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Why The World Trade Center Shouldn’t Be Rebuilt As Before By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, June 11, 2002


I love your books, and I am delighted each Thursday when I read your columns on FrontPage. But in your article supporting the rebuilding of the World Trade Center as it was before, you overlook a dirty little secret about the towers that we New Yorkers, mindful of the world’s sympathies, have managed to keep: Almost everyone hated them.

I realize that the WTC has become a symbol of everything good about America that those bastards were out to destroy. But lest anyone be puzzled about why we almost certainly aren’t going to rebuild the WTC the way it was, let’s recall the reasons why on September 10, 2001, no one would have been terribly upset if it had been peacefully replaced by something else:

It was ugly. It may have made a great exclamation point on the skyline for tourists to look at, particularly after the neighboring World Financial Center was designed specifically to make it fit in better with the rest of Lower Manhattan, but approaching it on foot from the street, it was ugly. Most people don’t realize that those two towers were surrounded by a cluster of ugly brown metal buildings less than ten stories high. These were what you saw close-up on ground level. The towers themselves weren’t particularly attractive from the ground, just vertiginous and a little intimidating. They had banal and unimpressive entrances. And the effect on the skyline is debatable: when WTC went up, its square bulk overshadowed the marvelous old ornamented and needle-tipped towers that you can see in old photographs, like 40 Wall Street, the Cities Service building, and the National City building. And it wasn’t much better on the inside: it had narrow recessed windows you couldn’t see out of, resulting in mediocre views. Its lobbies and public spaces were decorated in a kind of high-‘70s pseudo-glamorous kitsch, with white marble, giant chandeliers, and chrome plating everywhere. It was a boondoggle. When I hear people refer to it as a "symbol of capitalism," I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was not built by a private developer, but by government, in the form of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, our local bi-state agency that’s supposed to manage local transportation facilities. Of course, in the ‘60s, when this thing was conceived, they had gotten bored of doing such things and had branched into real-estate development while letting the transportation facilities crumble. It was built as a result of a corrupt deal between liberal Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and the state of New Jersey, in exchange for the Port Authority’s taking over the money-losing Hudson & Manhattan Railroad. Its other purpose, no better, was to prop up real estate values in Lower Manhattan, an act of absolutely no benefit to the public and geared solely to enriching local property owners at taxpayers’ expense. It wasn’t even effective; development in Lower Manhattan has continued to lag, despite huge subsidies. WTC was a monument to big government, corporatism, incompetence, and megalomania. It lost money. Because it was built in blissful disregard of the collapsing office market in Lower Manhattan, they couldn’t rent all of it when it opened. More than a million square feet of space just sat there, empty. The complex would have gone bankrupt if strings hadn’t been pulled to move state agencies into it. Under reasonable accounting assumptions and leaving out government subsidies of one kind or another, (such as the entire thing’s exemption from local taxes due to its being owned by a government agency) it was a financial disaster, partly because its cost overran estimates by more than 100%. And it never had more than 5% of its tenants in "world trade" related businesses, its intended market. It wrecked the street grid of Lower Manhattan. See Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities for the detailed discussion of why a tight traditional street grid is best for city neighborhoods. WTC replaced all that with a vast superblock like something from Brasilia, which disrupted traffic flow and made New York’s notorious traffic jams even worse.

It was shabbily constructed. The inadequate fireproofing that has been reported is just the tip of the iceberg. It is no accident that tower #7, which was actually further from the impact, collapsed, while the older New York Telephone building next door did not. It didn’t have enough fire stairs. The elevator shafts were enclosed in no more than sheetrock in many places, helping the fire to spread. It was a pain to do business in, because it took twice as long to get in and out of as any other skyscraper in New York. Due to that huge plaza, you couldn’t take a cab up to the door, but had to slog through rain, snow, or sweltering heat just to get to the front door. Then you had to take not one but two elevators to get wherever you were going: a bizarre combination of a "local" and an "express" elevator that I’ve never seen in any other building. It was so tall your eardrums hurt if you didn’t continually swallow on the way up. At street level, it was surrounded by a huge concrete plaza that was alternately sweltering (as it was completely unshaded by so much as a sapling) in summer and windswept (due to the vortex effect of the towers) in winter. The rest of the time, it was an open-air zoo of homeless people. The American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City rightly records that the shopping mall underneath it "drains the plaza of any meaningful activity." This mall, which brought the sophistication of Paramus, NJ to the world’s greatest city, killed the retail life of the streets of Lower Manhattan by siphoning off purchasing power. Pigeons got more out of it than people did. To build it, they had to demolish the old Electronics District of New York, destroying thousands of jobs and a good number of homes. It diverted billions in public investment from New York’s real infrastructure needs like the subways and the airports. It failed to provide easy connections between the different subway lines that ran beneath it. It was energy-inefficient. Its windows were untinted glass, leading to huge solar heat gain. It was built with inefficient pre-oil shock technology throughout.

It is no accident that when WTC was in effect expanded by the construction of the World Financial Center next door in the ‘80s, just about every design principle was reversed: instead of a superblock, extensions of city streets; instead of a plaza, a park; instead of featureless blocks, tapering towers. Big windows, and tinted. Instead of 110 floors, 60 or fewer. And although there was a massive government subsidy (this is still corporatist-socialist New York) from the Battery Park City Authority, it was built with private money. And they lined up tenants before building it. WFC’s design has acquired a good reputation in the 15 years or so it has been up, and will probably be the model for WTC’s replacement, more or less. This doesn’t mean that the new WTC will look just like it, which would be too repetitive, but that it will be based on a similar overall design philosophy.

There exists the argument that WTC should be rebuilt as it was before because there is widespread public support for doing so and this is a democracy. But the correct criterion is not what people think they want ex ante, but how happy they will be with the result. Sorry if this sounds paternalistic and heavy handed, but there’s a reason why real-estate developers don’t take a public vote before building projects. New York’s truly great complexes, like Rockefeller Center, were not designed with public participation, but by public-spirited architects and developers. We know how happy we were with the World Trade Center before irrational emotional symbolism got involved in the matter: we weren’t. We are going to have to live with whatever gets built on a daily basis for decades; let the memorial take care of the symbolism and let’s treat skyscrapers like skyscrapers, not monuments.

Frankly, most of the ideas for rebuilding WTC that have been circulating in magazines and in various contests are so ridiculous that one hopes the architects and civilians who submitted them were not serious. The big hole in the center of the world’s greatest city has tempted a lot of flakes to paint in their own fantasies, fantasies that utterly ignore the urbanistic realities of the project while indulging weird artistic gestures. Some of these designs are even impossible to build with current technology. My favorite example is the one that looked like flying blobs of jello impaled on 1000-foot spikes.

There is also the issue that if we rebuild WTC as before, we might as well paint a giant bullseye on it. Even if we wipe al-Qaeda off the face of the earth, it would clearly be the ultimate target for anyone wanting to make a spectacularly nasty point. We should also resist the attempt of various liberal members of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to trump up public support for a center for research in "tolerance and diversity," i.e. in how we big bad Americans can avoid deserving another 9/11. (The Left always tries to sneak its agenda into everything.)

And there is the small question of money: this is not just a big project, it is huge. It is as big as the entire downtown of a good-sized American city. It is not enough for the insurance proceeds and government money to be available for rebuilding. There must be paying tenants to fill it when it is finished, or it will be a monster boondoggle. The New York office market does not look strong enough for the foreseeable future to support 8 million square feet of new office space.

The architectural firm that has been hired to do the urban planning part of rebuilding is Beyer, Blinder, Belle of New York. I know this firm, having been a community liaison to them on another project. Their most famous project is the universally acclaimed restoration of New York’s Grand Central Station a few years ago. They have a traditionalist approach to urban design and will almost certainly produce a plan that will knit whatever gets built back into the intricate fabric of Lower Manhattan and create lively, dignified and user-friendly public spaces that form a part of the city, not a chilly enclave like the old WTC. The architect hired to design the replacement for tower #7, the first to be rebuilt though a late addition to WTC and across the street from the main complex, is David Childs of the New York firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. His most famous other building is Worldwide Plaza, a brawny yet elegant neo-traditional skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. He can be trusted to give us something that is exciting but harmonizes and fits in with Manhattan’s splendid traditional urban fabric. For the rest of the complex, SOM has suggested a 70-story building with a skeleton framework up to the 100th floor, but I doubt if this will actually be built, if only because of the cost of building 30 stories of non-rent-producing space.

Sick irony or no, al Qaeda has given New York a chance to correct one of its great urban-planning mistakes. If they had blown up our wretched Penn Station, we would not be demanding that it be rebuilt as it was. It would be a pity to waste this opportunity rebuilding something that we know, in our heart of hearts, was a mistake top begin with.

Note: Here’s what New York’s premier architectural critic at the time, Ada Louise Huxtable, had to say about the World Trade Center when it opened:

"The towers are pure technology, the lobbies are pure schmaltz, and the impact on New York... is pure speculation. In spite of their size, the towers emphasize an almost miniature module... The module is so small, and the 22-inch wide windows so narrow, that one of the miraculous benefits of the tall building, the panoramic view out, is destroyed... These are big buildings but they are not great architecture. The grill-like metal facade stripes are curiously without scale... The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster. It is General Motors Gothic." (excerpted from Stern, Mellins & Fishman, New York 1960.)

Note #2: Don’t even get me started about fellow FrontPage columnist J.P. Zmirak’s preposterous suggestion that Pennsylvania Station be rebuilt on the site of the World Trade Center. Train stations have to go where train tracks are, John. Not to mention the fact that they’ve already started rebuilding it at 33rd Street and 8th Avenue, where it belongs.

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