Thoughts on the Two New Towers at Ground Zero

Earlier this month, a New York Times article headlined “A Signal of Rebirth Downtown” reported that “the horizon at Ground Zero has been broken for the first time since the ruins of the World Trade Center were hauled away.” The construction heralded was a pair of white steel pylons, 60 feet tall and spaced 90 feet apart; the structures will support the canopy of the temporary entrance to the new downtown PATH station, which is scheduled to open in the fall.

Intrigued, I stopped by the WTC site one morning last week to see the support towers for myself. Getting off the subway, I didn’t head directly to the future PATH station; instead I walked west, navigating a crowd along the site’s northern perimeter. I was pretty much the only person there not equipped with a hard hat and tool belt. The furious activity around me was in the service of developer Larry Silverstein’s SOM-designed 7 WTC replacement, which-counter to the Times article’s premise-has already risen to several stories above street level.

To my mind, the 7 WTC construction (which will eventually be a fifty-or-so story skyscraper) is at least as noteworthy as the temporary PATH station entrance around the corner, though somewhat harder to read in symbolic terms. It is singular in that it will be the first of the fallen structures to be rebuilt. But the building is separated from the rest of the WTC site by Vesey Street, and its construction on the north side of the site is largely hidden from the public. Extant structures on either side of the rising 7 WTC block views of the “bathtub” from the north, and the cross street here, Barclay, is narrow and obscure. This contrasts sharply with the tourist-saturated experience-viewing platforms, T-shirt vendors, hawkers selling crystal snow globes of the towers-at Fulton and Church Streets, where the PATH entrance is sited.

Because the work on the north side of the property goes on largely unobserved, there’s a feeling of matter-of-factness to the enterprise. It was clear at least that there haven’t been a lot of journalists poking around. When I approached a security guard about taking a closer look at the construction, he immediately-and without taking the time to find out just what kind of reporter I am-attempted to broker a deal between me and a female acquaintance of his who had been the subject of a recent tabloid scandal. (Even after I explained that I write about architecture, he was undaunted: “Well, maybe you know other writers? Send them down. I’m here five days a week.”)

In contrast, the site’s eastern perimeter hums with a different, mostly tourist-generated energy. Just beyond the galvanized steel “viewing wall” (the north border is simply plywood-protected) are the two tubular steel support towers. They rise from a newly poured concrete plaza, alongside flapping U.S. and New York State flags. The function of the new construction-which to my eyes has a vaguely nautical aspect-isn’t obvious, and the Times reports that the Port Authority has been taking a fair number of calls from curious observers.

But there is one immediately apparent thing about the assemblies, and that is their very twin-ness. Framed as they are by the viewing wall, it is impossible not to feel an evocation of the fallen towers. But where some might read the newly visible construction (including 7 WTC) as an intrusion into sacred space, I see signs of something more optimistic: the beginning of the most thrilling, ambitious, and scrutinized urban development project in the world.

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