So here it is, the sixth anniversary of that morning. Last night I was walking down the Hudson River boardwalk near my apartment in Jersey City, N. J., which is directly across the water from where the World Trade Center used to be. Every year, there’s a memorial at this time produced by scores of floodlights positioned some blocks south of where the towers used to be. They shoot two broad columns of light into the sky.
I’ve read complaints that the columns of light remind people of the vertical spears of floodlight that Albert Speer contrived for the outdoor Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, the one that Leni Riefenstahl made infamous in Triumph of the Will. Noted. But the Nazis do not own verticals of light against the sky forever. Last night, which was cloudy in New York, the columns of light were filled with changing formations of mist that reminded you, if you were there on the first 9/11, of the smoke that filled the air that day. From where I saw the lights last night, standing in roughly the same place I stood on parts of that day six years ago, they operated very powerfully, like a Light Art work by James Turrell or Robert Irwin, but one that intersected with a specific historical memory.
So when it comes to 9/11, there’s always a lot to talk about. (You have heard, no doubt, of the Iraq War?) Just a few weeks ago, two New York City firefighters died fighting a blaze at the Deutsche Bank headquarters, a skyscraper on the south edge of the Trade Center site that was badly damaged on 9/11 and which is now being slowly dismantled. A few days later two more firefighters were injured when a forklift plunged off an upper floor of the same building and through the roof of a ground level shed where they were sitting. You get the picture. This is an unlucky location.
But let’s just take a look at what things have come to at the endlessly contested site where the Trade Center once stood. For a long time I’ve been mostly discouraged about the direction of developments there. Earlier this year I set those feelings out. Not much has changed since then.
To begin with, there’s One World Trade Center, or the Freedom Tower as its sometimes called.
Work has been underway for a while on the subterranean portions, where a hugely complicated nexus of railway tracks, including the PATH commuter system that comes in from New Jersey and several New York City subway lines, will link up. Don’t expect to see structural steel rising much above ground level before next spring. The design of the Freedom Tower is now credited to David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, though the New York City police department should probably get shared billing. They were the ones who came into the design process at the last minute to insist that the base of the tower had to be almost literally fortified to withstand truck bombs. The tower now promises to be a Roman candle held in the grip of a steel candle holder.
Childs’ design is a tower with its sides chamfered (that mean sliced at the corners) so that its roof is turned at a 45-degree angle from its base. The top of its antenna will still rise to 1776 feet, a sentimental Yankee Doodle gesture that is about all that remains of the earlier (very rough) conceptions of the building by Daniel Libeskind, who has long since removed his name from the project.
One building has been completed at the site, 7 World Trade Center. Also designed by Childs, it replaces a squat office tower that also fell on 9/11. The good news is that the new, taller building — 52 stories — sits on a smaller site, making it possible to re-open a Manhattan street that the old building had blocked off for decades. As a LEED’s gold-rated building — LEED is the body that recognizes eco-friendly design and construction — the new 7 WTC is also one of Manhattan’s greenest new towers.
The building is unusual because its first ten stories are taken up by a Con Ed substation and two floors of mechanicals. What that means is that except for its glass fronted lobby, its first ten floors are windowless. Childs did what he could to turn that into an advantage by cladding the substation levels in stainless steel arranged in patterns of alternating vertical shafts that glimmer in daylight. At night a complicated lighting program plays various games behind them. There’s also a Jenny Holzer electronic wall installation in the lobby.
So it all could have been worse, but in its overall vertical-carton silhouette 7 WTC remains a standard developer’s box. And in that it’s a sign of the general failure of imagination that rules at the Trade Center site. (Except in the case of the Santiago Calatrava-designed train station, which is still just a glimmer on the horizon.) Is “could have been worse” the best we can do? And this problem only gets worse, much worse, when you consider the trio of towers now planned for the eastern edge of the funerary punctures that will form the 9/11 memorial.
The first of them is a skyscraper with a canted roof by Norman Foster’s firm, Foster Partners…
The next is by the firm of his fellow Brit Richard Rogers….
….and the third is by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki…
And the problem here? It’s not so much the individual towers, it’s their collective impact. Daniel Libeskind’s original master plan for the Trade Center site envisioned a collection of high and lower rise buildings — an urban ensemble, not a wall of near-identically scaled behemoths. For Larry Silverstein, the private developer who still has influence over the site, recruiting Foster, Rogers and Maki, all three of them Pritzker Prize winners, as the architects for this Murderer’s Row of towers was a shrewd move. It adds cultural cachet to a flagrantly overbuilt street plan. When I look at it these days I’m reminded of nothing so much as the way Walter Gropius was brought on in the 1950s as the architect of the grossly overscaled Pan Am building, now the Met Life building, in New York. As the founder of the Bauhaus, Gropius brought Modernist street cred to a dreadful project, which to this day sits astride Park Avenue like the Hoover Dam.
As I said about the WTC triplets on “Looking Around” last February:
“at its heart the problem those buildings represent is one that mere architecture cannot solve. It’s a question of urbanism, or rather the abandonment of urbanist principles when they get in the way of maximizing floor space.”
Is it impossible to build an an ensemble of beautiful and powerful buildings in New York anymore? The core dilemma is that the Trade Center site is a civic monument in an age when there is no civic life, when private interests trump every other kind— and yeah, Trump is a good word for it — and when it’s easy to misthink that the best we can do is a tight bundle of tall compartments dedicated to rental income. Maybe a project so bound up in coils of sentiment, sanctimony, cynical politics and raw commerce never had a chance of coming to any satisfactory conclusion. For now at least, it’s plainly not headed for one.
And while we’re at it, anybody who thinks of their office building as a Freedom Tower, raise your hands.