In his commentary preceding a review of three new books in The New York Review of Books, excerpted below, Martin Filler speaks to a failure of imagination and architecture at Manhattan’s Ground Zero. You can read the full review in the March 9 issue, or read it on site at nybooks.com
No urban design project in modern American experience has aroused such high expectations and intense scrutiny as the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York City. It has taken fifteen years since the terrorist assault of September 11, 2001, for the principal structures of this sixteen-acre parcel in Lower Manhattan to be completed. In a field where time is money in a very direct sense (because of interest payments on the vast sums borrowed to finance big construction schemes), such a long gestation period usually signifies not judicious deliberation on the part of planners, developers, designers, engineers, and contractors, but rather economic, political, or bureaucratic problems that can impede a speedy and cost-efficient conclusion.
For example, in contrast to this slow-motion rollout, it took less than a decade to erect the Associated Architects’ twenty-two-acre, fourteen-building Rockefeller Center of 1930–1939, accomplished without benefit of the countless technological advances devised since then. That swiftness was owed in part to the project being underwritten by the richest family in America during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce and both designers and laborers were grateful for work, but it was a logistical triumph nonetheless. With Ground Zero (the popular name for the site that emerged in the attack’s immediate aftermath), the lengthy delay reflected the project’s divided and ambiguous leadership as well as the political tenor of the times.
…the World Trade Center rebuilding encapsulates everything that is wrong with urban development in a period when, as in so many other aspects of our public life, the good of the many is sacrificed to the gain of the few. The actual and emotional centerpiece of the new grouping is the magnificent National September 11 Memorial, the hypnotic pair of reflecting pools recording the names of victims by the architect Michael Arad, and the surrounding park by the landscape architect Peter Walker.
Who was really in charge of the undertaking remained a persistent and vexing question. As the latest studies make abundantly clear, the transformation of the World Trade Center site was hampered to a shameful degree by the intransigent self-interest of both individuals and institutions. As a result, an effort ostensibly meant to display our country’s unified spirit in response to an unprecedented calamity instead revealed that communal altruism of the sort that helped America to survive the Great Depression and triumph in World War II had largely become a thing of the past. Although all major construction schemes face tremendous problems, the World Trade Center rebuilding encapsulates everything that is wrong with urban development in a period when, as in so many other aspects of our public life, the good of the many is sacrificed to the gain of the few.
The actual and emotional centerpiece of the new grouping is the magnificent National September 11 Memorial, the hypnotic pair of reflecting pools recording the names of victims by the architect Michael Arad, and the surrounding park by the landscape architect Peter Walker, which was dedicated on the tenth anniversary of the disaster. In May 2014 came the adjacent National September 11 Museum, a much less successful design that resulted from a shotgun marriage between two wholly mismatched firms, the high-style Snøhetta (which designed the trendily off-kilter exterior) and the workaday Davis Brody Bond (responsible for the awkward interiors). This doomed division of labor produced a disjointed building that unintentionally reflects the continuing conflicts over the way the 2001 attacks should be interpreted and responded to.
Three of the five reflective, glass-skinned office towers that will ultimately surround Arad’s pools have thus far been finished: the vapid 7 World Trade Center (2006) by David Childs of SOM; the equally disappointing 4 World Trade Center (2013) by Fumihiko Maki; and the Western Hemisphere’s tallest skyscraper, Childs’s One World Trade Center (2013), a 1,776-foot-tall monolith that supplants Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers of 1966–1977. Not as bad architecturally as it is conceptually, One World Trade Center is faute de mieux the best of the lot.
The chief virtues of this building—which was dubbed the Freedom Tower by New York Governor George Pataki but later “rebranded” to tone down jingoistic associations that might scare off potential tenants—are that it effectively addresses the huge open space to its south, including Arad and Walker’s memorial, and overpowers its lackluster neighbors. Though hardly an intriguing work of architecture, it nonetheless succeeds in anchoring the unruly scrum of contiguous lower structures through the sheer force of its gigantic scale and simple sculptural presence.
In the end, One World Trade Center cost $3.9 billion, more than twice the price of Western Europe’s tallest building, Renzo Piano’s $1.9 billion Shard of 2000–2013, on London’s South Bank; this is the world’s most expensive skyscraper by a wide margin.
The building’s symmetrical, upwardly tapering prismatic contours make it stand out clearly against the Lower Manhattan skyline, especially when slanting sunlight gives its four angled corners a clear contrast against the rest of its mirror-like glass cladding. If not ideally proportioned in its height-to-mass ratio, Childs’s tower comes close enough to being an agreeable composition, and is a notable improvement over the architect’s other conspicuous Manhattan skyscrapers—the bloated Postmodern campanile of his Worldwide Plaza of 1986–1989 in Midtown West (which occupies the entire city block between 49th and 50th Streets and Eighth and Ninth Avenues) and his glitzy twin-towered Time Warner Center of 2000–2003 on Columbus Circle.
Unparalleled security concerns required that the reinforced concrete-and-steel base of One World Trade Center, approximately nineteen stories high, be as impenetrable as a 1950s atomic bomb shelter. In a dubious attempt to prettify this fortification, Childs originally intended to cover it with two thousand clear prismatic glass panels and welded aluminum-and-glass screens. However, after $10 million had been spent on this decorative flourish, it proved technically daunting to execute and more conventional glazing was substituted. In the end, One World Trade Center cost $3.9 billion, more than twice the price of Western Europe’s tallest building, Renzo Piano’s $1.9 billion Shard of 2000–2013, on London’s South Bank; this is the world’s most expensive skyscraper by a wide margin.
The tower’s interior is far stranger than its straightforward exterior, understandably because of urgent protective measures. Visitors to the observatory on the 102nd floor (2.3 million came during its first year) are shepherded through a labyrinthine series of unnervingly lighted and plastic-feeling walkways and holding areas on the ground floor, where security checks are made before they arrive at the Sky Pod Elevators. These lifts propel them to the summit in forty-two seconds, while an animated time-lapse video, brilliantly designed by the California firms Blur Studio and Hettema Group, plays on nine seventy-nine-inch high-definition screens that line the cabs.
The most architecturally ambitious portion of the ensemble, Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub (commonly called the Oculus)…took twelve years to finish instead of the five originally promised, and part of its exorbitant $4 billion price will be paid by commuters in the form of higher transit fares…Astoundingly, the Transportation Hub wound up costing $1 billion more than One World Trade Center itself.
This simulation imagines how an eastward outlook from the site appeared during the past five centuries, beginning with lightly forested marshes circa 1500 and, a century later, gabled Dutch houses that pop up and vanish. In due course the skyscrapers that made Manhattan world-famous shoot heavenward and are replaced by ever taller ones. Finally, for a fleeting four seconds, we catch a peripheral glimpse of one of the vertically striped Twin Towers, which swiftly vanishes, happily without any sign of what took place. One exits from this intense ride thankful for the majestic panoramic views that extend peacefully in every direction beyond the glass-walled rooftop gallery.
Without knowledge of Ground Zero’s terrible history, Childs’s design would seem even less exceptional, just another super-colossal, shiny skyscraper made possible by all sorts of advanced engineering marvels but unmistakably a thing of the past because of its fundamental lack of forward-thinking urban planning ideas. It seems impossible to see this as anything other than a place-holder for half of what once stood in its approximate place, a feeling reinforced by the eloquent voids of Arad’s heart-rending memorial right in front of it.
The most architecturally ambitious portion of the ensemble, Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub (commonly called the Oculus), opened to the public in March 2016, though with no fanfare whatever, doubtless to avoid drawing further attention to this stupendous waste of public funds. The job took twelve years to finish instead of the five originally promised, and part of its exorbitant $4 billion price will be paid by commuters in the form of higher transit fares. The fortune spent on this kitschy jeu d’esprit—nearly twice its already unconscionable initial estimate of $2.2 billion—is even more outrageous for a facility that serves only 40,000 commuters on an average weekday, as opposed to the 750,000 who pass through Grand Central Terminal daily. Astoundingly, the Transportation Hub wound up costing $1 billion more than One World Trade Center itself.
Calatrava’s budgetary excesses were already well known among professionals by the time he received this commission in 2003. But the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC)—the joint city-state body established to carry out the reconstruction effort—had just gone through a bruising public struggle to select a master planner for the site, and in its eagerness for an architectural showpiece, it paid insufficient attention to the Spanish architect’s troublesome track record and fell for the maudlin sentimentalism of his design.
What was originally likened by its creator to a fluttering paloma de la paz (dove of peace) because of its white, winglike, upwardly flaring rooflines seems more like a steroidal stegosaurus that wandered onto the set of a sci-fi flick and died there. Instead of an ennobling civic concourse on the order of Grand Central or Charles Follen McKim’s endlessly lamented Pennsylvania Station, what we now have on top of the new transit facilities is an eerily dead-feeling, retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic shopping mall with acres of highly polished, very slippery white marble flooring like some urban tundra. Formally known as Westfield World Trade Center, it is filled with the same predictable mix of chain retailers one can find in countless airports worldwide: Banana Republic, Hugo Boss, Breitling, Dior, and on through the global label alphabet. (The Westfield Corporation is an Australian-based British-American shopping center company.) Far from this being the “exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral,” as Paul Goldberger claimed in Vanity Fair, Calatrava’s superfluous shopping shrine is merely what the Germans call a Konsumtempel (temple of consumption), and a generic one at that.
Still to come are 2 World Trade Center by the Bjarke Ingals Group (BIG) and 3 World Trade Center by the office of Richard Rogers. Plans are doubtful for a putative 5 World Trade Center (to replace the former Deutsche Bank Building, which was irreparably damaged by debris from the collapse of the Twin Towers and laboriously dismantled) and no architect has been selected. There will be no 6 World Trade Center to replace that eponymous eight-story component of Yamasaki’s original five-building World Trade Center ensemble, also destroyed on September 11…
Filler goes on to review three new books: Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan, by Lynne B. Sagalyn; One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building, by Judith Dupre; and Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero, by Jay D Aronson.
Read the full review here: The New York Review of Books