Friday, March 07, 2008

Soaring Toward the Heavens - Again

While David Childs' latest design for New York's New World Trade Center Freedom Tower is much improved over Daniel Libeskind's nightmarish vision and Childs' own skeleton-topped contraption dubbed "the world's tallest chicken coop," it still does not necessarily amount to the full rebuilding New York and America deserve. Gone are the physically impossible sliver greenhouse and the morbid skeleton Libeskind and Childs respectively had earlier contrived to push a 70-story office building past the height of the destroyed 110-story masterpieces. On any other lot, this simple, symmetrical design — a crystalline prism with a perfectly square base and chamfered corners dropping back elegantly as the tower rises — would qualify as one of the world's most beautiful buildings.

But can one such building replace the Twin Towers? The Twin Towers were my favorite buildings anywhere because they had all the qualities that I think make an office building great. They were tall. They did not have any setbacks to apologize for their greatness. They looked tall — their facade columns stressed the vertical and let the Towers soar. They had logical, simple floorplans flexible enough to allow for customization by the tenant. They did not have any decorative elements other than necessary due to the aforementioned four points. The Twin Towers were the perfect embodiment of form follows function. Frank Lloyd Wright modernism is wonderful for residences and museums — but the best shape for an office skyscraper is usually a box. The Twin Towers were the logical thing: If you want to make an office building the tallest in the city — make the box 110 floors. If you want to make it "so New York" — build two of them, while you're at it.

The latest version of Freedom Tower is said to have 82 floors instead of 70. Instead of about 1,100 feet, its roof will now rise to the 1,362 feet of the old Two WTC, while a glass parapet will reach the 1,368 feet of One WTC. With some good will — ignoring the facts that glass is not aluminum or steel and that visitors on the elevated observation deck above the roof of Two WTC stood higher than the 1,362 feet they can reach on Freedom Tower's rooftop observation deck — one might say that the first of the new WTC Towers will be not one inch shorter than before. This is of course the paramount requirement for a rebuilt WTC. But the requirement not to retreat from the skies in any way whatsoever is not met in a host of other dimensions. Well, if they would only build two of these Freedom Towers! (Why not call them "Freedom" and "Liberty" as a friend of me suggested?) However, the Libeskind-decreed downward spiral dictates that all other WTC Towers must be even shorter than Freedom Tower.

Deplorably, Freedom Tower supposedly will only have 82 floors versus the Twin Tower's 110. This comparison is however somewhat deceptive. Looking at drawings of the Twin Towers in engineering textbooks, it appears that they have been cheating up back then: To arrive at a floor count of 110, they must have counted the tall lobbies as multiple floors and double-high mechanical floors as two floors. Real floor count must have been more like 102. I have not seen such detailed drawings for the new Freedom Tower design, but by some simple calculations I wager to say that by the old method of counting, one might arrive at a floor count of up to 102 for Freedom Tower. So depending on how you count, the Twin Towers had at least 102, at most 110 floors (of which 92 were office floors); Freedom Tower will have between 82 and 102 (69 office floors). The remaining discrepancy despite equal height to roof is explainable by the fact that in today's office buildings, individual floors are higher than in those built 30 years ago. Anyway, where they have been cheating up in the past, they are cheating down now, in order to not scare the tenants on the top office floors, who are supposedly afraid of being "up there." What those of us who want to have an office on a cool three-digit floor are to do, has not been addressed.

In any event, authorities' claims that Freedom Tower will be materially taller than the Twin Towers are not true. The old 1,368-foot-tall One WTC Tower had a 1,728-foot communications tower (read: antenna) on top; the new 1,368-foot-tall Freedom Tower will have a 1,776-foot spire on top that doubles as a broadcasting antenna. The real-life difference between the tips of the two buildings is all of 48 feet. Only the more or less arbitrary decision of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (sounds like one more Toohey council!), the self-appointed, unofficial umpire on what counts towards building height and what does not, declares the old Tower to be 1,368 official feet and may declare the new one 1,776. Functional broadcasting masts do not count towards building height; their existence is blanked out. A purely ornamental spire however does count. Freedom Tower's spire will be both an antenna and an ornament. Depending on the Council's whim, there is a fifty-fifty chance that the building will be pronounced to be 1,368 or 1,776 feet.

Freedom Tower will have a slightly smaller footprint (200 by 200 feet versus 208 by 208). As the building tapers considerably, it will comprise only slightly more than half the office space of ONE Twin Tower. The office space once contained in two monumental towers will now be broken up into five smaller buildings. What is more, even when the last new WTC Tower is completed, not all office space destroyed by the terrorists will have been rebuilt. For a failure to effect a full rebuilding in this respect, "thank" communitarian urban planners who cry "less density" as an answer to all questions they are faced with. I guess if you ask one of them the time of day he will answer: "Less density!"

Deplorably, developer and WTC leaseholder Larry Silverstein has been no help in getting the Twin Towers rebuilt. He is only focused on rebuilding as much office space as the urban planners let him get away with, no matter if the new WTC buildings are shorter and constitute a retreat from the skies. Silverstein seems to be the man Howard Roark warns Gail Wynand against: "The man whose sole aim is to make money." A man who does not mind if a building is shorter and smaller than the one it replaces, if shorter and smaller is more short-term profitable. A developer whose end is not the best, greatest possible skyscraper, but who treats the means to an end — money — as an end in itself.

Some people say we must rebuild the Twin Towers to show that we are not afraid of terrorists. While this is one reason, I say we must rebuild the Twin Towers — terrorists or no terrorists. Rebuilding the Twin Towers would be just as important if they had been destroyed by an earthquake or a hurricane. One simply does not replace a great thing with something less great. Period.

Now, there is a controversy over whether tax money should help pay for rebuilding the WTC. Of course, in principle the government has no business building or operating office space. On the other hand, the government has no business prohibiting developers like Donald Trump from building 140-story towers via the FAA or zoning laws. Maybe the government owes New York a 100-plus-story skyscraper or two? Moreover, the Twin Towers were destroyed in an act of war; countering acts of war is the legitimate business of government. Finally, as the money has already been looted, there are much worse ways to spend it. Ayn Rand said in "Apollo 11":

As far as "national priorities" are concerned, I want to say the following: we do not have to have a mixed economy, we still have a chance to change our course and thus to survive. But if we do continue down the road of a mixed economy, then let them pour all the millions and billions they can into the space program. If the United States is to commit suicide, let it not be for the sake and support of the worst human elements, the parasites-on-principle, at home and abroad. Let it not be its only epitaph that it died paying its enemies for its own destruction. Let some of its lifeblood go to the support of achievement and the progress of science. The American flag on the moon — or on Mars, or on Jupiter — will, at least, be a worthy monument to what had once been a great country.

Let me paraphrase this: The American Flag in the sky on a 110-story — or for that matter, why not 220-story — Tower on this Earth will be a worthy monument to what can again be a great country.

Originally published on August 1, 2005, on The Atlasphere.

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