A huge skyscraper eyed for Ground Zero -- and why it might soar

Blair Kamin, Tribune architecture critic

June 6, 2002

For months, the conventional wisdom about putting up new skyscrapers at ground zero has gone like this: They should rise no more than 50, maybe 70, stories because nobody will want to rent office space in a gigantic high-rise that could serve as a bull's-eye for fanatics.

But another idea has surfaced in recent days, and it ought to be debated around the nation before the multibillion-dollar, federally backed rebuilding project gets under way: Build something monumental. Not a replica of the twin towers, but a bold architectural statement that would restore a jolt of thrilling verticality to a skyline that now looks fairly uniform in height and therefore rather dull.

This view has taken hold among the architects drawing up plans for Larry Silverstein, the developer who owns the lease to the World Trade Center. The architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of New York, have quietly drafted plans for an office building that would rise at least 1,300 feet, roughly the same height as the twin towers, they revealed to the Tribune this week.

A soaring skyscraper also appears to be winning support among ordinary citizens, many of whom have joined with influential civic groups in recent years to oppose supertall buildings on the grounds that the megatowers cast enormous shadows and blot out the sky.

Consider what Jonathan Hakala of Hoboken, N.J., a venture capitalist who worked on the 77th floor of 1 World Trade Center, had to say at a May 23 public hearing about rebuilding lower Manhattan: "If you're going to put buildings on the site, build one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and please give us a skyline that will once again cause our spirits to soar."

Hundreds of people at the meeting cheered his remarks. But perhaps all of us should applaud.

Why not think again about scraping the sky, especially now that the last piece of steel has been removed from ground zero? Surely that idea should be on the agenda now that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the Trade Center site, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the city-state agency spearheading the rebuilding, have chosen the New York City architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle to draw up a range of development plans for the 16-acre site as a whole.

Properly handled, a very tall tower could complement, rather than compete with, the memorial that will be built at ground zero. It would act as a kind of campanile that would beckon pilgrims to the site. It also would make permanent the link to the heavens suggested by the ghostly vertical beams of the temporary "Tribute in Light" memorial, which captivated Americans in March and April.

This is not a call to erect the world's tallest building, a chest-thumping, let's-show-'em display of America's global economic might that would repeat the overwrought gigantism of the twin towers. Height, in this case, is less important than what a very tall building can achieve -- a poetic spiritual statement rather than a raw assertion of power.

A need for an identity

The key to making such a statement is that the identity of a skyscraper is relative. It has to be significantly taller than the buildings around it. Otherwise, it's just another urban foothill, not a mountain that commands the eye. Whatever one thought of the boxy and banal towers of the Trade Center, no one could deny their power to mark the view of lower Manhattan like a pair of giant totem poles.

"It gave purpose and a focus to that whole urban assembly," said David Childs, the Skidmore partner who is working with Silverstein. "So when it was gone, the void was even sharper."

For precisely that reason, it has been difficult to get excited about the public pronouncements coming from Silverstein post-Sept. 11. Since the terrorist attacks, the developer has maintained that he wants to build four or five office buildings of roughly 50 to 70 stories.

Of course, his caution is understandable. "People are jittery enough in New York that developers feel that it's too risky to build something supertall," says Carol Willis, director of The Skyscraper Museum in New York. "There isn't a market for those top floors. Developers are likely reflecting the still-shocked and stricken character of all of our psyches."

In the last 20 years, she adds, influential New Yorkers have turned against plans for megatowers, like the tallest building schemes developer Donald Trump has unsuccessfully floated for lower Manhattan and the city's upper West Side. "People march and say, `We don't like the shadows. Our children will turn pale and sickly,'" Willis says. "New York did not have the civic appetite for tall buildings. They had civic advocates actively yelling against adventurous buildings."

Behind the scenes, however, with Silverstein's apparent approval, Skidmore has been working on conceptual plans for a very tall tower -- one that might rise to roughly the same height as 1 World Trade Center and its sister, 2 World Trade Center, which were, respectively, 1,368 and 1,362 feet tall.

The tower also could be shorter, perhaps 1,300 feet or 1,350 feet, but it clearly would be no ordinary office building. It would contain about 65 to 70 stories of office floors, with the highest of those floors reaching 900 feet or more. Above them would be an empty vertical space, enclosed in a skeletal extension of the building's superstructure, making it visible to passersby. This chamber of air, which would be 300 to 400 feet tall, would soar ethereally toward the clouds.

An intriguing concept

At its summit, the building "would begin to dissolve like the branches of a tree," Childs said. Silverstein, he added, is "greatly intrigued" with the proposal, which calls for the tower to shift from a rectangular base shaped by the city street grid to a circular top. Childs declined to make an image of the design available for publication, saying it remains in the conceptual stage.

Still, having seen an architectural model of the design, I can observe that it's a clever plan -- a way for the developer, his architect and all of New York, perhaps, to have things both ways. You don't want to be in an office above 70 stories? The proposal doesn't go above that limit. You want a soaring, inspiring memorial? The plan accommodates that desire too.

But Child's plan is more than merely clever; it has the potential to be profound. The essence of its skyline statement would be absence, not presence, a void rather than a solid -- an idea that seems exquisitely appropriate to memorialize the 2,823 people killed in the attacks. It also turns out to be a form that architects have explored before, though not to memorialize such tragic events.

In 1988, for instance, the French architect Jean Nouvel won an architectural competition for an office building in the La Defense section of Paris with a design for a cylindrical, glass-walled tower called "La Tour San Fins," or the Tower of Infinity. The project was intended, oddly enough, to serve as a world trade center, one that would cater to French or international companies that needed office space in the capital.

The visual trademark of the Tower of Infinity was that it became more transparent as it rose, shifting from a base of polished black granite to a clear glass top that would merge imperceptibly with the often-overcast Paris sky. At 1,400 feet, the project would have been Europe's tallest building. But the recession of the late 1980s stymied its construction. Even so, like other unbuilt competition schemes, Nouvel's design has lived on in architectural books and lectures, and it now appears to be an idea whose time has come.

The rub, of course, is money. At first glance, it seems silly to ask a profit-minded developer to put a void as tall as a football field at the top of his skyscraper. Even if no one wanted to rent that space, the extra structure will surely cost millions of dollars, perhaps making the plan unfeasible. But this is no ordinary office building. Perhaps, citing the national need for a great monument to heal the wounds of Sept. 11, the federal government could subsidize this part of the skyscraper, easing the developer's burden.

Certainly, the plan has practical advantages. Because such a tower would have fewer office floors than the 110-story World Trade Center, it would not require the large number of elevators needed to ferry people to the top of a supertall building. These elevators take up room that might otherwise go to profitable office space and make such skyscrapers, in the words of structural engineers, "inefficient."

A nod to symbolism

But the principal advantages would be symbolic. By poetically connecting the earth and the sky, a very tall building topped by a memorial would build on the foundation of the "Tribute in Light" and its twin beams of ghostly blue lights shooting into the sky. The top of such a building could be tastefully illuminated from within, forming a permanent tribute to the victims and heroes of Sept. 11.

A memorial tower also could be an integral part of the ensemble of buildings and public spaces at ground zero, including the memorial that seems likely to be built in the footprints of the twin towers. Indeed, the tower and the memorial might perfectly complement one another. The tower would act as a "skyline marker" that would draw people to the memorial. The memorial, meanwhile, would open a swath of ground-level space so people could see the tower from top to bottom, as they can so rarely do in Manhattan's crowded cityscape.

Yet for all these apparent plusses, it is less important to focus on a single proposal for the Trade Center site than to explore the concept of height. Certainly, other ideas could work. It would be foolish to close off options at this point.

Filling the gap

Whatever its design, a soaring tower would fill the haunting gap that now exists in the lower Manhattan skyline. Just to the west of the World Trade Center, Connecticut architect Cesar Pelli designed the 40- to 50-story office buildings of the World Financial Center to be "foothills" to the "mountains" of the twin towers. Now, with the mountains gone, the foothills seem lost, in search of the 110-story backdrops that served as their aesthetic foils.

Some will pronounce it foolhardy to build a new symbolic tower in lower Manhattan because such a building would invite another terrorist attack. But as the federal report on the Trade Center's collapse noted, the key to protecting tall buildings and other symbolic structures rests not with a new wave of fortifications, but with better airport, airplane and airspace security.

Beyer Blinder Belle has a July 1 deadline to submit six proposals to the board of the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation. Those plans will be narrowed to three or fewer by Sept 1, with a final blueprint to be selected by Dec. 1.

There is a fundamental issue at play here: How do we creatively respond to the challenge of memorializing the dead while going on with the process of living? Are we content to diminish both the heights of our skyscrapers and our aesthetic expectations for fear of another catastrophic terrorist attack.

This much seems clear: If we want what rises in lower Manhattan to be the stirring tribute that the victims and heroes of Sept. 11 deserve, then it's high time to think again about height.

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune