Freedom deserves better
New York's "Freedom Tower"
June 29, 2006
The latest design of the Freedom Tower to be built at New York’s “ground zero” was just unveiled. The original plan, created by Daniel Libeskind, called for a series of angular buildings with one rising significantly above the rest, its spire reaching 1776 feet -- the height, a gesture to the date of the signing of the US Declaration of Independence. In his plan, the lone tower and spire evoked the Statue of Liberty, freedom conquering tragedy.
Libeskind belongs to the school of Post-Modern architects that are collectively referred to as Deconstructivists -- a group whose movement was in part based on the philosophies of the Frenchman Derida. These architects looked back at the Modernism of the 1930-50’s and saw it too bland -- they experimented with a collage of often angular fragments, at times with no relationship to the context in which they were being built. The word Deconstructivist itself is a counterpoint to the Russian Constructivist movement of the early 20th century, which ran almost parallel to the German Bauhaus, the latter being the source of architects like Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. These two architects moved to the US to escape Nazism and led the evolution of Modernism in architecture.
Libeskind became known to the world outside of academia when he won the competition to build the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 1989. There he “deconstructed” a Star of David, clad it in zinc and pierced it with irregular cuts as openings for light - an abstraction of the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. I visited the museum in 2004 and while my own architectural tastes lie outside of deconstructivism as "the" guiding principle, here I think Libeskind’s ideas worked -- especially as one views the building from the outside. Inside there are some quite powerful spaces but, for me, there was too much, and mostly artificial, light for a place that I thought needed to be subdued. The best space is a variation of a grove of trees adjacent to the structure.
Libeskind’s design for the World Trade Center site was chosen among several entries submitted by some of today’s most renowned architects. My favorite was by the team called Think, comprised of Rafael Vinoli, Shegiru Ban, Ken Smith and Fredric Schwartz. They proposed two “transparent” steel frame towers (structured not unlike the Eiffel Tower), using the same height and proportions as the WTC Towers, within which several public spaces were “suspended”. Having said that, Libeskind’s original design was very strong -- his angular language bringing new life to the site.
Libeskind wanted to leave the retaining wall, which holds back the water, exposed as a visible symbol of strength. He had some idea about the light of the sun on September 11th illuminating the memorial garden a certain way every year (unfortunately his team assumed that there were no surrounding buildings!). And, as I mentioned before, he wanted to establish a dialogue between the new Tower and the Statue of Liberty seen across the water. He was trying to make an architecture that had a meaning beyond just providing unnecessary office space - trying to tap into the ideals that made America, while at the same time, respecting the life of the thousands that perished. Architecture that is poetic can be transformative not only on a physical but a metaphysical level.
And now for something completely different: most large-scale projects often get bogged down in politics and money. It’s a complicated story but even though Libeskind is still the Master Planner for the project, the developer of the site had his own architect and the building, as it will be built, will not look anything like the winning scheme -- with exceptions of the height, 1776 feet, and the spire. The new Tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is much more conservative and its spire rises from the center of the roof: however, the overall shape has now been refined and is no longer a plane box that SOM had proposed earlier.
The other major factor in this project was the concern for security which resulted in a 187-feet high bomb-proof concrete base that will now be clad in prismatic glass to soften its effect for the people in the plaza.
Many of the other planed structures for the site have also run into problems not the least of which being the rising cost estimates. The memorial, which consists of two pools where the two Towers were, will be built, but some of its elements have been deleted. The only project for the general area which is on schedule and has gone forward without much debate is the simply beautiful PATH station designed by Santiago Calatrava -- having seen some of his bridges and buildings in Spain, I think this will be his best work to date by far.
In sum the new Freedom Tower will be a static yet handsome building that could be anywhere - it could have, and perhaps should have, been much more.