Friday, September 5, 2003

A New World Trade Center

The revised New York skylineThe view from Church StreetThe new Lower Manhattan Rail stationWhile Americans and New Yorkers, in particular, debate the future of Ground Zero, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is moving ahead with plans to redevelop the former World Trade Center site. The plan calls for a 17-acre commercial/memorial complex which can service the economic needs of Manhattan while respectfully commemorating the 9/11 tragedy.

The plan for the site, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, and selected in a pubic design competition last February, responds to these seemingly contradictory needs. Of his struggle to create a design that would satisfy the unique needs of the World Trade Center site, Libeskind says:

I meditated many days on this seemingly impossible dichotomy. To acknowledge the terrible deaths which occurred on this site, while looking to the future with hope, seemed like two moments which could not be joined. ... So, I went to look at the site, to stand within it, to see people walking around it, to feel its power and to listen to its voices.

Libeskind was so impressed with what remained of the World Trade Center foundations that his design preserves the tower footprints and provides for a journey down, some 70 feet, into Ground Zero onto the bedrock foundation beneath the monolithic slurry walls holding back the Hudson River. A museum – of the event, of memory, and of hope – will serve as the entrance into Ground Zero, always accessible, leading visitors down into a space of reflection, of meditation, and a space for the memorial. This memorial will be designed as part of an international competition.

To commemorate those who lost their lives on 9/11, the development features two large public places, the Park of Heroes and the Wedge of Light. Each year on September 11th between the hours of 8:46 a.m., when the first airplane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow through the Wedge of Light onto the memorial site. A Heroes Walk will trace the firefighters' paths as they raced into the Trade Center and there will also be an elevated walkway – a promenade encircling the memorial site – reminiscent of the overlook walkway used by 4 million people to view Ground Zero after the attack.

Beyond the needs for a memorial, an exciting new Lower Manhattan Rail station will connect travelers to regional Path trains, subways, hotels, a performing arts center, office towers, underground malls, street level shops, restaurants, and cafes.

But perhaps the most visible and stunning architectural fixture of the new development will be the towering spire – the "Gardens of the World". Libeskind hopes the gardens, which will rise 1776 feet, in commemoration of our national independence – will serve as a constant affirmation of life while the metal and glass skyscraper "rises above its predecessors, reasserting the pre-eminence of freedom and beauty, and restoring the spiritual peak to the city – an icon of our vitality in the face of danger and our optimism in the aftermath of tragedy." fb

The Battle for Ground Zero

The World Trade Center disaster siteThe view from Church StreetThe new Lower Manhattan Rail station1.6 million tons of debris were removed from the site during the clean-up and recovery effort which concluded at the end of May 2002, three months ahead of schedule. The rail lines have been cleared, the fires have been quenched, and the titanic slurry wall, braced against the weight of the Hudson River, has been reinforced and repaired. The site of the World Trade Center disaster has been cleared and prepared.

Now what?

It seems that question is still in the proverbial lurch. A week before the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a group of victims' families protested at the construction site in Lower Manhattan, railing against plans to rebuild on the foundations of the collapsed towers – a sacred cemetery for more than 2,800 people. Meanwhile the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, charged with redeveloping the site, has intensified their drive to move ahead with Daniel Libeskind's proposed commercial/memorial development (see this month's review for more on his design).

The design, overtly symbolic and patriotic, was initially very popular. Since it was selected, however, the plan for the site has clashed with the commercial demands of prime real estate – the site is widely seen as one of the most important urban redevelopment sites in the world – and the memorial demands of what is commonly perceived to have become sacred ground.

But regardless of the passions involved, and the myriad interests placing economic or emotional claims on the site, final responsibility for the site is divided between the governors of New York and New Jersey, who own the land through the Port Authority, and Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder who controls the right to redevelop the office space. Silverstein made waves in the days immediately following the collapse of the towers when he vowed to raise replica towers in the place of the fallen 110+ story megaliths.

Silverstein has now openly questioned the wisdom of raising Libeskind's proposed replacement tower, a 1776 foot tall "Freedom Tower" and construction of a sunken memorial garden – ideas welcomed by victims' relatives. With local business groups, Silverstein has asked whether companies would want to lease space in such a tall building – it would be the world's tallest when completed. Silverstein has also criticized the expense of the design's symbolic spiral at the tip of the Freedom Tower and the location of the tower on the development site – a criticism which directly conflicts with complaints by victims' families that construction be prevented on top of the original tower foundations.

And while Silverstein has no legal authority to approve or reject construction plans he has much financial and political clout. He is paying rent on the site and his multi-billion-dollar insurance claim is paying for the rebuilding.

Perhaps the largest bone of contention in the redevelopment plans is the preservation of the World Trade Center footprint – foundation – and slurry wall. Libeskind has imbued the original foundations with heroic status but Silverstein and business groups have argued that it would inflict a perpetually open wound on Lower Manhattan and provide a negative reminder of the attacks for future trade center tenants. Even the gardens envisioned at the base of the 70-foot deep footprints – a featured welcomed by victim's families who view this lowest level as the final rest place of their dead – have been targeted. Commercial developers would like to see a subterranean mall instead while downtown residents would prefer a more navigable ground-level park.

In the thick of all this argument the voices of the victims' families may have been drowned out. Few would debate the need for commercial development on the site. Few would debate the need for a memorial. And while extremes from both sides have pressed the abolition of the other, the unfortunate truth of design – commercial or memorial – still applies. Design by committee almost always fails. It results in base watered down concepts, unfulfilled needs, and spoilt ambitions. Replete are examples: '96 Olympic mascot Watizit, the Bradley fighting vehicle, the Space Shuttle, and anything done by the UN.

Future generations will look back on how New York and Silverstein redevelop and commemorate the site in much the same was that we acknowledge the sentiment and practical needs answered by memorials at the USS Arizona/Pearl Harbor and in Oklahoma City. fb

Giving the Mitt the Finger

There are times when we just sit back and ask ourselves: What were they thinking?

Arby's, that bastion of roast beef and curly fries, has done something terrible. They've released Oven Mitt. The Fort Lauderdale-based fast-food company launched a national advertising campaign on March 2, 2003 featuring an animated character, Oven Mitt, to describe how Arby's oven roasts – not fries or grills – its beef.

I remember when I first saw Oven Mitt. I stopped into an Arby's on my way home and caught sight of the illustrated character on the side of the take-away bag. My first thought? What have they done to their hat logo? What is this supposed to be?

Indeed, my brain continues to be dazzled by the weaknesses inherent in Oven Mitt's design:
  • Oven Mitt is confusingly similar to Arby's cowboy hat logo;
  • Oven Mitt is vague – does it specifically denote oven cooking? Do fry and grill cook require no heat shielding?;
  • Oven Mitt is designed to appeal to a younger audience yet Arby's continues to brand themselves as mature fast food;
  • Oven Mitt's writers, likely as a result of committed script review, have yet to produce a compelling and humorous script for this comic character;
  • Oven Mitt is a complicated and inflexible illustration, requiring unsightly detail (such as stitching and shading) to be discernable as an oven mitt when in small or low color formats;
  • There is the uncomfortable depiction of Arby's employees reaching inside Oven Mitt to use him;
  • Oven Mitt is entirely reminiscent of another logo. Can you guess it? Hamburger Helper.
Arby's does not provide a price tag for the Oven Mitt campaign, but the New York Times reported it will cost $85 million. That's money well spent diluting and confusing their brand...

Oven Mitt, voiced by Tom Arnold, is emotional about "Oven Fresh... Oven Good" food – a point of infestation between Arby's and it's competitors that the company hopes to reinforce. Oven Mitt takes over Arby's advertising from Appetite Man, voiced by Barry White, who detailed Arby's menu items for the previous 18 months.

The Oven Mitt campaign, created by Doner Advertising in Detroit, includes 30-second commercials to air on cable TV, plus radio, print, point-of-purchase and promotional items. Doner's research team found consumers respect and desire food prepared in an oven – finding it synonymous with special occasions, comfort and home cooking. Indeed, Arby's takes special pride in their three-hour slow roasting process.

Oven Mitt has his fans, no doubt – Arby's won the 'Hot Again' award from Nation's Restaurant News in 2003. But not everyone likes the floppy unfunny kitchen garment.

Various websites have called Oven Mitt "ugly and unlikable", the "bastard love child of the Hamburger Helper hand and Grimace from Mickey D's", and announced that "the Oven Mitt from Arby's must die." A writer at revealed that the "creepy talking oven mitt...terrified me so much that I destroyed my own oven mitts just so they couldn't start talking; now my hands are covered with burns". One web site went so far as to sponsor a petition which began:

"We, The Undersigned, believe that the Arby's mascot, Oven Mitt is evil and all use of said mascot should cease immediately. The idea of an amorphous, living, breathing oven mitt, while at first bland and boring, becomes revealed as something so unnatural, so abhorrent that any and all traces of its existence should be wiped from this earth.... " (

The point is this. There is a difference between creating bad advertising which people remember well (Old Navy, for instance) and bad advertising people simply abhor (Lamisil, for instance). There is also a difference between creating good and bad humor – the later of which Oven Mitt excels at. Here's a hint for Arby's and Doner Advertising to keep in mind: It's never good when consumers are laughing at you, not with you.

In an attempt to create a humorous public-facing personality with which to elevate its sagging public perception, Arby's has failed to make us laugh. Indeed,Oven Mitt's only success is in making Arby's advertising a joke. fb