Tower of No Power

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Over the last few weeks it was possible — just possible — to hope that the misbegotten Freedom Tower going up on the site of the World Trade Center might be put on hold. When he came to office in January New York’s new governor Eliot Spitzer had put the project “under review” because he suspected it was going to be unrentable. (Tempting terrorist target + weak real estate market = white elephant.) But today the New York Times reports that with the market for office real estate in Manhattan improving rapidly, Spitzer has changed his mind. Too bad — his short lived misgivings probably represented the last chance to rethink a building so big, bland and bunkered it could have been ordered over the telephone by Stalin.

And if the Freedom Tower had been put on hold, who knows, that might even have thrown a wrench in plans for the three oversize towers that the developer Larry Silverstein intends to raise along the border of the 9/11 memorial. To give his misconceived palisade of towers cachet, Silverstein recruited three international architecture stars — Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki. But at its heart the problem those buildings represent is one that mere architecture cannot solve. It’s a question of urbanism, or rather the abadonment of urbanist principles when they get in the way of maximizing floor space.

Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the WTC site, which has been pretty much swept aside, had envisioned a forcefield of large and small buildings, a mixed scale ensemble like Rockefeller Center, though shot through with a very different, more irregular design sensibility. What has evolved in its place is a developer’s paradise of profit multipliers, four surplus-floorplate booster rockets looming over dwarfed streets. Remember five years ago, when everyone agreed that the idea behind the rebuilding of the WTC site was supposed to be renewal? You probably thought that meant renewing life. Turns out it was just about renewing leases.