1 World Trade Center – that rising Manhattan supertall intended to embody freedom and American supremacy – is so symbolic, it’s easy to forget that it faces the same tedious bureaucratic and constructional hurdles as any large-scale work of architecture. In fact, a lot has changed since David M. Childs and the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team unveiled the design back in 2006. According to a recent article in the New York Times City Room blog, the changes are largely initiated by the Durst Organization, which joined the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as co-developer in 2010 (with the promise of pocketing up to 75 percent of cost savings from changes to the design). City Room writer David W. Dunlap reminds us why minor revisions to a scaled model or a rendering has much bigger connotations for the city.
At the street level, the triangular plaza to the west of the building has been raised 5 feet and 8 inches above sidewalk level, and the original plan calling for a cascade of broad, stainless-steel steps connecting the sidewalk to the plaza has been scrapped. Durst Organization chairman Douglas Durst claimed that the steps added little value, because they took away from the total area of the plaza, and “most people don’t come in from the west.” As for the paving material, stainless steel seemed to Durst to be unsafe, especially in inclement weather. In the new design, the plaza occupies a granite-paved terrace (instead of steel) that is accessible only by a staircase on Vesey Street.
Moving up the building, the 185-foot-high base (rising to the equivalent height of a 15-story building) has also been significantly altered; the original prismatic glass panels were deemed a “design failure” by Port Authority executive director Patrick J. Foye because the Chinese glass fabricator commissioned for the job was unable to manufacture the saw-tooth pattern tempered glass sheets without deforming them beyond use. The new design for the windowless base replaces the saw-tooth glass panels with hundreds of pairs of 13-foot-tall, laminated glass fins set against stainless-steel horizontal bands. The fins “open” at different angles at different heights, and the new design will embed LED lights just behind them.
The redesigned base also loses its intended overall shape: the sloping facades have been straightened out to form a perfect, straightforward box instead of a chamfered and somewhat dynamic skyscraper base. According to the Times, S.O.M. orchestrated the change so as to complement the new gridded rhythm of the glass-finned exterior.
Finally, the sculptural spire designed to enclose the building’s mast has been stripped, leaving a bare antenna to crown the 1,368-foot-tall tower. Not only will this revision diminish the symbolic 1,776-foot height of the original scheme, but it also threatens to truncate the official height of the building to the reach of its spireless roof, dethroning 1 World Trade Center from its claim to being the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere (long live Chicago’s Willis Tower).
Why it matters
As Dunlap stresses in his article, the changes may appear minor, especially to those distanced from the actual building. From a detached point of view, the skyscraper retains its glistening, multi-faceted body, which makes up the bulk of its structure, and with or without a sculptural spire, the building will effectively dominate downtown Manhattan’s skyline. But the revisions to the very top and the very bottom of the skyscraper are potentially drastic enough to affect the architecture’s critical relationship with the surrounding city. If it appears too fortified and exclusive at the street level or loses its sublime symbolism, 1 World Trade Center will truly become another cold, corporate supertall and, upon that, a lackluster emblem of the democracy it claims to figuratively uphold.
- Kelly Chan
Receive weekly architecture and design snippets from Object Lessons by subscribing to our newsletter. Sign up here.
Tags: Kelly Chan