By FREDRIC BELL
Among the many reasons to visit the World Trade Center site now, consider these five:
Memory. You could visit the World Trade Center site and just read the list of names of those who died. Little has been done on the memorial construction, but the site today is very much a memorial itself. Looking through the Viewing Wall construction fence, where the names are listed, you will see 70 feet down to bedrock, where orange cones outline the Tower footprints. Then there are the emotionally moving slurry wall holding back the Hudson River, and the ramp used for the removal of bodies and debris. Take a close look because the site will not remain in this condition for long.
Transportation. The World Trade Center site was a major transit hub, although many out-of-towners didn’t know it when the WTC was up. Now, without the buildings, this transport nexus is clearly visible to all who walk by. The temporary station that serves trains to and from New Jersey, designed by Robert Davidson, is open to the site. Its gauzy walls and airy passageways are transparent in a way that the replacement _ a sensational train hall designed by Santiago Calatrava _ will crystallize. Take the train to Hoboken or Newark and back, and you will enter the "bathtub" at the bottom of the site. This experience, too, will soon vanish as the transit hub is fully enclosed and developed, with connections to subway lines and airport access.
Architecture. Cross over Vesey Street to see the first new building on the site, 7 World Trade Center. This exemplary building was designed by David Childs and built by the WTC developer, Lawrence Silverstein. The building shimmers, because of an innovative glass facade, animated at its base by lights designed by the artist James Carpenter. Jenny Holzer’s lobby tickertape provides a visual example of how architecture is aided by interactive public art. The red balloon sculpted by Jeff Koons in the fountain plaza outside gestures to the vista north along Greenwich Street _ a view that didn’t exist before the chunky office building on the site was destroyed on 9/11.
Restoration. Walk around the block to see the restoration of 90 West St., the Cass Gilbert Art Deco landmark across from the site’s southwest corner. The building was severely damaged by fire on 9/11 but has been impeccably restored for residential use. This conversion, too, is a memorial in a way, bringing life to an area that symbolizes destruction. It is a testimony as well to the vitality of New York City, a city with a growing population and a desperate need for housing. Lower Manhattan, the historic cradle of New York City, is fortunate to have an abundance of slender and elegant buildings with natural light and operable windows, which are easily convertible from offices to housing.
Process. Stop in front of the Tribute Center, on Liberty Street, to reflect on what has happened and what has not. With construction under way, relatives, tourists and New Yorkers can look north across the site and think that their voice has made a difference.
In the early days after 9/11, some were calling for reconstructing the Twin Towers as they had been, or building nothing at all: leaving a scar to commemorate the loss. That a mixed-use plan has evolved from an international competition of ideas, and that many of the original concepts developed by the architect Daniel Libeskind remain in place _ despite the lack of promised design guidelines _ suggest that even though it has taken five years, the process has worked.
The World Trade Center will become a living memorial — a tree-shaded civic plaza, bordered by new transportation facilities, new housing and new mixed-use office structures. Funds are committed for all but the cultural facilities. This was a process that included the largest meeting ever conducted in New York on planning issues, along with innovative workshops and design meetings. Public and professional participation took place.
At the World Trade Center site itself, the past is prologue. Come see it now.
(Fredric Bell is executive director of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.)