Ground Zero’s Saving Grace

By the time the new 7 World Trade Center, a knife-edged 52-story office tower made of clear “water white” glass, made its nightlife debut in November of last year, I had stopped paying attention to the ongoing drama down at Ground Zero. Not that I was bored with the subject. It’s just that from December 2003, when Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) design partner David Childs unveiled the shotgun-wedding version of the Freedom Tower—the one with the Brooklyn Bridge–inspired cable exoskeleton, the bird-eating wind turbines, and the Libeskindian torque—to September 2005, when the International Freedom Center was shoved out of the World Trade Center plans because it might encourage subversion, nothing good seemed destined to happen down there.

So 7 WTC snuck up on me. It had been an object of derision in the New York press because no one aside from the developer, Larry Silverstein himself, had leased a single floor until last December. From my vantage point on the walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge, where I run in the morning, what I knew about 7 WTC was that there was something unusual about the way the glass facade responded to daylight. The surface of the building changed color and mood the way the ocean does, interpreting the qualities of the sky. Then in November I attended a party for the Architect’s Newspaper on one of the tower’s 52 famously unrented floors. It was a cold, clear autumn night and the view from the 49th floor, lit by LED-filled balloons, was just astonishing. For the first time it seemed that this replacement for the old 7 WTC, an unexceptional 1980s granite-clad tower that caved in at 5:28 p.m. on September 11, was not just a snappy speculative building but a genuine piece of architecture.

The building went up quickly because Con Edison badly needed the two substations that had been at the base of the old structure. Because it sits north of Vesey Street, off the main Trade Center property, it was never part of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan, nor did any of the WTC site’s stakeholders consider it sacred ground. “It was a strange building because it had to go ahead right away,” Childs says. “It didn’t wait for any approvals or master plans.”

SOM responded to Silverstein’s call for a building ASAP, according to associate partner Chris Cooper, by attempting to conjure up the magic of Lever House or the Seagram Building. And the curious thing is that they succeeded. But 7 WTC is not a slavish imitation of New York’s most iconic Modernist office towers: it is a rediscovery of the extraordinary sensuality of glass, a renewal of our romance with the elemental box. The SOM design team collaborated with James Carpenter—who was trained as a sculptor but is best known for his sophisticated work with architectural glass—to, in Carpenter’s words, craft a “whole building… about the qualities of light and reflections of light.” Then the developer, at SOM’s suggestion, brought in artist Jenny Holzer to drive home that point.

According to Carpenter, the variegated ocean effect I’ve observed is due in part to the qualities of the glass. Because of its low iron content, it’s almost clear; it’s also coated with a new substance that keeps heat out of the building but is not highly reflective, so you don’t get tinfoil glare. The real trick, he says, was to “move away from the monolithic monotonous flat surface that’s typically found on building skins.” To do so he devised a system of curved steel spandrels and polished reflective sills, which mirror the conditions of the sky above, bouncing the light off the spandrels and onto the big sheets of clear glass covering the building. Carpenter also created a system to conceal and ventilate the substations that occupy the lower floors. He wrapped the base in a two-layer system of screens formed by triangular rods of extruded steel and embedded with LEDs. At night the north and south sides of the base will emit a mysterious blue glow, and the lights are hooked up to a system of motion detectors that will cause bars of light to track the movements of pedestrians along the street.

Inside the lobby, positioned behind an entry wall of blast-resistant glass and clearly visible from the new park out front (which when completed will feature a Jeff Koons sculpture), is an installation by Holzer. Her unusually tall letters—“mostly san serif type, to be right for the building”—march across a wall of glass behind the security desk at what she calls “a processional pace.” Instead of the aphorisms for which Holzer is best known, she’s programmed a series of readings about New York. “We have everything from words by early explorers going ‘Behold!’ to Whitman and on up to relatively new poems,” she says. The texts include E. B. White’s classic book Here Is New York in its entirety, a poem by Allen Ginsberg, and David Lehman’s reconsideration of the World Trade Center after the first attack in 1993. “I wanted to make a mash note to the city. I don’t know whether that’s proper or not, but after racking my brain, that’s what I came up with.”

And again because form and function in this building are effectively commingled, the glass wall across which Holzer’s type moves is actually a sophisticated blast screen, a sandwich of glass and plastic layers mounted on an energy-absorbing steel spring designed to shield the building’s elevator core and lobby from bombs.

Now I understand the message that this building, with all its aesthetic beneficence, is trying to send: Larry Silverstein is worthy; he is more than equal to the task of building the five towers planned for the WTC site. I’m not sure I’m buying. But while the building is hardly a real estate success story—although a Chinese firm has leased the top five floors—its beautiful skin and sophisticated integration of art and architecture make me feel, for the first time in a long time, that the place emerging from the ashes of the World Trade Center—ongoing power struggles be damned—will actually be a good one.

Indeed I was feeling uncharacteristically upbeat when I strolled into the Green Towers for New York exhibition, at the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City, and encountered—right at the entrance—a model of the current iteration of the Freedom Tower (yes, it’s considered a green building). Last summer, when SOM released a different version of the tower in response to security concerns, I reacted much as I did to the torture scene in Syriana: I averted my eyes. However, confronted with the large model, I noticed that the Freedom Tower had morphed into an updated WTC tower.

Childs acknowledges that the revised Freedom Tower, although it tapers at the corners, has roughly the same dimensions as an old World Trade tower, a 200-foot-square base that tops out at 1,368 feet. An extra-tall TV antenna will stretch the tower to its symbolic height of 1,776 feet (the last vestige of Libeskind). The building, once overburdened with symbolism, has emerged as something more ordinary. But if 7 WTC is what SOM can produce starting from the spirit of Lever House, perhaps they can do something equally pleasing starting from the silhouette of an old World Trade tower.

Indeed 7 WTC reminds me that architectural magic is more likely to emerge from necessity—terrorism proofing, green strategies—addressed with technological sophistication and a modicum of imagination rather than overworked symbolism and hot air. It also suggests that if we are trapped in a world where truck bombs are an eventuality, the awfulness of our current circumstances can be eased a bit by embedding our blast screens with poetry.

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