9/11 + 6 + 1 Day

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My long commentary yesterday on the state of reconstruction at the World Trade Center site brought in a number of passionate replies from readers. One of the most typical? That the powers that be should simply have re-built the towers as they were. (Or as one reader proposed “but taller, much taller!”) Even now, when it’s plainly not going to happen, this is not an uncommon opinion. My own brother shares it, or he used to.

I can understand the sentiment, but I can’t agree. September 11 has given the towers a retroactive place in people’s hearts. This much I can understand. It’s the feeling I wrote about yesterday when I described seeing their ghostly resurrection in the tribute of light that goes up every year at this time in lower Manhattan. But before they went down, the Towers were anything but beloved by the New Yorkers who had to live with them. Within just years after it was completed, the World Trade Center had become an architecture school case study of what not to do. A general revulsion at the problems epitomized by the Twin Towers helped bring on the decades-long effort to find a way out of the dead end of glass and steel box Modernism, a struggle that has led to some interesting new outcomes in recent years.

First lesson of the old World Trade Center— forget Le Corbusier. Don’t build a tall tower — or two! — on a big, windswept empty plaza — a super block as it was called, because it covered over several older New York City blocks and even the streets that once ran through them. By day it was a lifeless plaza, even when filled, just a place to hurry through. And by night? A lifeless plaza, only darker.

There are many others lessons. Suffice it say that to rebuild the Twin Towers would have been a disaster. There’s no point in repeating an ancient blunder.

But there’s also no point in wandering into new blunders, which is the pitfall of so much of what’s planned for the Trade Center site now. This is especially true with the three towers planned for the eastern edge of the 9/11 memorial site. My objection to those is not so much with any of the individual buildings. It’s with the very notion of three more tall towers being shoe horned into the WTC site, which was once envisioned as a mix of high and lower buildings, somewhat along the lines of Rockefeller Center, one of the most agreeable urban ensembles anywhere in the world.

Any of the individual towers, taken on its own terms, might be acceptable, or even more. Over the past decade or so there’s been a thorough re-thinking of the interior space of office towers — how to make them more agreeable places to work than the typical stack of rentable floor plates, how to open out the ordinary office corridor into new configurations that encourage more human interaction, and that provide light and window access to every worker on a floor. Some of that thinking has even been breaking out of the architecture school classrooms and making it into new buildings. And two of the architects who have been at the forefront of that rethinking are Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, each of whom is designing one of those three proposed towers. From the images we’ve seen so far it’s not easy to tell what they have in mind for the spaces inside, but based on their earlier work it’s reasonable to hope.

But no building can be “taken on its own terms” if it’s smack in the middle of a crowded city. It’s part of an urban fabric that it helps to create — or destroy. Three skyscrapers along the edge of the memorial park is two too many. But to arrive at a human scale grouping of structures at the Trade Center site we would have to have someone in charge who cared more about the human experience of the place than about how to maximize rentable office space. Great cities — great nations — can rise to that challenge. What’s happening to our’s I wonder?