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Finally, Ground Zero's new shape starts to emerge

After 10 years of wrangling, the transformation of the World Trade Centre site is gathering pace

If the 9/11 memorial is meant to prompt reflection on that single event that traumatised this city and the world 10 years ago this month, we are begged to forget much else in its recent history: the bungling and bureaucratic warfare that for so long delayed all efforts to remake the space where the Twin Towers once stood.

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Yet a looming big anniversary – and even the swipe of a hurricane – can have an impressive effect. When President Barack Obama leads remembrance ceremonies at the site a week on Sunday, he and hundreds of relatives of the victims of 11 September 2001, will for the first time see and feel what at last is emerging from Ground Zero.

The memorial accounts for eight of the 16 acres at the site and includes two square voids where the Twin Towers once stood and a granite-paved plaza shaded by 416 swamp oak trees. When the pageantry is over, it will open to the public, for the time-being on a reservations-only basis. The underground 9/11 museum will come in 2012.

"I never thought we'd make it," admits Matthew Donham, project manager at PWP, the landscape architecture firm responsible for the plaza around the voids, which have been designed by New York architect Michael Arad. The strips of lawn that break up the paving were laid only three weeks ago and had to be stapled down as hurricane Irene approached.

The project has not always been easy, Mr Downham says, a man of perfectionist bent who stoops to collect a chunk of gravel – too white for his taste – from the base of one the trees. "The notion of client has been more complicated than usual – who our client has been has shifted all the time." The state, the city and the Memorial Foundation all had to be heeded as well as the often dissonant demands of all the families. The pressure associated with a project of such civic significance was also hard. "You can't get it wrong here," notes Mr Donham.

Almost as wondrous has been the sudden sprouting of One World Trade Centre, the tower that carries a burden at least as heavy as the memorial. Visitors to the memorial will have their gaze drawn to the tower, now rising at a startling one floor per week. The glass cladding is being applied at roughly the same pace, giving some idea of the shimmering figure that the tower will cut on the Manhattan skyline. A glass parapet atop the final floor will be at the same height of the old north tower. A spire will rise to 1,776ft, recalling the year of American independence.

For Ken Lewis, the director of architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the challenge of designing One World Trade was not knowing what the rest of the site, including the memorial, was going to look like. In the end, he tells The Independent, the mix seems to be working. "You can already see the dialogue," he says, adding that Ground Zero will be like the rest of New York with a jumble of different architects and styles in one small area. "You walk along any city block and see all these different buildings yet they form a single story."

Beyond that, the main challenge from the start was creating a new icon for the city. "There was this huge burden of expectation of creating a super-tall building in Manhattan."

The acres around the memorial remain a building site and will for some years. Of the three towers planned for the site's eastern strip by architects Fumihiko Maki, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, only the first is growing towards completion. Lacking committed tenants, the other two will stop for now, at ground level or just above. Also not yet in place is what promises to be a dazzling Santiago Calatrava confection to house the entrance to the mass transit hub that worms beneath almost all of Ground Zero.

To stand on the bare cement of floor 39 of the One World Trade Centre is to be in the spot that one day may be occupied by Graydon Carter or perhaps Anna Wintour, editors of Vanity Fair and Vogue. The owners of those and other magazines, Condé Nast, gave the building a boost in May when they agreed to occupy 21 levels. This visitor was then escorted in a jerky construction lift to floor 72, today open on all sides revealing exhilarating if vertiginous vistas of the city. When completed, the tower will reach 90 floors with a public viewing platform above.

No one was more buffeted by the conflicts at Ground Zero than Larry Silverstein who acquired the lease for the original World Trade Centre just weeks before the terrorists struck. He not only had to fight for the insurance money he needed to rebuild but also watch as the politicians launched their messy competitions for architects and designers for the memorial and the towers.

Daniel Libeskind, the American architect first chosen to draw up the master-plan and deliver blueprints for the main tower, was later only to be sidelined. Even Mr Silverstein was partly edged aside, losing control of One World Trade but holding on to the other main towers. It used to seem to those of us living here that nothing was happening at Ground Zero and a scandal of monument scale was afoot.

A cornerstone for the tower was unveiled in 2004, only to be taken away when security concerns forced the entire structure to be moved 25ft to the east away from the West Side Highway. Only in November 2006 did the first steel foundation rods begin to poke from the earth and New Yorkers to believe that Ground Zero might not for ever be a forlorn pit.

It will be two more years before Ms Wintour et al can move into the main tower. And so it will be the memorial that will have top billing on Sunday week. The waterfalls that will form curtains around the black-stone walls of the two voids, rimmed by bronze parapets bearing the names of those who died on 9/11, will be turned on.

There will be detractors, of course, but in the mind of Mr Donham, his company and the team under Michael Arad, a new space has been forged that will at once denote new life – "the trees are key" – and the uncluttered conditions for what he calls "quiet abstraction" suitable for a place of remembrance. "It will be good for remembering," he says. "And it will be good for healing."

Architectural symbolism

1,776 The height in feet of One World Trade Centre, which represents the year the United States Declaration of Independence was signed – one of the most important founding documents in American history. The US celebrates its Independence Day on 4 July every year, commemorating the day the declaration was approved by Congress. The skyscraper, formerly known as "Freedom Tower", is America's tallest building.

1,362 The height in feet of the observation deck of One World Trade Centre, which also features a glass and metal parapet at a height of 1,368 ft. These precise measurements pay tribute to the respective heights of the original twin towers.

30 The depth in feet of two glass reflecting pools, which fill the 'footprints' of the former twin towers and 'serve as open and visible reminders of the absence of those lost'. The perimeter of the pools bear the same measurements as those of the former towers.

3,000 The number of victims' names inscribed on low parapets encircling both memorial pools, which pay tribute to those who lost their lives on 11 September 2001 and in 1993, when the World Trade Centre was bombed. The exact spot where the truck bomb exploded, killing seven people and injuring thousands, is to be marked by a plaque. The Memorial Hall, which fills the space between the reflecting pools, offers a place for gatherings and contemplation. At the complex's lowest point, a mausoleum (called the Memorial Centre) houses the unidentified remains of victims which were gathered in the aftermath of 9/11.