Volume 18 • Issue 8 | July 15-21, 2005

Talking Point

Changes for the worse at the Freedom Tower

By David Stanke

Every major landmark architectural project should carry a shadow name, the name that captures its essence more directly than the marketing name created by its advocates. The Freedom Tower for the W.T.C. is such a landmark. The name Freedom was a stretch from the day Pataki put the label on Daniel Libeskind’s unworkable design. Now, after numerous dramatic revisions, the name and 1,776-foot height are the only original aspects of the tower still in place. The shadow name for this building calls out from behind its armored base — welcome to the Feardom Tower. And in honor of the person most influential in instigating the current redesign, the Bloomberg Feardom Tower bestows proper credit.

As much as this building needs to be built quickly, it needs one more revision to fulfill its promise. The design presented two weeks ago has broken long held constraints, especially the limits on actual building height. This alone opens possibilities that did not exist two years ago. Unfortunately the incentive for these changes is an ill-defined demand for enhanced security. This demand was driven in the heat of Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to get the West Side Jets stadium approved. Once the stadium was rejected, Mayor Bloomberg could not back off his accusations that the design was unacceptably vulnerable to attack. In response, David Childs has created a building that meets a narrow definition of security at great cost to the vitality of the surrounding areas. The top of the building is fine, but the bottom 200 feet is a problem.

Two design changes were implemented to enhance security. First the building shape at base was changed from a parallelogram to a square. This created a greater separation between the building and West St., in theory protecting it from car bombs. Next, the structure at the base of the building has been hardened, with metal plates installed on the outside for the first 200 feet of the structure.

The new design has interesting parallels to the design of one of the first ironclad battle ships in the civil war, the Merrimack. To protect the Merrimack from canons, the designers took a standard battleship and applied metal plates, not exactly revolutionary thinking. The Merrimack was sunk in its first battle against the Monitor, an ironclad ship with a more inventive design. The Monitor had a reduced profile making it more mobile and harder to hit. It had a single swinging canon instead of multiple fixed position canons, so it could fire on target from any position.

To provide real security for the Freedom Tower, W.T.C. site planners should drop the metal plating from the building and instead eliminate vehicular traffic from the W.T.C. site. This would mean no traffic on the north and south sides and allow the building to be built further from West St. Whatever the experts in the N.Y.P.D. are telling us, their actions demonstrate that building safety is most enhanced by securing the area around the building. That is why all streets around the New York Stock Exchange have been closed and search outposts have been implemented on Broadway. Consider police headquarters Downtown. All vehicular access adjacent to One Police Plaza has been prohibited for almost four years. It is interesting that the police do not allow traffic near their building, a low priority terrorist target, but the city demands traffic be allowed through the W.T.C. site.

The Twin Towers were easily protected against car bombs in the aftermath of the first attack. So they were attacked with airplanes. In fact, the Twin Towers were more protected than the Freedom Tower will be. No vehicles could approach the Twin Towers without being searched.

Not only has a lot of money been sunk on security schemes of limited effectiveness, the changes have damaged the street level experience of the area. The Freedom Tower will now join the new 7 W.T.C. with solid, forbidding walls reaching a number of stories off ground level. Neither building will have street level retail. Combining these buildings with the Verizon building, also void of retail, and the whole northwest corner of the site will become a pedestrian dead zone, useful only as a path from one side to another. These streets will be as void of vitality as they were pre-9/11.

While the street grid with square buildings works well for much of Manhattan, it is not the most creative urban design. Inviting places in the city with very interesting architecture, take place where the grid is broken and alternate design opportunities are revealed. Examples include Columbus Circle, the Flatiron building, and Lincoln and Rockefeller Centers. Even the Village, with its unpredictably confused street patterns provides an interesting pedestrian experience. A parallelogram Freedom Tower with spacious setbacks and no vehicular traffic would establish a creative street level experience with various retail possibilities. The current Freedom Tower design falls back into “square block, square building” paradigm, a less interesting alternative with limited improvement in security.

Fear is the emotion that, in time of danger, knocks people out of rational analysis of risks and responses. It pushes people to take actions that make them feel better, even if they fail to alleviate the danger. The new Freedom Tower may reduce people’s level of fear with its titanium walls, but it won’t increase their safety.

From a strictly psychological perspective, the Freedom Tower will be a constant reminder that the city is under attack. Talk all you want about shimmering metal walls and the feeling of lightness they will create. The outer shell of the Freedom Tower will not hide the reality that its walls are the invocation of fear embedded in the building. They do not provide real safety. My guess is that by the time this building is completed and on the market, it will be an anachronism, poorly designed for a war that is already over.

And so we have the Feardom Tower: an ironclad monstrosity paying tribute to the danger of city planning and urban design by democratic (read political) processes. I’m sure developer Larry Silverstein will build whatever he can get through the gauntlet of W.T.C. design. He will even bear the costs of meaningless symbolism and futile security, simply to get a commercial building in play. The path to this Freedom Tower is so convoluted that we’ll be reading books about it for as long as 9/11 has any meaning to us; from its origins as a building by an architect who doesn’t build tall buildings, to a forced marriage of two architects struggling for design control, to a developer and an architect dancing to the whims of public bureaucrats. Great projects have a single driver using a single architect/designer to fulfill consistent vision. Unfortunately, this project is not so simple. Perhaps it is worth taking some time for one more try. But then, it isn’t my money at stake.

David Stanke lives across from the World Trade Center site and frequently writes about Lower Manhattan rebuilding.

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