The Story Behind the First Piece of Public Architecture at Ground Zero

In the weeks after 9/11, two NYC architects undertook a bold first step in memorializing the site of the fallen towers. 

A couple pauses on the public viewing platform at Ground Zero in March 2002. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Big, sweeping thinking was endemic to post-9/11 New York. The aftermath seemed to encourage everyone not simply to pursue their ideas but to stretch them to their most ambitious, impressive ends. For architect Kevin Kennon, this meant solving the problem of the WTC’s enduring chaos.

Kevin lived on Hudson Street, in Tribeca, about ten blocks from the destruction. Every night, the glow from recovery crews’ floodlights illuminated his street. The rumbling of jackhammers provided twenty-four-hour-a-day white noise. In the midst of all this, Kevin thought it was too soon to be thinking about rebuilding, so one October afternoon he took a break from the whirl of design meetings and walked to Ground Zero. “It was chaotic, and it was extraordinary,” Kevin said of the site. “There were an extraordinary number of people. People were climbing fences, it was unsafe.” He paused and gave me a knowing look. “Something had to be done.”

Kevin called his friend and colleague David Rockwell, another young, well-known architect disenchanted with the frenzied talk about the future. David happened to be grappling with his own project—a query from city officials to redesign a private viewing platform for victims’ families. He was still deciding whether to take the job, and he was going to Ground Zero in a few days to learn more about it. Did Kevin want to join him?

Two days later, Kevin, David, and his collaborators, husband-and-wife team Elizabeth Diller and Ric Scofidio, walked to West Street, the quiet, western boundary of the site, rarely visited by tourists. The private viewing platform was plain and small. It was made out of plywood, and layers of fresh and dried bouquets filled its corners. Multicolored handwritten notes were tied around railings or penned directly on the wood.

Kevin, David, Rick, and Liz looked at the platform and then at one another. Immediately, Kevin said, they knew what they would do. David declined the city’s proffered upgrade job, and the four architects set to work on a public viewing platform. As Kevin put it, “We needed one for everyone.”

The four architects believed that the project’s success depended upon moving quickly, which they decided also meant moving quietly. The platform would be the WTC site’s very first piece of public architecture, and if word spread, opposition would surely emerge. The designers feared that time-consuming deliberation could undermine the whole effort. So the civic-minded architects dedicated themselves to proceeding as secretly as possible.

The architects began by contacting the Office of Emergency Management, which oversaw cleanup operations. Unexpectedly, it immediately embraced the viewing-platform idea. Thousands of people were congregating around the WTC site each day, and they needed a central place to go. The OEM reached out to the next two essential groups: the mayor’s office and victims’ families. Rudy Giuliani’s staff liked the idea, but the group of families was hesitant. They feared the platform would turn Ground Zero into a tourist attraction. They were particularly concerned about people taking pictures and mugging for cameras. Richard Sheirer, the commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management, assured them that the platform was being designed to honor what he considered “sacred ground.” So the families said okay too.

As the planning progressed, so did the architects’ amazing good fortune. The designers met with Mayor Giuliani in late November to receive the official go-ahead, and he signed off on all the major issues, including the plan to complete construction by late December. The one hitch for Giuliani was the platform’s bare plywood walls. The architects had been inspired by victims’ family members’ inscriptions on the private viewing platform, and they wanted to encourage similar expressions on the public one. But Giuliani wasn’t so sure this was a good idea; after all, cracking down on graffiti was a cornerstone of his anticrime initiatives. How could he, famous for ridding the streets of graffiti, now be seen as promoting it? After a bit of back-and-forth, the architects explained that this graffiti would be different, perhaps shouldn’t even be thought of as graffiti. Finally, the mayor signed off on the bare walls too.

With Giuliani on board, city agencies rushed the paperwork through and secured the necessary permits. The architects e-mailed friends and colleagues to raise funds for construction. Money poured in. The television producer Norman Lear donated $175,000. Developer Larry Silverstein gave $100,000. The scaffolding company, Atlantic Heydt, lent building materials at no cost and labor at discount. Forest Electric Corporation did the same. And no news was leaking to the press, either. The goodwill was so stunning that the architects began to think bigger. After they completed the first, they would build another two or three platforms around the site by summer.

After working through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, contractors completed the platform on December 27. The twenty-seventh happened to be an important date. That same afternoon, Rudolph Giuliani delivered his final address as mayor of New York. And he chose to deliver it right next to the viewing platform, which stood at the intersection of Fulton Street and Broadway, inside St. Paul’s Chapel.

The speech was a big event. Giuliani was the country’s most popular politician. A few days earlier, Time magazine named him its “Person of the Year,” dubbing him “The Mayor of the World.” But the speech became most noteworthy because Giuliani unexpectedly weighed in on rebuilding and decided not to follow the official talking points. After remembering his eight years in office and reciting sections of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Giuliani told the crowd that it would be wrong to develop the land commercially. “I really believe that we shouldn’t think about the site out there, right beyond us, as a site for economic development,” he said. “You’ve got to think about it from the point of view of a soaring, beautiful memorial. If we do that part right, then the economic development will just happen. Millions of people will come here, and you’ll have all the economic development you want.”

It was a radical thought multiple times over. America’s most admired leader was questioning the wisdom of commercially developing one of the country’s most expensive pieces of real estate. Only Giuliani, in that moment, could have gotten away with it.

After he completed his address, Giuliani exited St. Paul’s Chapel and walked around the corner to the public viewing platform. Two long, gradually sloped ramps flanked a large, rectangular stage, thirteen feet high. A wall lined the inside edge of each ramp and a railing lined the outside edge. Like the private platform after which it was modeled, it was constructed out of bare plywood and metal scaffolding, which supported the platform from below. With camera crews in tow, Giuliani walked up the ramp, crossed the stage, and tagged his signature on the front railing.

The viewing platform architects were thrilled. A few weeks after Giuliani’s speech, David Rockwell was invited to give his own lecture on the platform for the swanky TED series (“Ideas Worth Spreading” and “Riveting Talks by Remarkable People” are the nonprofit’s slogans). Rockwell told the crowd that Giuliani’s comments opened up nothing less than a national dialogue about the meaning of life and property in American cities. “There is a real opportunity to engage in a discussion about, why do we live in cities, why do we live in places where such dissimilar people collide up against us each day?” Rockwell asked the group. “I don’t think it has much to do with fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty thousand new office spaces.” At another time, the comment may have raised eyebrows—people living in cities not because of office space and capitalism?—but in the idealistic aftermath of 9/11, the TED audience nodded approvingly. Rockwell added that he hoped the viewing platform would continue this conversation. “Regardless of what one’s position is about how this sacred piece of land is to be used,” he said, “having it come out of actually seeing it, in a real encounter, makes it a more powerful dialogue.”

The viewing platform looked modest and simple, but the architects’ hopes for it were enormous. It wouldn’t merely facilitate dialogue about what to rebuild; it would celebrate the country’s dedication to its founding principles. Like so much else connected to Ground Zero, the plain, plywood platform would stand as a symbol of democracy.

This piece is an adapted excerpt from Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center.