Page N2.1 . 07 September 2011                     
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Engineering Ground Zero on PBS

by Kevin Matthews

The PBS series Nova premiered a powerful show on Wednesday, September 7, 2011, about the reconstruction work currently underway at the site of the World Trade Center disaster.

"Engineering Ground Zero" is available now as streaming video on the PBS web site. And it will be rebroadcast by many public television stations across the United States (check local listings).

I had a chance to view a pre-distribution edit of the show, and it's well worth watching for just about anyone interested in architecture, construction, and/or the process of rebuilding from the World Trade Center disaster.

Of course, the show is aimed at the overall Nova audience, which is taken to be technically interested, but not assumed to be knowledgeable. Seasoned professionals may not learn much from seeing a concrete slump test, recycled steel rolling, and glass manufacturing.

Even among professionals, however, not many of us get to see those things every day. The compact, intensified story of some of the key materials and methods for building 1 WTC and the 9/11 Memorial is exciting.

Similarly, techniques used for making a technical story personal, like interviewing truck divers and construction workers, serve to ground the story effectively and to hint at the huge underlying social scope of a big construction project.

On the other hand, while the hagiography of the lone designer — especially David Childs, whose work tends to inspire me toward a critical response — may in some ways be an understandable simplification, in the end for me it fails to convey how the work of architecture and construction really gets done.

In an episode with "engineering" in its title, it is also a little disappointing not to get to meet the actual engineers. In fact, it's left rather unclear who the primary engineers are for the various projects covered, let alone other vital specialists for this work, like the blast consultants, just for instance.

There's little or nothing in the episode about the political processes around design selection, the fate of the Daniel Libeskind master plan (though it does make an unremarked cameo appearance in model form), or other dimensions of socioeconomic controversy around the projects.

What the episode does show, however, is shown evocatively. In a cultural context in which media coverage of a building often fails to even mention the building's designers — compared to the building's owner, for instance — perhaps glorification of a couple of individuals is a step in a positive direction.

"Engineering Ground Zero" is a good building story. It would be worth seeing for AEC professionals even if only because, as a prominent media event, it will contribute significantly to framing public perceptions of large-scale design and building.

There is that. And indeed, there is much, much more. It is also a national story of truly historic proportions, where deep pain and tragedy are turned into powerful fuels for moving forward with a tremendous multibillion-dollar reinvestment.

To the learned design professional, I suggest simply enjoying the advantage of knowing just that much more than Nova can tell, this time around.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek.   More by Kevin Matthews



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"Engineering Ground Zero," an episode of the PBS series Nova, documents the construction of One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan.
Photo: Courtesy Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Extra Large Image

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Aerial rendering of Lower Manhattan showing the anticipated skyline, once the new buildings at the World Trade Center site are completed.
Image: Courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Extra Large Image

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Two steel workers install a steel column at One World Trade Center, designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).
Photo: Courtesy David Shadrack-Smith/ WGBH Educational Foundation Extra Large Image

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Steel comprises the primary structure of One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower.
Photo: Courtesy Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Extra Large Image

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Ground Zero as seen in 2008, when the One World Trade Center tower was only 15 feet (4.6 meters) above ground. As of early September 2011, construction of the tower had reached the 81st floor, out of 90 floors.
Photo: Courtesy David Shadrack-Smith/ WGBH Educational Foundation Extra Large Image


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