Frank Gehry’s proposal for a performing arts center at the World Trade Center has been shelved. According to The New York Times, the board overseeing the project opted to eschew the Pritzker Prize–winner’s design and begin the process anew. Board chairman John Zuccotti told the Times that the group has shortlisted three firms to move the project forward, but declined to divulge names.
More than a decade ago, in his original master plan, Daniel Libeskind located the performing arts center 60 feet from the base of One World Trade. Gehry Partners was brought on in 2004 to design the cultural facility. At the time, Gehry said in a statement that tears came to his eyes: “Having the chance to work on a cultural project there is a very special opportunity for me, because, in the end, having theater and dance and beauty is kind of a wonderful legacy for the memory of the people that were lost.”
An initial proposal for a 1,000-seat theater was scaled back to three disparate spaces of 150 to 550 seats amid questions of demand. Later, two tenants—the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center—were eliminated from the program and one of the theater groups slated to occupy the space—the Signature Theater—opted to build a smaller Gehry-designed space in Midtown. Still, the project’s distinct architecture, ambitious scale, and challenging site propelled its cost to well over $450 million: the center’s site straddles a complex web of infrastructure, including subway tunnels and ventilation ducts, and would require a robust sound attenuation system to eliminate noise and vibrations.
Signs that the Gehry plan was faltering began emerging in early 2014, when a temporary artistic director from London’s Young Vic theater, David Lan, was brought on board to revise Gehry’s design and imagine the theater’s production spaces. According to the Times, “officials said that it had been a mistake to design the theater before the programming was determined and that they were essentially starting over.” Lan set ambitious goals, telling the newspaper that the space would become “the first performance space for the 21st century.” He brought on London consultancy Charcoalblue to design the theaters.
As the scope changed and the budget grew, the fledgling board faced a daunting fundraising effort. The organization has already secured $155 million in federal funds, but must account for hundreds of millions more before construction can begin. The board hopes a new design and refined program will make that task easier.
The center’s board has studied other cultural institutions—the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and the Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York—to better understand how its facility might operate. Those facilities were designed by architects ranging from Diller Scofidio + Renfro to Grimshaw to the H3 Hardy Collaboration.
Frank Gehry’s tone on losing the commission was noticeably aggrieved. He complained to the newspaper that the center’s director, Maggie Boepple, did not understand his work. “She says I build models… She doesn’t have a clue as to what I do or how I do it. It’s fine. It’s a new group. They should do what they want. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted,” Gehry told the Times.
Gehry made a name for himself designing top cultural facilities, including Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall and the Fisher Center for Performing Arts at Bard College, but in recent years his firm has designed more commercially developed towers, including apartments in New York, Santa Monica, and Toronto. He has also been fighting a bitter battle over his proposal for the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C.