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Rethinking Ground Zero
In West Michigan’s Classrooms

By Curt Wozniak

On Sept. 11, 2001, no amount of distance could buffer Grand Rapidians — or citizens of any U.S. city — from the pain, grief and anguish felt by New Yorkers. In the months since, a fractured skyline some 750 miles away and the tremendous loss of human life it symbolizes have continued to trigger a significant place in human memory. We all have our answers at the ready for those “Where were you when …” questions, the kind we still ask one another about the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination or the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Today, work is moving forward to rebuild Ground Zero. As it does, concerned citizens are calling with ever-persistent voices for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), overseers of the project, to keep the memory of those who died in the World Trade Center attacks at the heart of redevelopment.

Such concern is not limited to the residents of Lower Manhattan. In the words of Susan Szenasy, co-founder of the New York City community coalition Rebuild Downtown Our Town (R.Dot), the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site may be “the most important moment in architecture history.” It makes sense, then, that architecture, art history and art education departments at West Michigan colleges and universities have seized this critical moment to get students thinking about big ideas such as trauma and loss, public spaces and memorial.

Calvin College’s visual culture courses touch on each of those ideas. Expanding the curriculum to respond to 9-11 was a natural progression, said Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk, Calvin assistant professor of art education and a visual culture instructor.

“One of the things that we do a lot of in these courses is take a look at what space means to us,” Van Reeuwyk explained. “Space in itself can become sacred … all of that then leads us to the notion of memorial.”

Calvin students created 3-D memorials as part of their coursework before 9-11, but questions about what kind of memorial should be built at Ground Zero have become a focus for students since the tragedy. “The dialogue has to include what we are creating for 9-11,” Van Reeuwyk said. “Why is that space a sacred space for some people and not for other people?”

The winner of the LMDC’s design competition, New York-based Studio Daniel Libeskind, included in its plan a 1,776-foot garden spire that will become the tallest structure in the world. While that sort of overt defiance might not qualify as sacred, there is a reason for it, asserts Kim Theriault, Grand Valley State University assistant professor of art history. “The way that we rebuild this site reflects us as individuals,” Theriault said. “I’m not a psychologist, but building all these really tall buildings, it seems we need to get something back.”

When Theriault posed a project last semester to students in her “Art Since 1945” course, asking them to draft proposals for WTC reconstruction, none responded with such brazenness. “Most of them really felt that the space had been injured enough,” she said. “They didn’t want to add to it.”

Many of Theriault’s student groups, though diverse in their specific approaches, included common elements in their proposals. Her students felt that green spaces and open areas memorialized the space better than tall office towers. Some of their suggestions included a large meditative prayer wheel, an underground information center, and a pair of steel piers arching from the site into New York Harbor.

Of course, student teams have the luxury of not having to deal with the functionality of the 16 acres of prime Manhattan real estate up for redevelopment. Nancy Vanderboom Lausch, GVSU visiting assistant professor of art education, admitted that her students’ produced projects weren’t very pragmatic, but she felt the assignment was no less useful.

“They weren’t thinking about the architectural limitations,” she said. “There are too many emotions stirred up here. They had to build models, but they were really graded on the thinking behind them.

“My goal was to introduce them to the concept of art in public places. … I wanted them to know of the struggle to communicate these ideas in a public environment.” GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

Lessons Out of Tragedy

She may have been born in Hungary, but Metropolis magazine Editor in Chief Susan Szenasy exudes New York City. In conversation, her words come easily, confidently. Her expressive, urban eyes dart and lock behind glasses framed in heavy, tortoise shell ovals — a look that will probably be very popular in the Midwest this time next year. And her passion for the future of the World Trade Center site is intense.

Prior to 9-11, civic involvement in Szenasy’s world was practically nonexistent. “I voted,” she recalled. “That was about it.” But within a few weeks after the attacks on the WTC towers, Szenasy and Beverly Willis, president of the Architecture Research Institute, founded a citizen’s group called R.Dot (Rebuild Downtown Our Town). The group consists of politicians, urbanists, architects, designers and downtown residents all advocating an imaginative, sustainable design for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. “This is the first time in New York City history that a citizen’s group has been involved in city planning,” Szenasy beamed.

Calling upon the resources of its diverse and educated membership, R.Dot has offered a number of position papers to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), the government agency overseeing the rebuilding of the WTC site, and R.Dot has seen results. Its idea for holding a design competition with a green design requirement was adopted by the LMDC in December 2002.

As plans for the redevelopment of Ground Zero are finalized, Szenasy sees R.Dot’s work as just getting started. “What we have already learned is that informed citizen involvement is an important thing in urban architecture,” Szenasy said. “Out of this terrible thing came something that helps us be better than we were.”

Curt Wozniak

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