complicated stories. He was editor and co-producer of Capturing the Friedmans, which was quite an editing job.”
The film opens with crystal-clear shots of New York City’s buildings, including the Twin Towers, but there are no jets flying into the skyscrapers. “Most documentaries focus on the tragedy of 9/11, especially the day of the attacks,” Marcucci said. “We wanted to do something unusual, really about 9/12, but we had to acknowledge the World Trade Center with those opening shots.”
Guiding us through the movie are two commentators: Scott Raab, who has written several pieces about the site development for Esquire, and architecture critic Philip Nobel. “A lot of people turned us down,” Kapp said. “We pursued [architecture critic] Ada Louise Huxtable for quite a while, but I think Raab has a great presence, and he knew so much about the site, and he was able to put it in layman’s terms.”
Silverstein, who purchased the Twin Towers six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, wasted little time in planning the rebuilding of what Raab calls “perhaps the most valuable 16 acres on the face of the Earth.” A week after the disaster, Silverstein came out with a redevelopment sketch. Not long afterward, he was suing the insurance company, claiming there had actually been two attacks, not one, to receive a doubled insurance payment.
Nobody exercised as much influence over the redevelopment plans as Gov. Pataki, who was running for reelection when some of the key decisions were made and who comes across in the film as a heavy-handed opportunist. “We weren’t out to get anybody,” Marcucci said. “We wanted to do something fair and balanced, but a developer does what a developer does, and a politician does what a politician does.”
Libeskind won the competition for the redevelopment master plan. His lofty descriptions of the proposed new skyscrapers, together with his charismatic presence — he resembles a happy, brilliant cartoon character — seemed to take the planning up a few notches. Raab said that architects such as Libeskind have words that “bridge the gap between what can be very funny-looking structures and real things that people actually understand.” He added that Libeskind read the political landscape perfectly, offering “hip architecture that was also flag-waving.”
“Yeah, he created an expression of what everybody was looking for in this project, that no one else quite had,” Marcucci said. “He was the right man at the right time.”
However, his 2002 design for the main new building — One World Trade Center (called Freedom Tower in the early planning) — was ultimately judged to be unbuildable. Roland Betts, a Lower Manhattan Development Corpo- ration board member, reminds viewers that Libeskind was picked for the master plan, not the skyscrapers, which he had never built before. (At the film’s end we learn that since winning the master plan competition, Libeskind has designed more than 40 projects around the world, including several skyscrapers.)
A new design was undertaken by David Childs, from the office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in collaboration with Libeskind. In July 2004, a media event with the architects, Silverstein, Pataki, other dignitaries, and a bagpipe band celebrated the planting of a cornerstone for One World Trade Center. Shortly afterward, it was revealed that city police considered the building’s exposed base and its placement to be severe security risks. The cornerstone ceremony became “absolutely pointless,” as Raab puts it, when the tower’s location was shifted by a few feet.
The final design was all Childs — except for its height, a symbolic 1,776 feet, preserved from Libeskind’s first plan.
The project is ongoing. Seven World Trade Center, designed by Childs, opened in May 2006. The site of the destroyed Twin Towers now holds a memorial plaza and pools, which opened to victims’ families on Sept. 11, 2011, and to everyone else the next day. A National September 11 Museum is planned.
One World Trade Center (designed by Childs) and Four World Trade Center (by Fumihiko Maki) should open later this year. The former will be the same height (1,368 feet) as the North Tower, the taller of the two destroyed skyscrapers, but its antenna spire will reach 1,776 feet.
Three World Trade Center (by Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners) and the World Trade Center Transportation Hub (by Santiago Calatrava) are likely to open in 2015. Two World Trade Center (by Norman Foster) and Five World Trade Center (by Kohn Pederson Fox) will be built in the future, pending a favorable leasing market. Plans for an arts center designed by Frank Gehry have been disappointed by the realities of financing thus far.
Apart from good reviews of 16 Acres in the rest of the country and abroad, Marcucci is happy with the film’s impact on New Yorkers. “When I would tell people I was doing work for the World Trade Center, they didn’t even know there was a Seven World Trade Center building that had opened in 2006. So it was just to show people that something is happening there, that it’s moving forward. That has been the big revelation.”
The producers are now working on an ebook companion to the film. “It will have a timeline and a lot of supplemental material, and it will have great educational value,” Kapp said. “We will bring that out with the DVD, probably in the fall.” ◀
“16 Acres,” introduced by Santa Fe architect John Barton, plays at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10, at the Center for Contemporary Arts (1050 Old Pecos Trail). Tickets are $10 at the door. Call 982-1338.