NYC: Fascist architecture for Ground Zero

Well, the (supposedly) final design for the “Freedom Tower” that is to rise where the World Trade Center stood has been unveiled after a long, tortuous process. And the design, a brutalist product of politics and paranoia without even a whiff of human spirit, renders the tower’s name more Orwellian than ever. Such a ghastly construction can only be understood in the context of the new anti-terrorist police state; indeed, this is probably the first major public building explicitly designed under the direct influence, and with the veto power, of a city police department.

The original design by Daniel Libeskind was chosen over two years ago in a pseudo-democratic process with lots of public commentary, but all decision-making power in the hands of the Lower Manhattan Devlopment Corporation (LMDC), the joint city-state authority created to oversee reconstruction of Ground Zero. Libeskind’s design was pretentious and hubristic (a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, making New York again home to the highest building on Earth, an honor lost to Chicago’s Sears Tower in 1973, just after the WTC was completed, and currently held by Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, assuming you count by highest point and not highest occupied floor), but also had certain redeeming distinctions included for the sake of symbolic claims (a garden-in-the-sky in the glass-enclosed lattice-like upper stories, an off-center spire mimicking the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm), which won it the support of 9-11 survivors’ groups, and therefore a certain moral authority. In a cynical bait-and-switch, the LMDC, while making a pretense of holding to Libeskind’s popular design, actually brought in the firm Skidmore Owings (one of Libeskind’s own competitors in the 2002 design competition, and an early conceptualizer of the original WTC) to tweak his plan almost beyond recognition, eliminating most of the distinctions in favor of utilitarian concerns such as communications gear, a transporation hub and (of course) office space. Then, last month, just as construction was set to begin (despite litigation and acrimony), the NYPD weighed in, saying the new design failed to meet security concerns and was too vulnerable to terrorist attack. The LMDC and Gov. Pataki sent Skidmore Owings back to the drawing board, this time on an unreasonable timetable, and now the result is before the public: an appalling mediocrity which is possibly even uglier than the original Twin Towers.

The new design is a single tower somewhat redolent of one-half of the the original twins: an uninspiring block jutting into the sky, exuding only defiance and ambition, without a trace of art or imagination. There are only two significant differences. One is the addition of a spire–which is now centered, abandoning the homage to Lady Liberty. A central spire could at least carry a phallic power if the building were tapered at the top, like the Empire State or Chrysler buildings. Instead, it sits atop a simple monolithic block, conveying only artificiality. The second is the tapered corners in the building’s facade (the walls are actually long interlocking triangles rather than rectangles), making it a little broader at the giant concrete-reinforced, supposedly terrorist-proof base than at the top, but still a (just slightly imperfect) block rather than a phallus–a token sop to post-modernism and the last mocking shadow of the Libeskind design, with its idiosyncratic geometry.

This design is so obviously the architectural manifestation of the new post-9-11 security state that even the New York Times, usually a booster of Downtown redevelopment efforts, calls it out in a prominent Metro section analysis today, “A Tower of Impregnability, the Sort Politicians Love,” by Nicolai Ouroussoff that actually invokes the official Nazi architect Albert Speer. We present excerpts here–although we should note that the lead editorial in that same edition hails the design as a “A Better Tower,” reflecting the bitter contention over the plan in New York’s high places.

The darkness at ground zero just got a little darker. If there are people still clinging to the expectation that the Freedom Tower will become a monument to the highest American ideals, the current design should finally shake them out of that delusion. Somber, oppressive and clumsily conceived, the project suggests a monument to a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness. It is exactly the kind of nightmare that government officials repeatedly asserted would never happen here: an impregnable tower braced against the outside world.

The new design by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is a response to the obvious security issues raised by the New York Police Department, specifically the tower’s resistance to car and truck bombs. The earlier twisted-glass form, a pastiche of architectural visions cobbled together from Daniel Libeskind’s master plan and various Skidmore designs, lacked grace or fresh ideas. The new obelisk-shaped tower, which stands on an enormous 20-story concrete pedestal, evokes a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top. (The toothpicklike spire was added so that the tower would reach its required height of 1,776 feet.)

The temptation is to dismiss it as a joke. And it is hard not to pity Mr. Childs, who was forced to redesign the tower on the fly to meet the rigid deadline of Gov. George E. Pataki. Unfortunately, the tower is too loaded with meaning to dismiss. For better or worse, it will be seen by the world as a chilling expression of how we are reshaping our identity in a post-Sept. 11 context.

The most radical design change is the creation of the base, which will house the building’s lobby and some mechanical systems. Designed to withstand a major bomb blast, the base will be virtually windowless. In an effort to animate its exterior, the architects say they intend to decorate it in a grid of shimmering metal panels. A few narrow slots will be cut into the concrete to allow slivers of natural light into the lobby.

The effort fails on almost every level. As an urban object, the tower’s static form and square base finally brush aside the last remnants of Mr. Libeskind’s master plan…

[I]f this is a potentially fascinating work of architecture, it is, sadly, fascinating in the way that Albert Speer’s architectural nightmares were fascinating: as expressions of the values of a particular time and era. The Freedom Tower embodies, in its way, a world shaped by fear.

At a recent meeting at his Wall Street office, Mr. Childs tried to deflect this criticism by enveloping the building in historical references. The height of the tower minus its spire (1,368 feet) matches the height of the taller of the former World Trade Center towers and is meant to re-establish a visual relationship to the nearby World Financial Center, which was exactly half that height. The fortresslike appearance of the base was partly inspired by the Strozzi Palace in Florence, the relationship between the base and the soaring tower by Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture.

But the tower has none of the lightness of Brancusi’s polished bronze form, let alone its sculptural beauty. And the Strozzi Palace’s rough stone facade is beautiful because it is a mask: once inside, you are confronted with a courtyard flooded with light and air, one of the Renaissance’s great architectural treasures. What the tower evokes, by comparison, are ancient obelisks, blown up to a preposterous scale and clad in heavy sheaths of reinforced glass – an ideal symbol for an empire enthralled with its own power…

All of this could be more easily forgiven if it were simply due to bad design. But ground zero is not really being shaped by architects; it is being shaped by politicians. Soon after the new security requirements were announced, it became clear that the entire building would have to be redesigned. That could have been seen as a last chance to repair what had become a confused master plan, one that had little connection, except in the minds of Mr. Libeskind and Governor Pataki, to the original. Instead, the quality of the master plan has been sacrificed to the governor’s insistence on preserving hollow symbolic gestures.

Absurdly, if the Freedom Tower were reduced by a dozen or so stories and renamed, it would probably no longer be considered such a prime target. Fortifying it, in a sense, is an act of deflection. It announces to terrorists: Don’t attack here – we’re ready for you. Go next door.

A particularly perverse irony is that this totalitarian architectural monstrosity that even causes the staid New York Times to invoke the Nazis will bear the name of Libeskind, whose prior claim to fame was designing Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Just to make the eerie poetry complete, the Berlin museum’s Holocaust exhibit was set to open on Sept. 11, 2001 (as the Times noted on April 14, 2004).

See our last post on the Ground Zero debacle.

  1. World’s tallest building?
    There is already contention about what it really is. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur are generally held to have the honor, but if you include decorative spires, then the almost-completed Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan is the world’s tallest building. If you are willing to concede the honor just to a spire, without inhabitable floors, then it goes to Toronto’s CN Tower, at 1,815 feet. (

    What nobody seems to notice is that even if the Freedom Tower brings the glory back to New York it won’t be for long. Something even bigger—a mind-boggling 2,400 feet—is currently under construction: the Burj Tower in (oh, the shame!) Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates! (BBC, Dec. 9, 2004)

    So much for a symbolic re-assertion of American pre-eminence!