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?
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.