By Beverly Willis
Great architecture requires a great client. This truism has proved the rule in architecture since the days of early Greek amphitheaters. It takes two to create great buildings and places a designer and a builder.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority conducted an international competition, sifting through some 400 entries from the worlds best architects. This thoughtful process resulted in the selection of an exciting, creative master plan and conceptual design for the World Trade Center site. This occurred after a massive public outrage over the mediocrity of the six site plans initially proposed.
Now the city and the state need a developer that is creative. One that can implement the creativity of the selected design and provide the city with a truly world-class development.
Architect Frank Gehrys design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was a challenge to build. It was curves, angles and slopes, all more expensive and more difficult to build than a simple rectangular box. But it brought economic success to the client, the city and the region. And this is not an isolated case. It is occurring all over the world. Architect Richard Rogers cutting edge, high-tech office building design for Lloyds in London pioneered this approach. It is a different approach to commercial development success.
The 72-year-old Larry Silversteins successful career flowered in the era of the 1970s Eaton Center in Toronto, Canada, which was built by Olympia and York, and which influenced the thinking of many large developers. The formula was to build a commercial mall in a transit station where underground transportation emptied thousands of potential customers into the space, and construct a high-rise or two on top. This provided customers for the retail stores and made access to all parts of Toronto convenient for the workers of the office space tower and the hotel customers.
Ignoring the master plan created by Daniel Libeskind that places five office towers along the street frontage at Church, Vesey, and West Sts., Silverstein, in an attempt to emulate Eaton Center, proposes to move Libeskinds 1776-foot tower to a position adjacent to the PATH transit center and place it or another building on top of the glass ceiling station. New Yorkers have already seen what happened with the streetscape, view corridors, and light, when an office tower was build over Grand Central Station.
This changes the location of all of the other buildings on the W.T.C. site and hogs the transit station advantages from the other buildings that will probably be built by other developers. Silversteins proposal further distorts Libeskinds site plan by shifting the development of the site towards the Financial District and away from the World Financial Center and Battery Park City, thus eliminating the conveniences that the 1776 tower would provide to this sector of Lower Manhattan. The idea of putting a spire on top of the 1776 building, instead of using Libeskinds design, simply copies the Empire State Building, an innovative idea in its Depression-era time, but old hat today.
Silverstein, as a developer, has a right to a commercially successful development. But he needs to be creative. New York has more than its share of mediocre development. He should not rely on old-fashioned ideas that infringe upon the rights of the citizens of New York to a creative, world-class design. In the last 10-15 years, creative developers have achieved commercial success by attracting worldwide customers through creative design. New York already has too many unimaginative high rises that cling to old ideas of maximizing office floor space as their primary source of profit. It has been proven that higher rents are achieved in popular, stunningly designed buildings. Libeskind brings this type of creativity to his buildings and Silverstein should listen.
By building on the W.T.C. site, Silverstein has been given billions of dollars of government funds in infrastructure, a guaranteed source of customers, invaluable publicity, worldwide interest in the site, and the attention of tens of thousand of tourists. It should not take too much creativity to build a commercially successful project at ground zero.
The question is has Silverstein hired architect David Childs as a way to help in the development of Libeskinds creative design or to simply make it another mediocre building and site plan?
Beverly Willis is co-chairperson of Rebuild Downtown Our Town, a post-9/11 group which focuses on the W.T.C. area, and is president of the Architecture Research Institute.