Ground Zero Sum

Ground Zero Sum

The architecture of the new World Trade Center buildings emphasizes that their business is none of ours.


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.

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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I was unwilling to visit the memorial for some time after it opened. One reason was that I wouldn’t submit to the regime required to gain admission; another was that I feared I would be disappointed by architecture inadequate to the event. I finally went on an evening when neighborhood residents could dodge the advance-planning hassles. My misgivings were initially confirmed by the airport-style scrutiny at the threshold, but as I passed through the magnetometers, wound my way past construction fences and the ubiquitous cops, approached the two black canyons, and was drawn in by the sound of rushing water that veiled the sound of the highway and helped produce white noise against the distractions of the background, I was more and more moved. The voids were signifying. The design was eloquent and the execution deeply concise.

I’d expected the concept of the excavated footprints to be a too-familiar gesture. The voids have a strange ontological status, not having been dug, but constructed within the much larger void of the excavated site. Numerous entries in the project competition—ultimately won and built by Michael Arad—were, like his, such intrusions into the earth. But Arad’s had so much particularity and solved so many problems—the disposition of the victims’ names, the shotgun marriage with a landscape architect, the uncontrolled architectural periphery, the clumsy encroachments of the museum entrance and mechanical stacks, the recalcitrance of the water to flow just so, the transition from day to night, the question of what a downward gaze would grasp—that the work impressed me as powerfully apt. The conclusive move, which truly makes the project, is the “excavation” of a smaller void in the floor of the big one. Looking over the edge, one sees water roiling at the bottom of the great chasm and then spilling into the small square at its center, disappearing from view—an incredibly moving evocation of loss.

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Last summer, I slipped and suffered a fracture, which led to surgery and a long round of physical therapy. I was treated at a place on lower Broadway with windows that command an amazing view of the construction site, looking almost directly down on the oval hole that is to become the PATH station, designed by the renowned Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava. The vantage point made clear the effort, energy and complexity of the labor—never mind the eventual nature of the results, which at the time remained energetically unclear. Seeing this efficient determination, I understand the thrilled reaction of many at seeing the gigantic tower finally completed, giving them a sense of recovery and another step toward the physical closure of that gaping hole.

I often pass by the station to watch the complex steelwork as it finally rises above the surface (a process that has suffered yet another delay, this one a year and a half, and blamed on Hurricane Sandy). But there is an issue with Calatrava’s hub, and again it’s about numbers. To serve 50,000 passengers a day, the station is being constructed at a cost of more than $3.8 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $2 billion. Calatrava is purportedly among the richest architects on the planet, and questions about expense have dogged him in, among other places, Valencia, where his City of Arts and Sciences has been attacked by many (especially on the left) for his titanic fees, alleged to be around 100 million, and for the cost of the complex itself, somewhere north of 1 billion! There’s a local website,, dedicated to attacking the huge expenditure for a project that Spain can no longer afford.

This criticism fits PATH. A structure larger than Grand Central Station is being built to serve a ridership that’s less than 8 percent of what passes through the terminal uptown, and does nothing to increase the capacity of the system. I can think of three fairly flimsy arguments in defense of this expense. The first is the potlatch theory, the ritual cultural heft in willed extravagance, especially when it’s ginned up on behalf of public space at a time when public budgets are tight. The second is the notion that the flamboyant station, which is all about the value in surplus, can be paired with the austere monument to demonstrate our refusal to surrender our capacity for joy. The last is that Calatrava’s building will redress the demolition of Penn Station, that soaring masterpiece of steel filigree and spatial generosity. Thin reeds.

So what, then, of the building? I’m ready to like it! There has been an assault by a number of critics on Calatrava’s style that deprecates his skeletal symmetries and the flamboyant, often biomorphic shapes that his bridges, airports, train stations and cultural buildings have so long embodied. To me, these are manna, and I have long found Calatrava’s work to be beautiful and disciplined. It adheres to a set of structural and aesthetic logics that give it a pedigree beyond simple exuberance (or extravagance). At its best, it is refined, elegant and simply thrilling. The charge that his work is too “representational” can be easily dismissed. Architecture is surely elastic enough to accommodate such fine examples as Calatrava’s bone structures inspired by bone structures, not to mention winged forms that find some affinity with winged forms (jet plane or bird). There is something a tad wack about the disappointment of more than a few observers over the elimination of a feature of the station’s original design, which had allowed the 150-foot-high steel wings on either side of the roof to open and close mechanically to let in light and air. The structure is now less avian and more closely resembles a stegosaurus, according to David Dunlap of The New York Times, an impression I share. I am not unhappy with this result, both because the stegosaurus was always my favorite dinosaur and because the operability of the roof plan struck me as only marginally cool and, as with Calatrava’s “operable” and birdlike addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, likely to be down for repairs most of the time.

Calatrava’s train station is almost certain to be the only work of ambitious architecture at Ground Zero. I urge you to pass the site frequently to watch the fast-forward cathedral kinesis of this creature being assembled. The completed building will affront the dour math that has dominated the rest of the operations. Crowds heading to and from New Jersey, circulating turbulently through the space, will embody the unregulated mixing thwarted aboveground, with its careful zoning for mourning and money. Attentive to questions of architectural proportion, the PATH station will be unique in New York. Whether it’s worth 4 billion bucks in light of the larger scales of neglect of our infrastructure and public realm, however, I will leave for you to judge.

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