Architecture Here and There Review of One WTC

Re David Brussat’s review of "One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building” in Architecture Here and There:

David is a dear friend and admired colleague. He is also an avowed traditionalist, or at least a vocal anti-modernist. I am more catholic, and open to what’s noble and practical in both traditional and modern designs. He and I agreed to disagree a long time ago.

The story underscores his belief that “modern architecture is unsustainable” and his clear preference for the Franck, Lohsen, McCrery classical plan, published in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal shortly after 9/11. I don’t agree that “all the late-stage finalists were stinkers,” because there were fine proposals from many, including Think and Norman Foster. However, given the promotional antics that accompanied the LMDC’s competition (and the additional, concurrent proposals put forth by the New York Times Magazine and New York magazine), there was a tendency on the part of some to consider the rebuild as an opportunity, as David puts it, “to boost their brands.” Can you blame them for being merely mortal—the profession had never received such attention before. For the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, the public was discussing architecture and planning.

However, complex factors deterred a traditional rebuild, starting with Larry Silverstein’s obligation to rebuild in kind, that is, to replace the nearly 11 million SF of commercial space that was destroyed on 9/11. He had to do so to recoup the insurance proceeds that were needed to rebuild the site. Not rebuilding was not an option; lower Manhattan was a residential neighborhood by that time, one now with a smoldering 16-acre crater at its center. Remember too that Silverstein had to continue paying rent on the destroyed buildings.

But these physical and financial considerations were not the only reason that three, soon to be four, glass skyscrapers stand at the new Trade Center. Tall buildings increase density, but they also open up breathtaking views, a selling point for tenants who are willing to pay a premium for space. (It is not possible to discuss skyscrapers apart from their leasing potential; it will never be more economical to build a supertall.) The Twin Towers’ shoulder-width windows limited those views, almost ridiculously so. Beyond the views, One’s massive, floor-to-ceiling windows allow full daylighting, reducing energy consumption. Any tower clad in stone, as Franck, Lohsen, McCrery, Peterson/Littenberg, and others proposed, would limit both views and natural lighting.

Additionally, glass has intrinsic qualities—openness, transparency, ambiguity, and perceptual complexity—that exist apart from fashion. SOM’s design plays on the unique visual characteristics of glass, and exploits its reflective qualities to disguise its mass. Its design is experiential – the more you look at it, the more you see. As I write in my book:

“One World Trade Center is the color of the sky, assuming over the course of a day blue’s every shade and nuance. Through this kaleidoscopic display of refracted light and color, the tower insists on the present unrepeatable moment and, for that reason, is forever new. A gentle giant, it meets its Janus task—to stand tall while avoiding any appearance of hubris—by inviting into its surface everything around it: wafting clouds; the architectures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their ornament and angles caught in its planes; and the passersby who appear fleetingly in its story. Much like the city it loves, One’s truest identity is found in its capacity to absorb, change, and endure. It may appear minimal and unadorned, but it is not.”

Another issue with replacing the Twin Towers with an entirely new design, whether traditional or modern, is that we all know that the towers once were there. Post-9/11, the emotional and perceptual reality of that particular site changed in ways that had little to do with style or the practical need to replace square footage. The response had to embody, and not simply erase, our collective memory of the day and the site. As David writes, it was “an endeavor vital to the spiritual and emotional revival of the nation after 9/11.”

One WTC’s design meets this challenge with grace and subtlety. It replicates the Twin Towers’ physical dimensions and skyline profile. Its base is 200-foot (61 m) square, the measurements of the old towers and the new memorial pools. Its cornice line is accentuated with a six-foot-tall (1.9 m) stainless steel parapet that marks the heights of the Twin Towers: 1,362 feet (415.2 m) and 1368 feet (417 m). Look at One WTC from New Jersey or Brooklyn, and you will see the square top of the original towers, now resurrected.

It’s gratifying that David thinks my book “will surely help turn skeptics into believers.” It was intended to do just that.

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