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Ground Zero Sum | The Nation

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Ground Zero Sum

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Many months before America’s allegedly tallest building—the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center—was topped out in May, it had already asserted itself on the skyline, especially around my home, half a dozen blocks away. The height of the building has been the object of some contention because its uppermost 408 feet comprise a toothpick-like spire implanted on a flat top. The body empowered to confirm its stature, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, has yet to reach a final decision. The matter has become controversial because the developer decided some months ago to forgo, for reasons of cost, the fiberglass sheath with which the architect, David Childs, had intended to protect the spire and establish it fully as part of the building. Childs was so indignant that he publicly criticized the developer—a palpable nip at the feeding hand from the country’s leading corporate architect. The ludicrous and jejune controversy has been joined, waggishly, in the architectural blogosphere by discussions of whether the natural expansions and contractions of the building as it heats and cools somehow queers the calculus. Because of constant thermal flux, might One World Trade Center not actually be 1,776 feet high most of the time?

About the Author

Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin, The Nation’s architecture critic, is the author of numerous books on architecture and is also the...

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Reconstruction at Ground Zero has been a delirium of quantification from the start. The prime number, of course, is the number of victims. But the human tragedy was rapidly overshadowed by a real estate soap opera: yes, 3,000 people may have died, but 10 million square feet of rentable space were destroyed! This quick reversion to business as usual was appalling, and I joined those opposed to any rebuilding on the site (among others, many families of the victims and, most improbably, Rudy Giuliani). There were plenty of other places in the city for office space, and none of the arguments I heard had adequately reckoned with the event’s aura. Here was an opportunity to express democratic values, to create a great place of free assembly rather than a real estate deal.

This opinion has been reinforced as the first two replacement skyscrapers near completion, joining a third already built just north of the site and another across from it; a fifth is rising, the memorial is complete, and the PATH transit hub is emerging from the ground. In use and effect, the complex is a prime specimen of capitalist realism and its preferred forms of architecture and behavior. To judge these monolithic structures formally, the ratio of invention to bulk is an obvious criterion. Once you accept the minimalist premise, critique treads a narrow line. The three buildings now or nearly done are clad in identically proportioned mirror glazing (I omit the Goldman Sachs tower for the slight variation in its curtain wall). Like the NSA headquarters outside Washington, a humongous, foreboding, mirrored glyph set in a parking lot, these buildings emphasize that their business is none of ours. The two towers designed by Childs (One and Seven WTC) and the third by Fumihiko Maki (who is also just completing a miniature version of his Ground Zero work that will loom over Cooper Union as a symbol of that school’s own wasted opportunity and fiscal incompetence) are almost completely generic. Cowed by the challenge of rising to the symbolic occasion, the architects have produced buildings of neither originality nor weight. Instead, their structures seek, in fleeting reflections of sky and circumstance, to stealthily disappear. But, enormous, they cannot.

Whether One WTC prevails in the size-stakes, it’s certainly the tallest thing on our skyline and re-establishes the rhythm of downtown and midtown as the twin high points of the Manhattan mountain range. But it’s mediocre: so little return in ideas for so much time and money. An opportunity for environmental innovation, architecture’s most urgent technical issue, has been squandered: even in the venerable Empire State Building, you can open the window. In the larger site, there’s no housing, no community space, no social or health services. The arts building—its scale reduced after the battle to exclude any institution that might, through the exercise of free expression, give offense—is taking forever to get started. And the $20 to $25 fee floated as the price of admission to the 9/11 Museum is too rich, what with the hedge-fund heroes in the surrounding offices who will be stuffing their pockets with money as they look down on it.

One WTC is a truncated obelisk, a circumcised Washington Monument at more than three times the size. Like the earlier shaft, its repertoire of details is very small—not necessarily a weakness. But in expanding the shape of ancient obelisks and pyramids to the scale and uses required of skyscrapers, issues—and opportunities—do arise; this is not the solid stone and pure compression of Cleopatra’s Needle! Childs’s one big move is to shape the tower a bit by chamfering the square plan to produce elongated, vertical, triangular slices at the corners. Because of this geometry, facades must negotiate intersections that are not at right angles and are sloped, producing a crisis in fenestration: the rectangular glazing panels must become irregular (on at least one edge) to butt with their neighbors.

Corners are one of architecture’s most enduring and scintillating issues. Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, at 375 Park Avenue, is often cited for the perfection of its corner details, but one of its ugly secrets is the failure to resolve the “inside” corners in the back of the building with anything approaching the elegance of the “outside” corners of the main volume. At One WTC, the intersection of the irregular panes has been managed by covering the noisome joint with a tacky metal fascia. Given that a certain prismatic purism is the one artistic leg left to stand on in such “minimalist” design (raising the question of just how big a minimalist work can actually be), an elegant solution was the least to be expected. In its place, the ornamental “piping” that outlines the corners simply thickens at the roof line, emitting a whiff of entablature.

Many have noted the remarkable similarity of the patriotic spire to a minaret, with its turreted top and muezzin’s balconies. This towering symbol of the other, whose iconography all of this heroic skyscraping was meant to deny, weirdly had a harbinger in the weeks before its completion, when a large fragment of one of the fatal aircraft was discovered in a narrow interstice between two buildings opposite the site of the now-abandoned Manhattan Islamic Center. Blasé and paranoid, we enjoy our halal hot dogs from the Muslim vendors who ring the WTC site, yet are complicit in draconian orders of surveillance that will turn the area into one of the most intensely scrutinized patches of acreage on the planet, a national surveillance lab. It is to be ringed by bollards and protected by “sally ports” like a crusader castle, and its defenders from various policing and public safety outfits claim these features will allow for a pedestrian paradise. Big Brother as flâneur

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