Monday, September 5, 2011

The WTC Rises Again

The new WTC under construction now.

I've followed the efforts to rebuild the World Trade Center with great interest for 10 years. Now that it's finally taking shape, I haven't really changed my mind about what I said about it three years ago. I still think the design is disappointingly conventional after showing so much promise in the competition and planning stages. I still think that the current design, disappointing though it may be, is still a tremendous improvement over Minoru Yamasaki's twin towers and plaza. As I said three years ago, I credit Yamasaki with making the whole project a lot less brutal looking than the usual Rockefeller projects such as Albany Plaza.

Now that it is all going up in earnest, it looks huge, bigger to my eye than the old WTC. The rising trunk of One World Trade Center already dominates the downtown skyline and remains several floors short of topping out. The building proper will top out at 1,368 feet, the same height as the old North Tower. A broadcasting mast will complete the height of the building at 1,776 feet, the tallest building in the Americas.
Number Four World Trade Center also goes up and is starting to be visible among the Downtown skyscrapers. The Memorial is mostly complete and scheduled to open Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The museum associated with the Memorial will open next year and is on schedule.

The top of the rising One World Trade Center viewed from New Jersey

View of the Battery with the rising World Trade Center

This is currently the largest single construction project in the United States, and probably the biggest building project in New York City since Rockefeller Center was completed. New York always builds big in times of economic downturn. Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building rose during the Great Depression. The original World Trade Center went up in the midst of the city's financial crisis in the 1970s. And the new WTC rises in the middle of the current Lesser Depression.

I won't go into the long tangled history of the WTC, except to say that its planning began as early as 1943. David and Nelson Rockefeller chose the current site in the mid 1960's (it was originally to go up on the east side near the South Street Seaport). They used eminent domain law offered to them by eagerly compliant city and state governments to ruthlessly clear out a historic Greek and Syrian neighborhood on the proposed west side site. They persuaded the architect Minoru Yamasaki to reluctantly design twin towers of unprecedented height. The towers' detractors used to call them "David" and "Nelson." And of course, we all know happened next.

Controversies by the dozen continue to swirl around the site and play a large role in the design and the construction. It took years for planners and groups with interests in the site to design, argue about, and redesign the Rubic's Cube of a substructure before anything was built on the surface; where to put utilities, the PATH train station, subway stations, the museum, storage of human remains on the site, and still respect and incorporate the foot prints of the original towers. This one site is to incorporate a memorial, the final resting place for more than a thousand people, a transit hub, and commercial development. None of those uses complement each other.

The contentiousness around the site shaped the 9/11 Memorial that is the project's centerpiece. The Israeli born architect Michael Arad won a crowded competition with his very spare design that turns the footprints of the destroyed towers into huge sunken pools lined with waterfalls. The Memorial as built places these sunken pools in the middle of landscaping and groves of trees on the street level. Arad originally wanted the whole plaza sunken a few feet below street level, and to be completely bare, preserving in a sense the towers' very striking absence immediately after their destruction.

Michael Arad's original design for the Memorial

As bare as the surface was to be, the substructure of the Memorial was to be elaborate with two subterranean floors, the upper floor opening in the midst of the waterfalls. That floor was eliminated because of cost.

A rendering of his proposed 2nd floor with the glimpse through the falls

The other eliminated feature of Arad's design was a cenotaph in a chapel at the very bottom of the pool on the site of the North Tower. Arad intended this block of black stone to be a focus for commemorations. The floor of this room was to be the original bedrock upon which the tower stood. The chapel adjoined the storage and forensic lab area where unidentified human remains from the 9/11 attacks were to be stored in the hopes that some day they could be positively identified.

A rendering of the proposed, and discarded, cenotaph

Some of the bereaved families wanted to turn the cenotaph into a sarcophagus containing all the remains. When the City Medical Examiner pointed out that the volume of the remains was far too great to be contained in the proposed cenotaph, some families insisted that a portion of the remains be entombed there. The Port Authority scuttled the whole cenotaph idea and transformed this area into a blank empty room whose floor is the original bedrock, and will be accessible only to bereaved family members.
But the controversies didn't end there. There was a very long drawn out argument, complete with lawsuits, over the ordering of the names on the Memorial. Arad, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg, wanted the names entirely random, a kind of equality in death. Some families wanted firefighters grouped by company, and the families of Cantor Fitzgerald employees wanted their loved ones all together, etc. A settlement was reached. All of the names are to be grouped together according to friendships and associations, which meant a very complicated computer algorithm has to be worked out to make all the names in the desired order and proximity, and come out evenly distributed.

A rendering of the names on the parapet of one of the two pools.

A rendering of the names at night. They will be lighted from within.

Rendering of the final design for one of the pools of the Memorial.

The Memorial under construction last year.

The Museum attached to the Memorial will be completed next year. The all glass entrance pavilion is designed by Craig Dykers working for a Norwegian firm. The frosted glass exterior is intended to call to mind the striated appearance of the Twin Towers.

Craig Dyker's Museum entrance pavilion under construction and almost completed

The pavilion focuses upon a remaining ground floor support beam from one of the towers. That beam is already in place.

Rendering of the recovered ground floor support beams in the Museum entrance.

Arad's design, even in altered (and to my mind unfortunately softened) form, is remarkable. As I said 3 years ago, I'm struck by the success of Minimalism as a form language for public memorials. Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC turns out to have been a watershed in the design of public monuments. The great advantage of Minimalism in such a contentious age where there seems to be no agreement on anything is that it expresses a very general sense of emotion and the momentous without even so much as suggesting any kind of interpretation. Arad's design does this in spades, and the original design in its austerity would have made visible the sense of real loss.
I love Dyker's glass pavilion so far, not having seen it in person yet. It's a beautiful building, but I'm still sorting out my feelings about this new kind of free form architecture that's starting to dominate the look of the city in its newest buildings. I think about this a lot when I pass by the new Cooper Union Building on 3rd Avenue (as I do frequently). On so many levels, it's an admirable building, intelligent, boldly original, with beautiful detailing. And yet, it bothers the hell out of me. Perhaps I'm more of an old time German NeoClassicist than I'm willing to admit (move over Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo Von Klenze), but as fine as it is, the new Cooper Union building appears to me to be coldly impersonal, arbitrary, and ahistorical.
Maybe the reason Dyker's pavilion bothers me less is because it's more isolated with less of an architectural context right next door, and because it is programmatic (still a very dirty word in a lot of critical circles, and indeed, some critics have pounced on these structures for being programmatic). The forms are tied to the whole narrative of September 11th making them seem less arbitrary, and certainly more humane. The relatively small scale and the material, glass, certainly help that favorable impression.

The largest part of the World Trade Center, already dominating the downtown skyline almost 2 years before scheduled completion is One World Trade Center, formerly known as The Freedom Tower (I'm delighted to see that title retired, and to see the other Freedom Tower in Miami, a much smaller but arguably more beautiful building, retain its monopoly on the title). David Childs of the historic Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill firm designed the current tower that now rises over downtown. He's built a number of prominent New York landmarks already including the new Time Warner Plaza by Columbus Circle. Childs is an accomplished architect working in what is very much an establishment style.
His vision of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere is a giant glass obelisk on a pedestal.

Rendering of the finished One World Trade Center

This elegantly tapered prism will be crowned by a circular broadcast array and a mast designed by the sculptor Kenneth Snelson. To me, that crown looks like an attenuated version of a lingam. Perhaps that ancient symbol of destruction and creation is appropriate here, though I seriously doubt the toiling employees and executives destined to inhabit this vast building will give a crap about such meanings, or any meaning.
Childs says that his design was inspired by Brancusi's famous sculpture Bird In Space. Brancusi's sculpture sweeps upward in a gesture as beautiful as it is dramatic. There's not much gestural about Childs' design at all. It seems to me to be very static. Even so, that static obelisk is graceful except for one glaring detail, the base. Bases in Brancusi's work are springing points. This one is a huge 168 foot high brutal block. I doubt its brutality will be softened much by the reflective material that is supposed to clad the exterior.

Rendering of the base of One World Trade Center

In all fairness to Childs, a lot of this design was to satisfy the security requirements of the NYPD.

Childs won an epic fight over the design of the tower with a very different architect, Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind won the competition to design the layout and planning of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. The organization of the buildings, the transportation hub, and the memorial, the general scheme and placement, is his design. In his original plan, he called for a very tall tower echoing the gesture of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor.

Rendering of Libeskind's original design for the reconstruction of the WTC.

A model of Libeskind's proposal featuring his glass garden tower.

Libeskind's original tower was to have an entirely memorial function. It was to be a thin tapering glass tower containing a vertical botanical garden from floor to top. Above that was to be a broadcast mast.
Childs was brought in as a consultant at the insistence of Larry Silverstein, the developer who holds the lease on the site. Libeskind is an expressionist visionary and Childs is a modernist of the old international school. These two very different architects were bound to clash and they did. At first they attempted to collaborate. Libeskind insisted on retaining something like the gesture of the Statue of Liberty despite Childs' public irritation with the whole idea. Childs came up with a beautifully torqued tapering tower that turned slowly as it rose, but it lacked a spire. Liebeskind insisted on a spire, that the original gesture be preserved. This is the compromise design that they came up with, and that was scuttled, not by critics, but by the NYPD for security concerns, especially around the base.

A rendering of the discarded Libeskind/ Childs design for the Freedom Tower

The design incorporates another compromise with everyone's anxieties at the time. The top third of the building was to be just empty steel frame rising up to the spire.
I'm probably alone in my opinion, but I think something like this design could have been made to work. Fill the empty floors and find a better way to integrate the spire instead of making it look grafted on, and it might look something like a large gestural form worthy of Brancusi. The current design looks to me like a larger and more elegant version of any office tower that could be going up anywhere from Beijing to Dubai to Chicago.
As conventional as it may be, the design is a good one, despite the base. It is an improvement over the old twin towers, and worthy to take its place with New York's other giants.

The other building going up is Four World Trade Center designed by Fumihiko Maki, which is turning out to be a lot larger than I expected. It is also commonly known as 150 Greenwich Street.

A rendering of 150 Greenwich Street, 4 World Trade Center

Four World Trade Center under construction

The whole World Trade Center site will remain an active construction site until at least 2020. Among the buildings yet to come are these:

Construction has just barely started on Santiago Calatrava's spectacular entrance pavilion for the WTC transport hub. New York city planners are eager to atone for the destruction of Penn Station and are planning this and other spectacular entrances to the city by rail.

Rendering of Calatrava's Transit Hub entrance

Interior of Calatrava's proposed design; it is aligned in the direction of the sun at the very moment the first plane struck.

Just barely begun, and not due to be completed until around 2020 is Norman Foster's design for Two World Trade Center, which will be the second highest tower. It is the only building to acknowledge Liebeskind's original conception with its striking slanted top pointed down to the Memorial. This building by itself will be so large that it will top out the Empire State Building.

Rendering of Two World Trade Center from Broadway and Vesey.

Rendering of the top of 2 World Trade Center.

Another distinguished British architect, Richard Rogers, designed Three World Trade Center, also barely begun and not scheduled for completion until 2020.

Rendering of Richard Roger's 3 World Trade Center

All of these buildings are very fine, if a bit out of scale (if you want "in scale," you will have to go someplace other than New York). By themselves they are beautiful buildings. Do they work together as a coherent ensemble? Not really. Libeskind envisioned the office towers to be extensions of the Memorial pointing us back toward it. Now, they are a kind of honor guard, or a group of large beautifully dressed mourners, standing watch over the memorial, each a focus of attention, each self-absorbed and barely paying attention to the funeral below.

Here is one last rendering of things to come.

A rendering of the completed World Trade Center from somewhere in Soho.

And why does the opening music of Fritz Lang's Metropolis come to mind when I look at this picture?


Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, comes to similar conclusions in his essay in the current issue. He said on the radio this morning that this was an opportunity to do something extraordinary, and instead, we got a better more elegant version of ordinary, especially One World Trade Center. Like me, he is a fan of the original Libeskind proposal with its even balance of memorial and renewal. He says, rightly, that the current construction got taken out of the hands of the architects a long time ago by real estate interests.

Also, Goldberger is a little more sanguine about the transformations in the city as a whole than I am. Downtown Manhattan is indeed more full of life now than at anytime since the Great Depression. More people are moving into downtown than all the people moving to Dallas, Atlanta, and San Diego combined. But, Manhattan is becoming more and more a theme park version of itself for tourists and the wealthy. The truly creative parts of the population were priced out a long time ago, and the real estate developers are right behind them, driving them further and further to the literal margins of the city. From the standpoint of the artists struggling to pay the rent on their studios in Bushwick, the arrival of a major international gallery there is not necessarily good news. And where are all the people whose labor makes the city work supposed to live? They can't all be warehoused in the Bronx or east Brooklyn. And that's true not just for the working poor, but for middle class New Yorkers as well.


June Butler said...

The new WTC is to be too many things to too many people. 'Too many cooks spoil the broth,' also comes to mind.

The rendering of the final design shows handsome structures, but the buildings do not cohere. Your analogy of mourners standing guard, each in isolation, is apt.

Still they're better than the originals, which seems almost sacrilegious to say.

Counterlight said...

As far as cohering together, my standard of comparison would be Rockefeller Center, also designed by a dozen architects, but holding together so beautifully.

JCF said...

Now, they are a kind of honor guard, or a group of large beautifully dressed mourners, standing watch over the memorial, each a focus of attention, each self-absorbed and barely paying attention to the funeral below.

Beautiful piece of writing, Doug [But argh, you polymaths! (See re Tobias Haller) It's not enough to be gifted in one discipline, but you have to make the rest of us look bad in all of 'em? ;-p]

Don't have much to add . . . except that Cooper Union Bldg, UGH! [Does anyone else see inscribed---or is that as a "gesture"?---Mickey Mouse ears?! Ghastly. IMHO.]

Tristan Alexander said...

New Tower(s)of Babel (using the Metropolis refrence!?

Counterlight said...

Polymath? I can't do math at all.

Counterlight said...

Towers of Babel. Perhaps so. Definitely triumphalist monuments to capital.

I'm told that the Midrash has a story that says that the builders of the Tower of Babel gave every broken brick a funeral, but that the corpses of fallen workers were thrown on the trash heap.