The Freedom Tower: ‘An Alienating Monument to Surrender’

As a registered city planner and current Design Director at the National Endowment for the Arts, I would like to publicly address the latest redesign of the Freedom Tower [unveiled June 29, 2005]. I am writing this as a private citizen, however, and not in my official capacity.

Never in my most pessimistic imaginings could I have anticipated what we are now being shown: a tower rising above a solid concrete base with no windows. News reports claim this 20-story, above-ground base will be clad in a “shimmering metal curtain that will give the impression of movement and light.” The operative word in that phrase is “impression.” The first rule of planning for pedestrians is “eyes on the street”: windows and doors connecting inside and out. No one will happily walk past a blank wall, no matter how much it shimmers.

This is one of the main tenets of urban design taught to all of the mayors who attend the NEA’s Mayor’s Institute on City Design. It is undisputed. That a proven design failure is being proposed for such a prominent site only confirms how far from reason the security mandate has taken us.

There are many more subtle and sophisticated ways to provide bomb-blast security. The Freedom Tower’s talented architects know them. One solution would be to line the blast walls with external lobbies or shops facing the sidewalk. Such alternatives must be discussed publicly, and quickly, so that we can turn away from this dead-end path.

We must ask ourselves what it says about our nation to produce a “Freedom Tower” hiding behind twenty-stories of solid concrete. Better to build nothing than such an alienating monument to surrender. Winston Churchill said that “the American people can be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives.” It is time to eliminate this exhausted alternative from the discussion.

Jeff B. Speck has been the Design Director at the NEA since 2003. Beforehand, he served as the director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

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