Architecture of paranoia

The New York offices of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, one of the world’s largest architectural firms, are on Wall Street, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Had the attacks of September 11 never happened, David Childs, senior partner at the firm, would have met the World Trade Centre’s new owner, Larry Silverstein, two days later in the Twin Towers to show him his proposals for refurbishing the 78th floor. Instead, Childs saw the catastrophe happening outside his office window. “The awful part is, we watched the second plane actually hit. I had rushed to the windows and I saw everything. It was a terrible time.’’

Childs, a tall, politely spoken man, would never be so coarse as to describe the events of 9/11 as a career opportunity—but in brutal terms, that is exactly what they have been. He already had a career, handling complex projects such as a new terminal at JFK Airport, or Time Warner’s HQ at the corner of Central Park. But he is now the principal architect of the Freedom Tower, the Twin Towers’ replacement and one of the highest-profile architectural projects in the world. To get there, he has played a reluctant role in one of the highest-profile architectural feuds in the world, against Daniel Libeskind.

The problem was that, in a sense, both architects were commissioned to design the Freedom Tower. In 2002 Libeskind won the public competition to re-plan the Ground Zero site: he unveiled his design for a tower with an asymmetrical spire echoing the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and a symbolic height of 1 776ft (538m)—a reference to the date of the declaration of independence. But Silverstein, as developer, pointed to the clause in his lease saying he could appoint whatever architect he wanted, and he wanted Childs.

The compromise was to put the two architects together to see if they could work out a joint solution. It was a classic duel between opposites: Libeskind the impassioned visionary, fighting the people’s corner; Childs the pragmatic champion of corporate interests. They ended up calling in their lawyers.

Libeskind likened the working relationship to border negotiations between North and South Korea. But from Childs’s perspective, Libeskind won the competition to plan the whole Ground Zero site, not to design a new Freedom Tower, which will be just one of the buildings on it. “I must say,’’ says Childs, “even though we were in disagreement, Libeskind won the masterplan fair and square, and I thought it was proper to try to incorporate it. I never really understood the 1 776 but our building, at this point, will be 1 776ft tall, and it’s on the site Libeskind originally chose. I’ve tried to do a lot of things he called for.’‘

All the compromises and forced civilities ultimately counted for nothing anyway. The Freedom Tower being built is not the joint solution Libeskind and Childs settled on. Early last year, the New York police department called for a complete rethink on the grounds that the design was vulnerable to attack by truck-bomb or some such device. By this time, Libeskind had given up on co-designing, and it was left to Childs to come up with a third design.

So what will the new Freedom Tower be like? A foretaste has been provided just across the road, where 7 World Trade Centre opened a few months ago. This sleek, 52-storey office tower was also designed by Childs, and replaces the third, smaller tower that collapsed on 9/11. Beyond being a prototype for the Freedom Tower, 7 World Trade Centre could point the way for a new generation of tall buildings. It contains a host of sustainable design innovations, but it is also one of the most terrorism-proof buildings in the world.

Its lifts and stairwells are protected by walls of concrete and steel 60cm thick—robust enough to withstand a bomb blast, perhaps even a plane strike. It has wider exit stairs, better emergency systems and fireproofing. Its office floors sit on top of a concrete vault 24m high—not a security feature but accommodation for a key electricity substation.

Its lifts and stairwells are protected by walls of concrete and steel 60cm thick—robust enough to withstand a bomb blast, perhaps even a plane strike. It has wider exit stairs, better emergency systems and fireproofing. Its office floors sit on top of a concrete vault 24m high—not a security feature but accommodation for a key electricity substation.

But the important thing is that 7 World Trade Centre looks just like any other elegant corporate development on the outside. The base has been clad in attractive stainless steel panels that blend in with the rest of the tower.

The new 102-storey Freedom Tower will incorporate even more safety features. In response to the police’s comments, it is set quite a way back from the street on all sides, and surrounded by bollards. And, like 7 World Trade Centre, its 69 office floors will also sit on an impregnable base—this time purely for security reasons. The solid core of the base will be disguised by attractive prismatic glass panels that would shatter like a car windscreen in the event of a blast.

“Remember, we’re going to have five million people a year come in and go up to the observation deck,’’ says Childs. “So it will have a lot of public use, but it will be extraordinarily secure. I don’t know of any other building in the world, apart from the Norad defence facility, that will have anything near this kind of security. Yet we’ve done everything in our power to not have it appear as such.”

Gone, too, are Libeskind’s asymmetrical Statue of Liberty references. The design is sober and minimal—you could say conventional. Imagine shaving the corners off one of the original Twin Tower blocks, so that it gradually tapers as it rises, then cladding the whole thing in glass. Childs describes it as an obelisk sitting on a base, like the Egyptians built at Karnak, or the Washington Monument. “I think the pure simplicity of this building will be seen as the proper symbol for the memorial,’’ he says.

New York governor George Pataki recently said of the new design: “It is going to be a symbol of our freedom and independence.’’ But to many, the last thing the Freedom Tower symbolises is freedom. The alternative—to build nothing on Ground Zero—was dismissed by most Americans as an admission of defeat to the terrorists. Yet the new tower, braced for disaster and infused with paranoia, will hardly ring out as a victory.

Rather, it is an acknowledgement of how dominant security has become as a design factor.

This is not a problem unique to the World Trade Centre, of course. The US landscape has been transformed, post-9/11, by barriers, X-ray machines, screening facilities—the apparatus of counter-terrorism. The fact that architects today are wrestling with how to incorporate this into designs is difficult to couch in positive terms. Childs acknowledges this: “Having not gone through wars in our country, we Americans are more nervous about it. I think there’s been an overreaction that I hope won’t last for too long.’’

Efforts have at least been made at Ground Zero to offset the new architecture against terror with friendly improvements to the urban fabric.

One thing Childs and Libeskind agreed on was that the “superblock’’ design of Minoru Yamasaki’s original World Trade Centre complex was at odds with Manhattan’s celebrated grid-cityscape. Libeskind’s masterplan reinstates the area’s original street plan, and beyond the Freedom Tower and 7 World Trade Centre, the redeveloped Ground Zero area will display an impressive assortment of new world-class architecture, sitting on regular city blocks directly addressing the street.

Michael Arad and Peter Walker won the competition to design the memorial that will stand where the Twin Towers stood; a transportation hub by Santiago Calatrava is well under way, and Frank Gehry has been lined up for a new performing arts centre. And unveiled just last week were designs for three huge new skyscrapers, by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Japan’s Fumihiko Maki.

For Childs, the majority of his work on the Freedom Tower is done.

Construction is under way, towards completion in 2011 at the earliest. If the pressure of the past five years has taken its toll, Childs gives no hint of it: “I decided early on that the best thing to do is look forward and put blinkers on, because if you read every article and debated with everybody about it, you just wouldn’t get anywhere. What I find now, having gone through all this, is that the project has got better and better. The whole thing, not just our tower. And I was delighted that Libeskind said he preferred this one to the original one anyway.’‘

Have he and Libeskind made their peace? “Funny you should ask. About three weeks ago, I was walking over to the site and I bumped into this person and it was Danny. He turned around and said, ‘Ah!’ and he opened up his arms and gave me a big hug.’’



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