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Why Not a Traditional World Trade Center? By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 02, 2003

There have now been two full-fledged public and official attempts, which you can peruse here, to come up with a design to replace the destroyed World Trade Center. The first produced boring and uninspired off-the shelf commercial architecture that was rightly rejected by the public. The second has swung to the opposite extreme of avant-garde weirdness, some of it probably unbuildable on economic grounds. So we have been offered two visions of Lower Manhattan: as a taller version of an office complex in some soulless Sunbelt sprawl like San Jose, CA, or as a giant’s sculpture park where the avant-garde establishment comes out to play at being radical. Neither are acceptable for what will be engraved in the national memory as one of our most prominent buildings for 100 years or more. Neither are even a city!

In particular, we do not need an un-American design for this project, some computer-generated abstract fantasy out of the ateliers of Tokyo or Milan that denies that America has an architectural tradition of its own. This is not a time when we need our nerves deliberately jangled by avant-garde know-it-alls dedicated to shaking us out of our petit-bourgeois consciousness. At a time when we have been under attack as a nation, it is appropriate for us to re-assert our national identity by means of our traditions.

Contrary to what foreign architects seem to think, New York is not a "world city" without national character that should serve as a blank slate for them to scribble on. It is an American city, with a distinct character and traditions of its own, particularly in architecture, and should be treated as such. We do not need a globalist monument to a national tragedy. Frankly, foreign architects -- unless some new Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty, is about to surprise us -- should not really even be involved at all.

What I fear most is the worst of both worlds: a clutch of cheapjack commercial glass boxes tricked out with bits and pieces of token weirdness to keep the culture-vultures at bay. To forestall this, I would like to explore the one possibility that has hitherto been blithely ignored: a traditional New York skyscraper.

New York has a 100-year old tradition of skyscraper design that has produced the world’s most memorable skyline. The tradition works: skyscrapers that are nearly 100 years old, like the Woolworth Building, are still commercially-viable and aesthetically admired today. They will probably last another 100 years without difficulty. How many office blocks in suburban Houston does anyone expect to last that long? They were built with far less technology than is available today, but surpass almost all their contemporary equivalents. Why can’t we follow this model of success?

But of course tradition is anathema to the ruling liberal establishment, which oscillates between the bottom-line cynicism of its pocketbook and its desire to prove its hipness by embracing the avant-garde. Needless to say, the establishment in New York is even worse in both these respects than elsewhere in the country.

The nice thing about traditions is that they are concrete: they have examples that can be pointed to, looked at, and evaluated for how good they are. Unlike the speculations of the avant-garde, our traditions do not demand that we commit billions of dollars to projects that look good on paper but don’t pan out in reality. Readers who follow architecture will know that this has been a notorious problem in recent years, now that dazzling computer-generated renderings can finesse the most horrible structures into looking good on paper. With a design grounded in tradition, we can judge what we’re going to get before we commit to building it.

Readers who have followed the designs that have been proposed already will notice that not one has a traditional spire, though several make botched and clumsy gestures in this direction. How anyone could miss the fact that the spires of New York skyscrapers are their most inspiring part, is beyond me. They express, in continuity with a tradition going back to medieval cathedrals, the relation of man’s earthly strivings to the transcendent. The fact that they stand on top of buildings used for mundane commercial purposes expresses man’s knowledge that capitalism is the basis of higher things and while essential, does not sum up all we are as a society or all New York is as a city. They express New York’s sense of striving, the ruthless will to the sublime that elevates it above lesser cities.

So let the tops of the New World Trade Center resemble -- approximately, there is no need for a carbon copy -- what is possibly the finest pinnacle in Lower Manhattan and one of the most quintessential distillations of the essence of New York skyscraper design: a building a few blocks from the WTC site that goes by the deceptively humble name of 70 Pine St, used as the basis for the graphic accompanying this article. This building was originally built as the headquarters of the Cities Service oil company (Citgo) and is now the headquarters of the American International Group, an insurance firm. It has, above all, the soaring quality, the sleek verticality, that one associates with a New York skyscraper. It embodies the un-ironic technological self-confidence and unashamed stylishness of roaring 20’s design. (Though completed in 1932, it was designed during the previous decade.) It represents not only the greatest period in American architecture, but the self-confident America that needs to be reasserted in the wake of the attack.

One of the things the new World Trade Center must do is make clear to all that it is the World Trade Center reborn, not just another complex of buildings on the same site with the same name. This implies that the single most iconic feature of the old WTC, the twin towers, must be preserved. So this calls for two identical towers of the design just described, surrounded, like the old WTC, with lower buildings to frame them, give them context, and provide a more human scale at ground level. The principal difference between what we could expect to build today and the original skyscrapers of this type is that today, artificial lighting and air-conditioning have made larger floor sizes economically optimal, resulting is a somewhat fatter tower. This makes them a little less graceful than pure aesthetics would dictate, but this has to be an economically-viable project if it is ever to get built, a point seemingly lost on some of the avant-garde architects in the last competition. Still, if we go to the 110 stories of the original WTC -- and we must, to prove our spirits are not cowed -- we will still get something fairly sleek.

The base of the new complex, the part that pedestrians actually encounter and where tens of thousands of people will go to work every day, should be modeled on New York’s famously successful Rockefeller Center. You know: the place with the ice rink and the Christmas tree and the Radio City Music Hall. Since the place is full of tourists whenever I go there, I am assuming it has some familiarity to Middle American readers. Its design is not really that complex, nor hard to duplicate. Its secret is relentless attention to human scale, plus enough detailing to bring the huge towers down to earth and save them from the oppressive abstraction of much modern architecture. It has the singular virtue, which is the finest thing about a skyscraper, of giving the ordinary pedestrian a feeling of intimacy with the heroic. A key advantage of its art-deco style is that, unlike stripped-down geometric modernism and post-modernism, it lends itself well to the addition of decorations, murals, and motifs, so there would be plenty of opportunities to fit in stylized American flags, heroic firefighters, icons of religious tolerance, et cetera.

Those who demand proof that this sort of architecture can still be built today should have a look at an elegant block-long office complex in Midtown Manhattan called Worldwide Plaza, built in 1989. It has roughly the same combination of tall buildings, smaller buildings, and a public plaza that is called for in the case of WTC. It is the closest example I can give of the overall effect, though on a smaller, roughly ¼ scale, of what I am suggesting. My point, as I said before, is that a multi-billion dollar project should not be a shot in the dark: we should have some idea of what we are getting. If you live near New York, go have a look at it if this question really interests you.

Now comes the hard part: what kind of memorial to build to the events of 9/11. Although I do not on principle much like the modern tendency, which began with Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for abstract memorials, I accept their validity as an expression of the mood of the contemporary public to which the memorial must speak. Therefore I propose the following:

That the footprints of the original two towers be dug down as holes, each 1" deep for every person who died in the attacks and lined in matte black marble.

This would produce two square holes 209’ on a side and 230’ deep, deep enough that one could not see the bottom when standing at the railing that would surround them at the top. People would cluster around the edges, leaning on the railings and staring down into the unfathomable darkness, reflecting on these awful events and their meaning.

This darkness would symbolize the abyss of mindless destruction, the heart of darkness, into which the world stared as a result of the attacks. It would give us a chance to contemplate, from within the safety of civilization, the nothingness that threatens to devour us. It would symbolize the emptiness of Bin Laden’s ideology. It would make us feel the fragility of civilization as we stand on the brink of destruction. It would make stark the nothingness into which the lives of the victims have been rendered. The twin holes would also suggest the mass grave that the towers’ site has become, a grave that can never be truly sealed until terror is eradicated -- at which point one might want to roof over these chasms to symbolize that the blood of the innocent no longer cries out.

But one would also have, looking down into that inky blackness so utterly in contrast to the vibrant colorfulness of New York, a sense of peace and tranquility. And a sense of the transcendent, of the spiritual depths of human existence that make tragedies of this kind survivable. I imagine a sensation akin to flying in an airplane by night and looking out the window. Or of staring into the night sky. Or of lying in a sensory-deprivation tank. Or just of dreamless sleep, untroubled by violence. Anyway, these are feelings light-years away from terroristic anger.

The symbolism engendered thus would be far more focused to the events it must symbolize that the rather vague, off-target, and generic memorials that have been proposed. A Champs-Elysee along West Street, a giant greenhouse, or a garden where the old plaza in front of the towers was, would be very pretty, but there is absolutely nothing in them that makes them, intrinsically, memorials of 9/11. Mommy, why is that nice place a memorial? Because the sign on it says so.

Whether this particular symbolism appeals to you I cannot predict, and if it doesn’t, I can’t really tell you that it should. Perhaps some will find it depressing. I can only point out that there is no way to get something cheerful or uplifting out of a horrible event like 9/11 and still tell the truth. Some things are depressing. This is no time for phony uplift. Perhaps some will find it lacking in closure. I can only point out that 9/11 was quite probably the opening shot of a civilizational struggle that may last our lifetimes. We do not need a memorial that suggests that all is over and done with.

To be frank, we may need a place like the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, which this proposal resembles, where we can contemplate what was done to us and renew our righteous anger. This is another memorial where one looks down to contemplate disaster, and Pearl Harbor is our obvious closest historical precedent. It seems to work there.

If you are one of those people who is taken with the idea of recognizing the individual victims individually, there are any number of places on the complex where one could engrave their names without spoiling the effect. I personally think that 9/11 was too much of a collective experience for the whole nation for it to be appropriate to fragment this unity into individual names, and I can only hope that the families of the victims will not mistake this for a sign of indifference or disrespect.


Notes: I would like to recognize that my proposed design for the memorial has some similarity to that proposed by Sir Norman Foster, who proposed shallow "voids" on the footprints of the old towers. His voids are partly above ground, which ignores the fact that these are the gravesites of human beings and makes them look like giant exhaust ports. And I just don’t think letting people trample on the ground of the footprints is respectful of the dead.

Lest anyone object that my proposed voids are unbuildable because of the subsurface infrastructure, in particular the PATH train tracks to New Jersey, please note that the north tower’s footprint avoids them entirely and those that run though the footprint of the south tower could be moved. These tracks were moved before, when the towers were originally built and the PATH station replaced the old Hudson & Manhattan railroad depot. The cost, relative to the size of the overall project, would not be excessive.

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