If you want to see the true ethos of 1990s Manhattan, though, it’s the unrealized projects in “Millennium” that speak loudest. Along with Kaplan, the architect James Sanders proposed a retrofitting of Liberty Plaza Park (now Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011) that aimed to flush financial data out of the skyscrapers and onto the streets. An axonometric rendering here shows massive, Tokyo-style LED screens promoting GeoCities, Lycos and other children of the dot-com bubble, as well as a live broadcast from the stock exchange floor by a young Maria Bartiromo. Though never built, the Liberty Plaza project encapsulated a newly digitized, 24-hour economy; the architects even imagined that passers-by could buy and sell stock on their newfangled flip phones.
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Changes in financial technology also weighed upon the New York Stock Exchange, which made efforts to move from its colonnaded pile on Wall Street to a new tower to the south. The project, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, would have necessitated the demolition of a clutch of historic buildings, and was canceled after the recession of 2001. A $125 million Museum of Women, intended for Battery Park City and greenlit by George E. Pataki, the former New York governor, was scrapped too.
But the wildest and, from this distance, most ridiculous project of those heady days was a new Guggenheim Museum, a tangle of suspended metal ribbons designed by Frank Gehry in the delirious days after his Bilbao institution opened. The museum would have occupied three piers south of the Brooklyn Bridge. “He has raised the horizon of the water, in waves that lap against the base of the cliffs,” wrote Herbert Muschamp, who was then a free-associative architecture critic at The Times; others effused that Gehry’s titanium nimbus, four times the size of Frank Lloyd Wright’s uptown spiral, would rival the Statue of Liberty as a New York landmark. It now looks more like an unbuilt monument to the ego of Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s aggressive former director; it was shelved on New Year’s Eve 2002.
Bracketing all the projects in this exhibition, it goes without saying, is the disaster that took place just a few blocks north of the Skyscraper Museum, and that transformed Lower Manhattan in an entirely different way. It was the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that truly announced the start of a new millennium, and more than 16 years later, construction at the World Trade Center remains unfinished. What has arisen ranges from the sublime (Fumihiko Maki’s stark, precise 4 World Trade Center) to the scandalous (Santiago Calatrava’s chunky, billions-over-budget transit hub), and a boom in residential real estate has been accompanied by the arrival of the same generic shops now found everywhere, from Harlem to Hell’s Kitchen.
To look at the first blush of reconstruction down here in the 1990s is to grow nostalgic for a New York that moved at a different tempo. One of the first New Yorkers to move into the old commercial towers of 1990s Wall Street was my father, and when I was a teenager, I used to thrill to the hush of nighttime Lower Manhattan, its unlit canyons of steel not yet conquered by touch screens and organic grain bowls. I would look up at the Woolworth Building, at Trinity Church or at the two tallest buildings of all, Minoru Yamasaki’s unloved behemoths of aluminum and steel. There was a future dawning, but it had not arrived yet — and in those silent ’90s nights, I imagined a far more vigorous one than this.