This is the second in a two-part series about the design and construction of 1 World Trade Center. Read the first part here.–Eds
Forget about the starchitects–Daniel Libeskind and David Childs–who dueled incessantly over 1 World Trade Center’s formal qualities and its poetic language. The architect who finally got the damned thing built is someone you’ve probably never heard of: Nicole Dosso, a technical director at the New York office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. From the end of 2006 until the tower’s completion, probably by year’s end, Dosso has been, as she puts it, “the single senior technical coordinator representing SOM on the day-to-day execution of the job.” In other words, North America’s tallest tower–which could easily have been the world’s tallest–is being built by a woman.
That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Think back to last year when a group of Harvard students petitioned the Pritzker Prize jury to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 Pritzker that had been awarded to her professional partner and husband, Robert Venturi. That effort was unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, the AIA gave its Gold Medal to a woman for the first time ever. The recipient was California architect Julia Morgan, best known for the Hearst Castle. Very nice, except she’d been dead for over 50 years. In the wake of these events, lots of people made arguments that women in architecture should win more prizes. My thought on this was: fuck medals. Wouldn’t it be so much cooler to have a world’s tallest building designed by a woman? The current record for a woman is the 82-story Aqua, a residential tower/hotel in Chicago, designed by Jeanne Gang.
It could have happened at Ground Zero. As originally conceived by Libeskind back in 2002, 1 WTC’s blatantly patriotic 1,776-foot-tall height would have been enough to break records. But because it went up so slowly, 1 WTC missed its moment. It is now merely number four, 1,000 feet shorter than the reigning Burj Khalifa in Dubai, completed in 2010, and marketed as “the tallest building in the western hemisphere.” (Note that it wouldn’t even hold the hemispheric record without counting the antenna as building height. The roof of the tower is at 1,335 feet, making it shorter than the Willis Tower and the Trump International Hotel and Tower, both in Chicago.)
Dosso, you understand, is not the kind of architect you’ll find spouting metaphors. She is not likely to get up on stage and compare a superstructure to a child releasing a dove, as Santiago Calatrava did when he presented the design for his WTC Transit Hub. She does not wear severe glasses or talk iterations. The day I met her at SOM’s offices on Wall Street, the 40-year-old Dosso, who runs marathons in her spare time, was effortlessly chic–more Paris than New York–in a brightly patterned Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, steeply pitched white patent leather heels, and a string of silvery pearls.
With a degree in architecture from Syracuse University, Dosso joined SOM in 1998. “I started my career here as a junior architect and I got thrown into the construction administration side of the project at a very, very young age.” The daughter of a contractor, she has spent much of her career on construction sites, making sure buildings are built as the architects specify. “I knew from my very first project that that was the side of architecture I was most fascinated with. I really enjoy the craft, working with fabrication, really understanding materials.”
Dosso had worked on a number of projects for SOM prior to September 11, including a major rehab of the 1950s office tower by Emery Roth & Sons at 2 Broadway. But within months of September 11, she was assigned to the team working on 7 World Trade Center (where Fast Company is headquartered, incidentally). The original 7 WTC collapsed late in the day on September 11 and had to be rebuilt immediately because it housed an important Con Edison power substation. Because it sits north of Vesey Street from the World Trade Center proper, the 52-story replacement was designed and built without interference from the various stakeholders who were still tussling over exactly what to do south of Vesey. SOM designed 7 WTC as an homage to Lever House, with unusually clear low-iron glass and a slender form. It was completed in 2006.
Dosso describes the experience of building 7 WTC as the best of her working life: “That building holds a very precious place in my professional career. The people I met during that project… Everybody was so mindful. Everybody’s heart was in the right place. ” She remembers the construction of 7 WTC as “bringing about a positive energy in a midst of despair.”
She insists that her next project, the construction of 1 WTC was “equally inspiring,” but the story she tells is one of daunting complexity. “My responsibility was representing SOM. There was a design, the one David Childs and SOM created. My responsibility was to insure that [the design] took place.” Easier said than done.
By Dosso’s account there were two issues that made her task unusually labyrinthine: the weirdly amorphous nature of the client or clients and the fact that the spot where the building was being erected was not a normal construction site. Generally, a construction project comes with a “clear owner and clear division of responsibility,” Dosso explains. “There’s always a point of contact. If something’s not getting solved, or a consultant’s not correcting their issues, there’s typically a person in charge. They’re your client.
“At 1 WTC,” she continues, “there were so many people. There was the Port Authority. Within the Port Authority, you’re dealing with multiple entities. On top of that, when I started on the project, the Silversteins were our clients. At some point it transitioned to the Port Authority. The Port Authority created 1 WTC, which was an entity basically to represent them. But that was another layer. And then Durst came into it.”
The sometimes scrambled lines of responsibility were small potatoes compared to the condition of the site itself: “The below grade portion of the project is 500,000 square feet,” Dosso points out. “Below ground we neighbored the [9/11] Memorial. We neighbored the fan plants [which vent the train tracks that run beneath the tower]. There were the trains. [PATH trains to New Jersey and subways.] We had retail included within our space. We had the Transportation Hub concourse, which we neighbored, that was a whole other group of architects and engineers. If you start to get caught up in all of that, you can become completely overwhelmed.”
And then there were the leftovers: “A decision was made very early on to leave these slabs, remnants of the existing WTC site. So when we designed the new 1 WTC tower, we basically had to cantilever and design around existing conditions. There was also the existing slurry wall. To reinforce that wall we had to build a liner wall in front of it, a 30-inch concrete wall to help stabilize it . . . and to reinforce it.”
All told, it took about three years for 1 WTC to rise from the excavation to ground level. From there, the next challenge was to build the hardened lobby with 30-inch-thick cast concrete walls and additional blast walls set inside the lobby’s north and south entryways. Once the contractors got beyond 50 feet of lobby and 130 feet of mechanical space–holding the tower’s vital systems–the construction process got much simpler, Dosso says, just “typical office floors.” From 186 feet to 1,335 feet was cake. Then came the 420-foot-tall, 720-ton spire that stands atop the building presented. It was delivered in pieces by barge from Quebec and the final section was dramatically hoisted by crane in May of last year.
Oddly, Dosso, when asked what she loves about 1 WTC, a building with fabulous views from almost every floor, a building she knows intimately from top to bottom, enthuses about the escalator ride to the basement: “The view from the 1 WTC coming down to the B2 lobby–coming down that escalator, you’ll approach the [Calatrava-designed] Transportation Hub concourse, and that’s spectacular.”
Dosso takes great pride in 1 World Trade Center. She tells me a story about attending a special event at the 9/11 Memorial Museum before it opened in May, pausing on the Memorial plaza on her way out and gazing up at 1 WTC from that angle for the first time: “I had to stop in my tracks for a second. I was very moved.”
“Did you look at it and think, ‘That’s my building’?” I asked.
Dosso laughs and replies, “No.”
While Dosso doesn’t claim ownership of the project as a whole–the way a design architect, the person generally credited for how a building looks, might–-she enjoys talking about the craftwork that went into it, about going to the quarry in Carrara, Italy, to get the lobby’s Larissa marble cut to specification or running steel components through the fabrication equipment repeatedly to get just the right finish. This attention to detail is what makes her a great technical director, but technical directors don’t win Pritzkers or Gold Medals. Architectural prizes are predicated on the romantic notion that buildings are works of art by lone visionaries. Anyone who knows the first thing about architecture understands that today’s buildings are always collaborative efforts.
Dosso has largely moved on to Manhattan West, a cluster of towers over the Westside railyards (just east of Hudson Yards). Building over the tracks isn’t easy, but there’s only one client, “so the responsibilities are very clear. “
Given her understated approach, her quiet competence, it seems unlikely that Dosso will soon be acknowledged as architect of a world’s tallest building, or even the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. But it’s exciting to realize that there are women, like Dosso, whose names you rarely hear, who know more about how to grow a supertall tower from sub-basement to spire than the famous guys who collect the prizes.