New York's Freedom Tower fails to live up to its lofty name - John King Thursday, July 7, 2005
So this is what it comes down to: 20 stories of windowless fear.
And a symbol of "freedom" that, with its scared posturing and unprincipled self-interest, is everything that freedom should not be.
Perhaps I shouldn't put such significance on a tower design that may never be built, but anyone who has followed the saga of the World Trade Center site is right to feel betrayed.
In the 45 months since terrorists slaughtered 2,749 people and toppled the tallest towers in New York, the 16-acre site has mirrored too closely the national response to the changed world scene. The first year brought a resilient courage that suggested New York and the United States might rise from the tragedy in stirring new ways. But since then, the original impulses that united people across cultural and political spectrums have been muddied beyond recognition.
Certainly that's the case with last week's unveiling of a new design for the so-called Freedom Tower that is the largest structure planned for the Lower Manhattan superblock where the World Trade Center stood.
What's now proposed is a 69-story tower clad in glass that would start as a square at the bottom and twist and taper slightly as it rises. It will sit on a 200-foot-high-by-200-foot-wide base of steel-reinforced concrete, with one ground-floor opening for the entrance and only a few slits above to allow light into the lobby.
On top will be an elaborate metal spire that is 408 feet tall. The three elements together will reach a height of 1,776 feet.
Purely as architecture, the new design is better than its ungainly predecessor, which strained upward before dissolving into an off-center assemblage of metal grillwork: a clumsy homage to the original proposal by Daniel Libeskind that captivated many observers in early 2003 with its piercing stab to the heavens that paid conscious homage to the Statue of Liberty.
The change was prompted by the security concerns of police officials made public this spring, which also resulted in the tower being pulled away from the street by as much as 125 feet to guard against car bombs.
"Freedom Tower speaks of optimism and the future as it rises into the sky," architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill proclaimed in the official propaganda, er, statement that accompanied the unveiling last week. He promised that shimmering metal panels would effectively cloak the massive base, and called the 40-story-high spire starting 1,368 feet above the ground "a piece of civic art."
Also on hand was Libeskind, who has no part in the design but is the site's official master planner and still linked to ground zero in the public mind. He offered a benediction that the newest scheme is "slender" and "elegant" and "rises in a crystallized form."
But this isn't about architecture. What's built at ground zero won't be judged by how many new clients it brings Childs and Libeskind. The measurement will hinge on what the site conveys about American values in the 21st century. From that vantage point, the self-serving spin of Childs and Libeskind rings hollow.
"Never in my most pessimistic imaginings could I have anticipated what we are now being shown: a beautiful tower rising above a solid concrete base with no windows," wrote Jeff Speck, design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, in an open letter that he stresses is not an official position of the agency.
Bemoaning "how far from reason the security mandate has taken us," Speck asked "what it says about our nation to produce a 'Freedom Tower' hiding behind 20 stories of solid concrete. Better to build nothing than such an alienating monument to surrender."
He's absolutely right. And I believe Childs and Libeskind know that. They understand cities too well to believe otherwise.
Childs, for instance, can't honestly think that shimmering metal panels -- maybe titanium, maybe steel, honest they'll be great -- will distract people from the awareness that they're next to the biggest bunker in New York. Or that an oversize spire to reach the oh-so-patriotic 1,776-foot mark is anything but a gratuitous gimmick.
As for Libeskind's don't-forget-me cameo, there might indeed be a slender elegance to a glass tower with thin vertical steel mullions that's sculpted to shimmer. But we're talking about a tower containing 2 million square feet of space. It's an elegantly tailored Goliath -- or King Kong perched on a stubby crate.
The new design is a capitulation to gruesome worst-case scenarios. It mocks the original goal of the rebuilding to show that ground zero can be a sacred place unto itself, yet also part of the vibrant life of a resurgent city.
In fact, things from here are only likely to get worse.
Let's say that terrorists indeed are determined to leave a bloody mark on the revived site. The Freedom Tower won't be the only target: There will also be a memorial, and museums and smaller towers. Won't the central tower's impregnability nudge them elsewhere?
It's a fair question from the standpoint of security above all else. The logical answer: Make each building and museum "safe" in its own deadening way. Tourists will flock to see where "it" happened, and they'll enter a monolithic landscape where we all feel like scrutinized ants.
For that matter, why not just erect a 200-foot-high barricade around the entire 16 acres? And I've got just the name for it. Freedom Wall.
[ The fact that they're building a WTC replacement on a 20-story tall concrete blast-proof bunker is the best monument to Osama bin Laden he could have dreamed of. It will be a constant reminder of America's terrorized architects, builders, owners and tenants.
We should have built something close to Libeskind's original design and dared the terrorists to come knock it down. Bush and Congress should set aside a *permanent* slush fund in the Federal budget to guarantee that Ground Zero will be rebuilt every damn time the terrorists try to destroy it. ]
Steven D. Litvintchouk
Steven D. Litvintchouk
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