Since al-Qaida demolished the World Trade Center nearly seven years ago, New York’s naked emperors—Governors George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer and architect Daniel Libeskind—have viewed an historic rebuilding challenge as an opportunity to invent a square wheel and then deny for years that it can’t roll. This week, the Port Authority, which runs the site, released a report admitting that little progress had been made there—still more evidence that the government has responded to an external attack with a self-inflicted disaster. But all the dillydallying may provide an unlikely opportunity for Governor David Paterson and World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein, who should examine an entirely different approach: building new twin towers at Ground Zero.
It may sound crazy to say that we should consider throwing away years’ worth of planning. But we’ve barely moved toward completion since 2002; in fact, last week’s report threw out cost estimates or timetables for rebuilding. “The schedule and cost for each of the public projects on the site face significant delays and cost overruns,” wrote Chris Ward, the new director of the Port Authority, to Paterson last Monday. Further, “at least 15 fundamental issues critical to the overall project” are “not yet . . . resolved.”
Indeed: all New York has to show for its hoping and waiting is a partial support structure for the Freedom Tower—which, when it’s built, will be a sad white elephant. And all that the state promises today is more waiting: waiting for officials to figure out how a poorly designed, half-billion-dollar memorial can withstand the weight of the trees that are supposed to go on top of it; waiting for them to figure out a workable plan for the fancy, multibillion-dollar, Calatrava-designed transit hub, where inevitable changes will mean more changes and delays to everything else on the site. Can anyone be confident that the eventual results won’t be physical evidence of unimaginable folly?
On 9/11, al-Qaida murdered 2,974 people and destroyed two iconic office towers that dominated New York’s skyline, another lone office tower nearby, and some smaller support buildings. We can’t recover stolen lives. But what would it take to make New York physically whole again, while paying tribute to 9/11’s history and victims? One obvious answer is to build two iconic office towers that dominate New York’s skyline once again, surrounded by some smaller buildings. Notice that the one project that has achieved completion after 9/11—Silverstein’s Seven World Trade Center, the lone office tower near the main site—did so partly because Silverstein realized that al-Qaida’s attack wasn’t a mandate to reinvent the obvious. He simply built a more elegant tower to succeed what al-Qaida had destroyed, modernized for the twenty-first century in terms of safety and aesthetics and placed in a superior setting.
New York could take a similar approach with the rest of the site. New twin towers wouldn’t be the old ones; nobody can pretend that 9/11 never happened. They’d offer modern, sleek designs, as Seven World Trade Center does, and they’d be built to private-sector specifications. They’d need twenty-first-century, post-9/11 safety upgrades. The site would also need an appropriate memorial and well-designed public spaces.
It may not be too late to take this commonsense approach to rebuilding, which was never the puzzle the world’s great architects have made it out to be. For a truly breathtaking example of what New York could achieve at Ground Zero, take a look at what the late Herb Belton, an architect who worked on the original twin towers, and structural engineer Ken Gardner have proposed. Gardner, working first with Belton and then on his own since Belton died in 2005, has come up with twin towers that do far more than recreate the originals. “Using the original blueprints, [we’ve] re-engineered the design to recapture the Towers’ greatness, while diligently addressing their flaws,” Gardner says. “As a result, the design incorporates robust security, construction economy, and the greenest technology. The retail space is inviting, the commercial space is exceptional, and the outdoor spaces are a pedestrian-friendly oasis.” Gardner, always flexible, surely wouldn’t mind tweaks to his proposed towers so that they pay homage to the old ones without coming too close to replicating them. He also proposes that state officials allow residential condos in one of the new towers, as in the successful Time Warner Center, another set of twin towers uptown.
Gardner’s proposed memorial makes intuitive sense. It would preserve the destroyed towers’ footprints—the new towers would be built opposite them—while evoking their famous facades. He’d restore the now-damaged bronze globe sculpture that used to sit outside the towers, with 88 flags surrounding it to represent the nations that lost citizens on 9/11; he’d also offer a simple garden for quiet reflection. Such a poignant tribute would be a vast improvement on what’s planned. As my colleague Steven Malanga has written, smaller memorials to 9/11 victims elsewhere often focus on images of the twin towers, yet the memorial now planned for the actual site, a strange amalgam of water and trees, is sadly generic and irrelevant.
A simpler, intuitive design could mean lower costs over the construction period and lower costs to maintain the buildings as well. Gardner thinks that one of his towers could sit on the foundation already partly built for the Freedom Tower and that the materials the Port Authority has ordered for the Freedom Tower could be used at one of the other building sites. He also says that the state could build the memorial by the tenth anniversary of 9/11, a promise officials can’t make today. Financing will be a challenge, sure, but as New York undergoes a financial-industry meltdown, it will be no matter what we build.
As for people who think that no one would lease space or go to work in new twin towers, they forget that the new towers wouldn’t be the same as the old ones. They’d look different, and people would feel differently about them, just as is the case with the new Seven World Trade Center. The only benefit of the delay so far, in fact, is that emotions have subsided and fears have receded, allowing us to consider, at least, building new twin towers. Yes, terrorist attacks would be a risk, but that would be the case whatever we built at Ground Zero, as continuing concerns over the site’s security plans show. People ride on subways and bridges, and work in other high-profile towers, despite the risk of terrorism.
Gardner answers understandable fear with hope. He notes that new towers rising in the skyline—something that he thinks is possible within little more than a year, if the state could get its act together—would uplift New Yorkers. “There is nothing to suggest that the current design could ever hope to enjoy a similar success,” he adds. Think, too, of the little kids you see today wandering around the site’s perimeter with their parents. They’re far too young to remember the twin towers. Does it serve anyone if the nation gradually forgets what used to stand at Ground Zero?
Of course, Silverstein, the private leaseholder, must make the ultimate decision about what’s commercially viable at the part of the site he controls. But Silverstein didn’t freely draw up the current office-tower designs; they were the best he could do under the bizarre constraints that Pataki and Libeskind foisted on him. He, along with Governor Paterson, should take this invaluable opportunity at least to reconsider. If there’s a chance of making a more elegant choice, the two men should be bold in saying so. They may be surprised at the public’s reaction.