Thursday, February 16, 2012

New York's New Tower of Babel

The top of the new One World Trade Center peeking up over the tops of the riverfront condo towers down the end of my street in Williamsburg; from outside my house.

The new World Trade Center is going up. As of this week, One World Trade Center (the former "Freedom Tower") is 92 floors high and has 12 floors to go before topping out in April. It rises at the rate of approximately a floor a week. It is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

I must confess that despite my ambivalent feelings about the whole thing, I really enjoy watching it go up. It's so tall now that it looms over the riverfront condo towers that we see down at the end of our street. I can see the top of it from nearby McGolrick Park in Greenpoint. I can sit here in Williamsburg and watch the big stationary cranes on top of the tower go to work, a distance of about 3 miles.

The building proper, minus the broadcast mast, is supposed to be about the same height as the former North Tower of the old WTC. With the broadcast mast it will be 1,776 feet high as specified by the architect Daniel Libeskind who planned the site, though not the tower (get the symbolism?). It won't be the tallest building in the world (the new tower in Dubai is 2,700 feet high), but it will be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere ... until Chicago, or Sao Paolo, or Mexico City gets around to topping it.

I took advantage of the unusually mild winter we're having here to take a few pictures this morning down near the East River ferry terminal in Williamsburg.

The cranes and towers of the new WTC from Williamsburg with the East River in the foreground

The cranes on the left are part of #4 World Trade Center, the shortest of the new towers being built, but still a huge building. The new #1 WTC is on the right.

The tower up close with my telephoto lens (sorta). If you look carefully, you can see construction lights on in the building. At night, these are all very bright. The tower is really spectacular at night, the brightest thing in Manhattan, as well as the biggest.

Here's the tower today, February 16, 2012.

Here's the tower on Septermber 10, 2011 from near the same spot and in similar weather. My! how we've grown!

I must admit that the design of the new #1 WTC is starting to grow on me. That prismatic shape really works, and the building changes in aspect depending on the angle from which it is viewed. From Williamsburg, it's an elegantly tapered shape. From Greenwich Village, it's a straight up column. I anticipate that when it is finished and the mast and broadcast array are added, the tower will create one of the most distinctive and exhilarating profiles on the skyline in decades, perhaps since the Empire State Building itself (though not quite as fine a shape as that). David Childs deserves credit for a fine design even if it is not quite a masterpiece. Like the Empire State Building, I expect that this building will be thrilling from a distance and a little disappointing up close. As the builders of the Empire State Building skimped on the detailing, so I expect the same will be true for this building. I can't imagine anything could relieve the brutality of the base of the new 1 WTC.

Here are some pictures from the Progress WTC photostream on Twitter. Most of these seem to be taken by the iron workers themselves, or by a photographer right with them (somebody who wants to be to this tower what Lewis Hine was to the Empire State Building or Margaret Bourke White to the Chrysler Building). These pictures will give your acrophobia a real workout, especially the shots from inside one of the stationary cranes on top of the tower.

Here's a really good article from the AIA (American Institute of Architects) for all of you serious architecture geeks about the new tower detailing the demands of its construction and design, especially all the new safety measures since this building will inevitably be a terrorist target. There is a separate section on the broadcast mast and array, itself an ambitious and groundbreaking structure. Curiously, there is no mention of Kenneth Snelson, the sculptor commissioned by the firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill to design the new mast.

The current design for the new mast; apparently there will be a big beacon light on top. The Empire State Building has a ring of beacon lights that come on after midnight every night (they used to come on promptly at midnight; the floodlights would go out and the beacon lights would come on right at the stroke of midnight; now they come on in the wee hours of the morning). I can testify from experience that the beacon on the Empire State Building is visible from miles out to sea. This would be even more visible. While this would be great for ship navigation (there are a lot of plans to bring back New York as a shipping port; nearby Newark has one of the busiest seaports in the country and it depends on the beacons of the Empire State Building to guide ships), I see a possible conflict with bird navigation. New York City sits astride a major flyway and the old Twin Towers were literally murder on migrating birds.

Here is the current version of the design. So far going up, it looks much bigger than these proposals would suggest.

While this design is not the Taj Mahal, it's light years better than a lot of other mega-towers out there. My vote for the ugliest is the tower in Taipei. As for tapering skyscrapers, it's way ahead of the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco. It's far beyond that ugly new Bank of America Building here in New York next to Bryant Park. But, in my opinion, it's not as fine as the John Hancock Tower in Chicago, still my favorite tapered skyscraper of all.

Of course this project is thoroughly vain glorious. The powerful passions of national, civic, and personal ambition drive this tower upwards. So it was for every major building project going back to Stonehenge. In that sense, it's like every Tower of Babel ever built since before and after Genesis was written. Just like old times, there is a battle over how to keep funding the WTC's construction with new turnpike tolls or sales taxes. That reminds me of all the taxes and sales of "indulgences" levied to fund the reconstruction of Saint Peter's, a burden and corruption so glaring in its shamelessness that it helped provoke the Reformation. And lest we think that the earlier Gothic cathedrals were any more virtuous, let's remember that in 13th century Laon in France, the taxes levied on the citizens for the construction of their new cathedral became so onerous that they rose up in revolt and murdered their bishop. I don't think we are looking at anything quite so drastic here.

Herodotus used the Great Pyramid of Khufu as an emblem of tyranny and the vain folly of arrogant kings. Herodotus describes Khufu enslaving his entire kingdom to build a massive stone pyramid for his tomb. He may have had a point. The Great Pyramid was the tallest building in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889. The Egyptians never made another building that size again in their history.
The builders of the new WTC are hardly slaves or toiling conscripts. On the contrary, these jobs are much coveted, as they were back during the Great Depression when the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center went up. The labor force needed to build this new tower of Babel is much smaller than what was needed to build the Great Pyramid. Steel frame construction only requires a small force of skilled ironworkers to assemble the parts together.

As I've always said, New York's real cathedrals are its corporate towers and bank buildings. This one is the latest and the biggest of them all. It is a soaring monument to the real religion of New York, Money. It's what everyone really believes in despite what they say they do or don't believe in. Money is a god, not a transcendent god, but a god nonetheless. It makes things happen, it works miracles, it passes judgment upon us. People pray to it and offer it sacrifice. People even pin their hopes for salvation upon it. The knees of even the most hard boiled atheist buckle in abject reverence before this deity. So St. Patrick's and St. John the Divine can call themselves cathedrals all they want, but the real spiritual beliefs and aspirations of this city and its rulers manifest themselves in the city's towers.

The top of the new tower and the view

The "New Tower of Babel" from Fritz Lang's Metropolis

The weather is supposed to clear up tomorrow. I'll see if I can take some pictures of the tower at night and post them here.


Pictures from today, February 17, 2012. It was an incredibly beautiful day (February?), and so I visited the East River Ferry terminal twice to take pictures.

The new One WTC today

One WTC tonight

The Empire State Building

The Empire State Building tonight lit up for the Knicks

The new WTC going up today

The new WTC tonight

Midtown today from the ferry terminal

Midtown tonight from the ferry terminal


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Funny, I was watching the remastered version of "Metropolis" again last night, and the Tower of Babel was what immediately shot to the front of my mind...

Lapinbizarre said...

Wonder how easy finding tenants will be. I wouldn't risk it.

Counterlight said...

Conde Nast Publications already agreed to rent 21 floors of the tower for new headquarters.

The Chinese real estate company Vantone will move in when it's finished too.

Also, there will be two floors of observation deck on the top, along with another floor entirely given over to a restaurant; I presume that they will try to bring back Windows On The World.

Counterlight said...

Of course, I could be wrong, but I don't think 9/11 will be repeated. Plane hijackings will never be the same again. Passengers from now on will always assume the worst and act accordingly (as they already have with both the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber). Everyone, including the architects and structural engineers, expects this building to be attacked eventually. That anticipation is designed into this building and into most prominent buildings since. Minoru Yamasaki and his engineers planning the old Twin Towers in the mid 1960s did not anticipate that they would ever be attacked, and could not have anticipated such a threat back during the Cold War and in the midst of the Vietnam War. That the towers could not and did not stand after being struck by two large hijacked planes full of fuel traveling at 500 mph is not the fault of the architect.
Let's hope that the many fail safes in this building and in other new buildings are never so tested.

Tristan Alexander said...

I wish they had used the Metropolis Tower of Babel a their model!

JCF said...

As for tapering skyscrapers, it's way ahead of the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco.

Heresy! >:-(


Having grown up w/ The Pyramid, it naturally is full of sentimental meaning for Yours Truly...

June Butler said...

The building may end up being esthetically satisfying, but what comes to my mind is 'hubris'. But then, you could say the same about the great cathedrals and many handsome structures throughout history.

Counterlight said...

And where would we be without hubris sometimes? Virtuously, but much more modestly and plainly housed.

June Butler said...


Timos said...

It's refreshing to read this point of view from an American.

I used to live in Taipei and I don't think Taipei 101 is ugly. There are many other nondescript, uninteresting, or outright ugly tall buildings around the world.