IT STINKS! NEW WORLD TRADE CENTER DESIGN…
“It stinks,” I responded when my friend Kim asked me what I thought of the work to date at the World Trade Center site. “ That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it?” he said. He asked me to write about my thoughts for his online magazine.
I really do not think that it stinks statement is harsh considering what has been proposed and designed so far. Throughout the long and torturous process of the past ten years, the planners have been promising a world-class statement, equal to the original WTC. Sort of ‘a stick in the eye’ to the terrorists, if you will. The results to date seem to be just a bunch of buildings across the street from a cemetery, and a much taller, rather undistinguished building next to St. Paul’s Chapel, the quaint church that miraculously survived the attack. St. Paul’s was built on land granted by Queen Anne of Great Britain, and Andrew Gautier served as the master craftsman. Upon completion in 1766, it stood in a field some distance from the growing port city to the south.
It now appears that they may not even be able to complete all of the proposed other, smaller buildings, due to the faltering economy and endless ‘design by committee’ delays. To me, is not a worthy replacement for what had become a world-famous iconic statement. I believe it was the grandiose promises to the world that seized the forward progress. They raised our hopes up with all the publicity, only to dash them. But more of that later…
My involvement with the World Trade Center goes back to the early to mid 1990’s. I was working as an architect/urban designer with a small architectural firm in San Francisco. Our primary client, a very successful shopping center developer was a member of a team considering a proposal to buy the lease for the World Trade Center, which fortunately for them, failed. If successful, our client would have to deal with the existing retail center below the WTC plaza. I was tasked with proposing ideas for upgrading what had become a rather dated, but quite successful center. I worked on the project through much iteration for several years, and got to know both the good and the bad of the WTC. I developed a begrudging respect for it, and was very sad to see it destroyed. As a result of this work, I have closely watched the convoluted developmental process…with the greatest interest.
You have to start with what made the WTC unique, I believe there were three things…
THE BIG BUILDINGS
The two big buildings were big, really big. They were also uniquely big from bottom to top, very rare in a building of this size. Usually, they get much smaller as they reach the top.
TWIN BIG BUILDINGS
The fact that there were TWO big buildings is probably what made the WTC so iconically successful. The average viewer could identify them from anywhere. Everyone knew and came to love, or at least respect the twin towers. The twins made the WTC truly unique. There are plenty of single big buildings in New York. They are just big buildings and they get lost in what is a sea of big buildings. Do single big buildings register as special to the average viewer? The Lipstick building, and the AT&T buildings are two reasonably big buildings that should have stood out…both have gotten lost amongst the buildings around them. Two single big buildings that do resonate with viewers are the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building, but they are drop dead gorgeous.
The traffic free (and unfortunately) people free plaza was intended to create a sense of place for the entire project. The plaza surrounded and defined by the lower buildings was intended by Minoru Yamasaki to create a setting, and an entry statement for the complex, sort of like a plaza in an Italian hill town. The narrow-windowed style arose from Yamasaki’s own personal fear of heights. It should have been a wonderful people filled respite from the traffic ridden streets. I was to learn in my studies for the shopping center, that it may have been the act of locating a shopping center at grade level which forced the plaza to be raised to podium level, and destroyed any chance of success for the plaza. The shopping center at grade level allowed for pedestrian traffic that in turn would have enlivened the plaza. Forcing all pedestrian traffic to stay one level below deadened the plaza. The shopping center level below gave people access to transit, and to all the building lobbies, thus making accessible the shops, and the street, without people ever going to the plaza above. Many people probably didn’t even know there was a plaza above! The decision to put the plaza at podium level killed any chance for the plaza’s success. It should be pointed out that podiums rarely work. Few pedestrians are willing to make the trek up to the podium, hence the desolate wastelands of the WTC plaza. One recent (sort of) podium that does work extremely well is The Highline.
All the WTC buildings had a family resemblance. The big buildings were twins. The smaller buildings were all the same and had a (faint) resemblance to the twin towers.
From all the talk, I had assumed that the planning process started with similar ideas to create a project to equal the past. Some of the early schemes seemed to reach desired levels of uniqueness, but most seemed to take the bunch of buildings approach.
Daniel Libeskind’s scheme was the most successful in trying to create a sense of place, with design continuity as an identifying factor. He got it. He realized that the bunch of unrelated buildings approach would get lost in the sea of big buildings that is New York. Even though he only had one big building, he achieved recognizability among all other buildings by making his buildings in the same family of forms and finishes. His scheme would have read as a single unique complex from near and afar. He created an ensemble. Unfortunately, Libeskind was ruthlessly squeezed out of the process in an ego driven battle of architects and the developer, Larry Silverstein. The result is a sadly very undistinguished project, that will never be special. It seems to be a typical urban office park. All the statements of greatness have led nowhere.
On the other hand, happily, the Santiago Calatrava WTC Transportation Hub is quite brilliant in its arching spines and curvilinear articulation, it invites the visitor into its interior.
Two decisions were made early in the WTC planning process that are likely the reasons that it will be almost impossible to achieve a great project, equal to the lost World Trade Center. If the ramifications of these decisions had been shared with the public, it might have been easier to accept the outcome.
First, to reopen Greenwich Avenue, and some of the other surrounding streets. This made it impossible to assemble a large contiguous site to create a project that would have a sense of place, rather than being a typical, separate, block development. A bunch of buildings.
Second, to devote the bulk of the western half of the site for a memorial to those killed on 9/11. This may be most appropriate, as the memorial will more properly be a place of remembrance, rather than a place of joyous public gathering…as had been intended for the original WTC plaza.
The developers desire to create the same amount of rentable space as before, while not building more really tall buildings did not help create a more interesting project.
I think that if the planners and developers had been more upfront regarding these problems, our expectations would not have been so high. This plan seemed similar to Dolly Parton putting on a small t-shirt, not a lot of room to put a lot of stuff into.
Back to why I think the work to date stinks, let’s take a look at what has happened so far.
THE BIG BUILDINGS
The Freedom Tower, while big, is not special. It appears to be a typical 1960’s mirrored glass building perched precariously on a peculiar, rather forbidding base. It will be average at best, and will quickly achieve a ho-hum response from viewers.
TWIN BIG BUILDINGS
There are to be no twin buildings. From a distance the Freedom Tower, being only one building, will not be special…as the Twin Towers were. The Freedom Tower seems to be taking the sore thumb approach to being recognizable, from afar.
The Plaza, or memorial, while nice, appears to one who worked many years with Lawrence Halprin (who knew how to do a fountain), to be sort of static and uninteresting. These fountains, while large and apparently rather noisy, are so unnuanced, they will not hold the viewer’s interest for long. When you have looked at one of the fountains, you have, in effect, seen the other, so why linger? The park will be a nice place to sit and contemplate the tragic events, or to have a quiet lunch.
There is none. All the buildings are completely unlike one another and will be regarded as simply a bunch of buildings in a city of dissimilar buildings. The smaller buildings seem to be much more interesting and well-designed than the Freedom Tower.
I would still have to say that from what I have seen so far, this project as planned and finished, to date, is average and unmemorable, and not worthy of all the hopes and expectations that were raised. I still think it is fair to say, “it stinks.”