The new World Trade Center reflects what was worst about the old WTC towers and their brethren demolished by terrorists on 9/11. The Twin Towers were sterile, inhumane structures that epitomized the crushing brutality of urbanism at its worst in the 20th century. One World Trade Center, the main character in Judith Dupré’s fascinating One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building, is identical, a big mistake resurrected for the 21st century. It is sterile and inhumane. It is stunning but it is not beautiful. It is not timeless. No, it is stuck in a time warp. It is not heartless and it is not soulless, but its heart and soul exist in spite of its form. They exist only in the spirit of the thousands of humans who died on 9/11. Okay, not only. The thousands of men and women who built it are also part of its heart and soul.
Okay, I’ve got that off my chest. I do not like the building. New York should have rebuilt in the spirit of the heroic period of its skyline. If the rebuild had hit the reset button circa 1940, Lower Manhattan, New York City, the nation and the world would have been able to move into the future from there. The ongoing time- warp bubble of modern architecture would have been popped, and a gigantic step in a (still) possible return to the humane in how we build cities might have been achieved. Someday it will happen because modern architecture is unsustainable.
The book’s early chapters on the slow-motion rush to design a rebuild for Ground Zero are thin, but more than we are likely to get. The architectural establishment will hold its cards close to its vest. I have argued for over a decade that the architectural establishment conspired to make sure that no traditional WTC master plan would ever be built. I have had no pushback against that theory. Dupré herself believes that complex factors deterring a traditional rebuild ensured its impracticality. I believe it could have been accomplished by the same collection of outsized talents in development, engineering and construction that she describes had they been instructed to try. And that might have happened if the deck had not been unjustly and immorally stacked against such an eventuality for half a century.
In short, Dupré got amazing access behind the scenes to how One – as it is often called in her book – was built but not why. Just look at the earliest phases of the rebuild.
The classical rebuild master plan by Franck, Lohsen, McCrery, published in the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly City Journal just a month or so after 9/11, embodied the aspiration to bend major civic projects back toward humanity and civility. In spite of itself, their plan probably served as a warning to the architectural establishment of danger ahead. So, to a degree, did the two Peterson/Littenberg master plans out of six original master plans by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation seeking how to fit 11 million square feet of lost commercial space onto the site’s 16 acres. The Peterson/Littenberg master plan was supposedly rejected by the “public.” That word served as a journalistic stand-in for the architect-wannabes who think architecture, to embrace its inner Zeitgeist, must make what the actual public would consider to be goofy design statements. And the wannabes dominated the early dog-and-pony shows. Alas, Ground Zero developer Larry Silverstein and the LMDC wimped out, joined in the hosing of the public and, because the architectural establishment was already biased against traditional architecture, we got the Libeskind proposal.
Fairly early in the design process, architect Daniel Libeskind’s master plan, featuring his 1,776-foot Freedom Tower with its stark version of the Statue of Liberty’s torch amid a scrum of jagged, fractured towers (all featuring his patented “pain” slashes), won the competition. But that came only after Governor Pataki vetoed the judges’ top choice of Think, a team led by Rafael Viñoly. “I may just be a hick from Peekskill,” said Pataki, “but those towers look like death to me.” The paired pastiche towers of latticework did not even pretend to satisfy Silverstein’s practical needs. All of the late-stage finalists were stinkers. They treated the rebuild contest not as a solemn honor but as a great career move to boost their “brands.” Imagine if, say, the giant Tic-Tac-Toe boards designed by the starchitects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl had been built. Or Sir Norman Foster’s twin juking, kissing towers. Maybe Libeskind was the best at summoning the oleaginous words required to impress the powers that be. Eventually, Silverstein (who had leased the WTC mere weeks before 9/11) put his foot down, took over the design process for the Port Authority and the LMDC, shoved Libeskind to the margins and gave the job to an adult, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Childs, alas, according to the “public,” turned the building into something that could actually be built, albeit a lesser work of imaginative architecture. Shame on him!
I imagine it is this thought process that Dupré might be channeling when she asserts that many people told her they thought they were “not supposed to like” the building that eventually was designed by Childs. Now, with the building a fact on the ground, it is the sort of thing, rather, that people are “supposed to like.” At least as far as the architectural establishment is concerned. Dupré’s book will surely help turn skeptics into believers.
And One helps, too. It is no schlump of a building. Shaped from inverted vertical triangles that rise and twist into horizontal square and octagonal floorplates, Childs’s design, aside from being more practical, drinks much more deeply from the wellsprings of genuine creativity. Writes Dupré:
One World Trade Center is the color of the sky, assuming over the course of a day blue’s every shade and nuance. Through this kaleidoscopic display of refracted light and color, the tower insists on the present unrepeatable moment and, for that reason, is forever new. A gentle giant, it meets its Janus task – to stand tall while avoiding any appearance of hubris – by inviting into the surface everything around it: wafting clouds; the architectures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their ornament and angles caught in its planes; and the passersby who appear fleetingly in its story. Much like the city it loves, One’s truest identity is found in its capacity to absorb, change, and endure. It may appear minimal and unadorned, but it is not.
“For all its prismatic changeability,” she adds, “the structure itself is austere, formed of fundamental geometries – square, octagon, square – that belie its structural complexity.”
Dupré’s chapters describing those structural complexities, how they were designed, engineered and erected, are the heart and soul of her book. The chapters unfold almost as a tale of suspense. She includes enough detail about the difficulties of getting the many centers of authority involved to cooperate – from the eight stories below ground of One’s foundation up through its bomb-proof base, its curtain-wall shaft of 13,000 specially designed glass panels, and its controversial spire – that one cannot help but strive to read between the lines of ego battles and turf wars that must have blasted any hope of finishing the building on time and on budget.
The quotes elicited from the 70 players Dupré interviewed – she is the only journalist to get such extensive insider access – and the murky areas that snuggle unstated between the lines create a mounting frisson.
For example, she quotes Port Authority director Christopher Ward, who she describes as “fond of dropping both literary references and f-bombs,” who sought more cooperation in the Ground Zero rebuild. Here he is urging that they need to answer jurisdictional questions about:
how Silverstein’s infrastructure would work with the museum’s infrastructure, which would work with the retail part of each one of those components, which would deal with the Vehicle Security Center, which was the Port Authority’s – up till then there had not been a centralized decision-making group representing all of those stakeholders.
Ward’s concerns give an idea of the centrifugal forces that were somehow transformed into converging authorities. One of the most compelling forces was the demand for safety. Dupré channels comedian Chris Rock’s joke on Saturday Night Live that “they should change the name from Freedom Tower to the Never-Going-In-There Tower. Because I’m never going in there. … I don’t care if Scarlett Johansson is butt naked on the eighty-ninth floor in a plate of ribs.” After 9/11 it briefly became the conventional wisdom that as a building type, the skyscraper was history. The innovative safety features of One helped to turn that meme around, just as the superior sustainability of traditional architecture might someday end up hammering nails into the coffin of modern architecture. The concrete core that protected many of One’s safety features, plus the elevators, electrical and other systems, also held the building up more strongly. The concrete core was new to the city’s building traditions, and it was more secure than the steel skeletons that had been the main structure of tall buildings for decades. Dupré describes how the builders sought the advice of the first responders:
“You’re our client,” [former SOM partner Carl] Galioto told them. “We want to understand what you need to be effective.” Stunned, they replied, “No one has ever asked us that before.” They wanted the lobby, in the event of a fire, to be dedicated to firefighting operations, so all tenant staircases empty out into the surrounding streets, not into the lobby, freeing the room for firefighters. One elevator has a shaft and doors to ensure safety in a fire. In an emergency, the shaft is pressurized and an emergency door opens into a pressurized, dedicated vestibule that connects to a staircase reserved for firefighters.
Safety was only one of many competing interests. Another was that the height of the tower, 1,776 feet, earn it the title of tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere. Its 408-foot spire is almost a quarter of its total height – but would not count if it were declared to be merely an antenna, which is what it is. The Willis (Sears) Tower, tallying up at 1,451 feet, in Chicago, has held bragging rights as tallest hemispheric building for 40 years. Dupré deals with the spire in sections called “Spire,” “Off With its Head” and “Tallest in the Nation.” The alleged spire was to have been cloaked in a fiberglass “radome,” but it was guillotined in the value-engineering (cost cutting) process. “We would have designed the spire differently if we knew it was not going to be enclosed,” a manager of the firm that designed and fabricated it told Dupré. “It has an industrial look now, with all its trusses, diagonals and platforms exposed.” It sure does! It looks out of place on top of such a sleek building, like Marilyn Monroe performing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in curlers. Dupré discusses the debate, held behind closed doors at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, in Chicago. As the globally recognized arbiter of tallness, the CTBUH was swayed, Dupre says, by David Childs’s emotional defense of One’s iconic altitude, not by its own rules, which count spires as part of height but not antennae. Although Dupré suggests it didn’t really matter, since One was likely to be lapped soon enough in Manhattan itself, her lack of skepticism toward the ruling is disappointing. She should at least have raised an eyebrow. Instead, she opines that the decision was not about “feet or meters. It was about the meaning of height and the ideals implied by 1,776 feet.”
Okay. But where was her Deep Throat on this vital matter? No big deal, really. My wife and I visited the observation deck of Taipei 101 in 2007, then the tallest building in the world. Our visit was a couple of months before 101 was lapped by a building then under construction that is now the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. Today, One World Trade Center is two buildings ahead of 101 in the tallest tower sweepstakes but six behind the Burj. The Willis is now seven behind One and 13 behind the Burj. The Empire State Building was tallest for 40 years until topped by the Twin Towers of the WTC, whose title lasted only two years – 1972-1974 – before they were topped by the Willis, with its own run of 40 years. Not just the Western Hemisphere but the West itself no longer competes in this game. Europe’s tallest building is Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Tower, completed in 1997, and now tied with four other towers at 984 feet. They are the 129th tallest in the world, preceded by the next taller three, tied at 126th, each of which nudge out the five next shortest by less than a single foot. Is a nation’s manhood (so to speak) measured by the height of its tallest towers? Not anymore. Probably never was. (Or maybe it still is. Shh!)
Still, Dupré has been for two decades and remains the reigning queen of books about tall towers. Her 1996 classic, Skyscrapers, has been updated and reissued twice since, most recently in 2013, a year prior to the completion of One. In it she offers elegant and factually comprehensive descriptions of the tallest buildings of late and of the earliest tall buildings, reaching back to the heroic era of New York’s classic towers, including such favorites of mine as the Flatiron Building, completed in 1902, and the Woolworth Building, completed in 1912. The Woolworth was the tallest for a while but would now be ranked, oh, what, maybe 1,294th? I have no idea and probably nobody else has.
Dupré has written excellent compiliations of the world’s greatest bridges, churches and monuments as well, each edging a little bit in the direction of her book on One, which is her first book on one building – although actually it takes readers on side trips to the rest of Ground Zero, including the first rebuilt tower, 7 WTC, and one, at least, as yet unbuilt – 2 WTC, which was recently taken away from Norman Foster and given to the Danish bad boy Bjarke Ingels, of BIG – and of course the two memorial fountains that occupy the footprints of the Twin Towers, the 9/11 museum beneath them, and the PATH transit hub designed by Santiago Calatrava that looks like it belongs in the dinosaur department of the Museum of Natural History. To each of these Dupré gives in miniature the same erudite treatment she gives to One.
Many years ago, I was enthralled by a book, Skyscraper (singular), by Karl Sabbagh and published in 1991, about the development and construction of a tall building in Manhattan, One Worldwide Plaza, of 50 stories. Dupré’s One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building is like that book on steroids. For one thing, OWTC is big: a coffee-table book with intellectual credentials. And like any good coffee-table book, it is filled with extraordinary photographs.
There are lush distant views at sunset, shots of different parts of the building that – OMG! – look more like jewelry than architecture, shots from atop One or looking at One from nearby buildings, including one of One’s reflection caught in the glass of 4 WTC. There are shots in each direction of the view from One’s notable observatory. There are time-lapse shots of the building’s construction. There are detailed shots of One’s mechanical systems. There is a photo in which small massing studies of One stand as if waiting their turn to strut down the runway. The number of diagrams of the building, the Ground Zero site, the museum, the innovative structural arrangements, maps of the building, of the site … it goes on and on. Some of the sketches by famous architects who entered the design competition are, um, intriguing.
This book is the biography not just of one building but of an entire project, the most ambitious and important building project in the nation’s history, excluding perhaps only the interstate highway system. And it takes the widest look imaginable at an endeavor vital to the spiritual and emotional revival of the nation after 9/11. My opinion of the project notwithstanding, One World Trade Center is as big a book as its subject is tall. (But it will fit under every Christmas tree.)