How Security Concerns And Developers Undermined The Design Of 1 World Trade Center

The first of two parts: The skyscraper we thought we were building is completely different from the one we actually built.

If you stand on the 57th-floor terrace of 4 World Trade Center, the Fumihiko Maki-designed office tower southeast of the National September 11 Memorial in New York, you can see the graceful way the beveled edges of the 104-story 1 World Trade Center coax the building to taper. Gaze up at 1 WTC from the corner of Fulton and William Streets in Lower Manhattan, and 1 WTC, framed by the old, low streetscape, looks powerfully imposing. Seen from the Jersey Meadowlands, it takes on the landmark quality that the old Twin Towers had. At night, viewed from a distance, you’ll notice randomly placed lights twinkling mysteriously within. From certain perspectives, 1 WTC is not half bad.


What you don’t want to do, however, is look at it up close. It isn’t just that the building is still surrounded by a barbed wire topped construction fence (something that will presumably go away before the end of the year, when 21 floors fill with Conde Nast employees). It’s that the base itself looks wrong. For one thing, it’s a 15-story-tall blast proof bunker trying very hard to pretend that it’s not. In 2005, when the New York Police Department demanded that the tower be fortified against potential truck bombs, Skidmore Owings and Merrill partner David Childs devised a sophisticated vertical array of glass prisms intended to bring daylight into the lobby. The prisms proved to difficult to manufacture, so the Durst Organization, which joined the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (developer of the original World Trade Center) as co-developer in 2010, made changes in the design.

The end result is an opaque box covered with glass fins, like a jalousied porch writ very, very large. Worse is the fact that Childs’s most elegant design gesture, a base that tapers toward the ground, mirroring the way the tower tapers toward the sky, got covered over when the building was clad. Hiding angles that had already been constructed was, apparently, easier than making the detailing on the base properly match the detailing on the tower. As a result, the architectural language comes to an abrupt halt 185 feet in the air, and the tower is planted on a pedestal that appears to belong to some other building. In effect, there are two towers.

“I think they’ve been few and minor,” is what Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority said of the changes. Durst (best known as developer of the current Conde Nast headquarters in Times Square, and the new Bjarke Ingels-designed apartment complex on W. 57th Street), denied tweaking to save money–a practice generally known as “value engineering.” David Dunlap of the New York Times pointed out that the developer’s contract allowed it to recoup a percentage of savings from the design changes it initiated. Business as usual, right?

Except this was not supposed to be the usual New York City building, shaped to suit a developer’s financial model. Those of us who watched the design process from the beginning remember a different building, one that was molded by the powerful emotions that permeated just about everything in the aftermath of September 11. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (an agency set up to rebuild the World Trade Center site and the surrounding neighborhoods) launched its Innovative Design Study–an architectural competition that was not supposed to be a competition–in August of 2002, as an attempt to come up with an approach to rebuilding that was powerful enough to galvanize a traumatized city (and nation).

Arguably, Daniel Libeskind won the job of Ground Zero’s master builder through his command of emotionally charged language. When Libeskind first presented his concept to a packed house at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden in December 2002, he appealed directly to the viscera: “I arrived by ship to New York as a teenager,” Libeskind declared, “an immigrant, and like millions of others before me, my first sight was the Statue of Liberty and the amazing skyline of Manhattan…” He went on to describe “towering spire of 1776 feet, a “Park of Heroes” and a “Wedge of Light.” His presentation was pitch perfect, while the design itself was unorthodox. He envisioned the tower as “a park standing vertically.” The idea was that the office space would only go to the 64th floor and the rest would be greenery “because gardens are a constant affirmation of life.”

By the time Libeskind won the non-competition, in February 2003, his design had been substantially reined in. The high-rise gardens were gone and his building had become a more conventional skyscraper with an off-center spire that was supposed to somehow evoke Lady Liberty’s torch. The triumphant Libeskind spoke of a tower that would be “reaching toward the unfathomable.” Mayor Bloomberg, at the same event, said the new WTC would be “a beacon to people around New York seeking opportunity and freedom.” Two months later, Governor George Pataki added another layer of rhetoric when he named Libeskind’s skyscraper “the Freedom Tower.”


Meanwhile, developer Larry Silverstein (who had leased the original World Trade Center from the Port Authority in July of 2001) was working with architect Childs on a rather different–but no less meaning-laden version of the building. Childs came up with a tower topped by an open air cabled superstructure–inspired, supposedly, by the Brooklyn Bridge–that was filled with wind turbines. Libeskind and SOM were then forced to collaborate on the Freedom Tower and a new design was released in late 2003 accompanied by a breathless press release: “Today we reclaim New York’s skyline with a towering beacon to New York and our nation’s resilience,” said Governor George E. Pataki. ‘The Freedom Tower will be a proud new symbol of our country’s strength–and a monument to our two lost icons.”

The tower that we see today, however, was the outgrowth of a wholesale redesign. Released in 2005, it is less a reach for the unfathomable and more a response to the NYPD’s demand for better bomb-proofing. Drawn by SOM sans Libeskind, it features an “almost impermeable” concrete and steel pedestal. As the Times noted, “the torqued form and asymmetrical spire recalling the Statue of Liberty” were gone, as were the open cable structure and the turbines. The design still had some geometric flare, but the crazy exuberance was gone.

The Freedom Tower name was officially banished in 2009, when the Port Authority said: “As the building moves out of the planning stage and into full construction and leasing… it is most practical to market the building as One World Trade Center.” At that moment the beacon to resilience effectively became just another office tower, one with a lot of floors to fill.

Today, 1 WTC is being leased by Durst and real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield. Asking price: $69 a square foot below the 64th floor sky lobby, $80 to $100 above. This is substantially higher than the $49 per square foot average for Lower Manhattan, and the below-the-sky-lobby price reflects a recent 10% discount for the building which is approximately 58% leased. A Durst executive did not wish to be quoted in this piece. He explained that the company has ” a general policy of keeping a low profile around the building [on] September 11.” Durst, he said, prefers to “cede that day to the history of the site.” You can read that either as a gesture of respect or as an indication of the rift between what the building was supposed to be–Childs once called it a “marker of the 9/11 memorial on the skyline“–and what it’s become.

The language on the leasing website is pure marketing-speak: “The office building and floors are flexible, adaptive and robust…” The building is designed to be energy-efficient, minimize waste, and recycle storm water to meet the LEED standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. The floor plates are column-free and flooded with daylight. Animated walk-throughs show generous open-plan offices with great views. The only hint you might get of the building’s provenance is in a brief section headed “Life Safety Features.” There you’ll discover that the new 1 WTC features structural redundancy, a reinforced concrete core, extra wide pressurized egress stairs and emergency generators.

There are two towers, the Freedom Tower and the Office Tower. There’s the monument we set out to building in aftermath of 9/11, and the commercial high-rise that is now nearing completion at the corner of Vesey and West Streets. In 2004, Daniel Libeskind, immersed in his battle with SOM, told me: “Every building, every shop front, every tree on this site is meaningful and people will see it as meaningful because this is Ground Zero.” That, however, no longer seems to be the case. We’re not even supposed to call it Ground Zero anymore. 1 WTC is a state of the art, Class A commercial tower, that is doing its best to distance itself from meaning. Or, as the headline on the splash page of the site says: “Join Conde Nast at the best office address in the world.”


About the author

Karrie Jacobs is a professional observer of the man-made landscape. She's a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and Architect magazine and is a faculty member at SVA's graduate program in Design Research