Commentary on the Design Team Plans for the World Trade Center Site

By Louis Epstein
R.D. 2,Carmel,New York 10512
Founder & Director,World Trade Center Restoration Movement

The process of planning the rebuilding of the World Trade Center has taken a number of turns since it began,and the latest proposals prove the need for continued public vigilance and participation.

From the deplorable January 2002 assertion by Mr. Whitehead that rebuilding on the former scale was not appropriate and structures half the size of the former towers(like those across the street from the site) should be constructed instead,to the electric enthusiasm and massively supportive poll majorities when it was announced in December that proposals would include potential world's tallest buildings,last year was an eventful year when it came to public pressure for the reclamation of the skyline.

But the latest offerings make clear how much farther there is to go.

The Process

After the Phase I plans were announced in Juiy they were subject to enormous criticism,satisfying no one in their crowded blandness. The authorities pledged to take the criticism to heart,to produce better plans in the next round.

They then took three of the principal contributing factors in the unpopularity of the Phase I plans and codified them into explicit program requirements.

They looked for advice from quarters like Imagine New York and New York New Visions,groups with a definite bias toward compelling substantial departure from the principles that brought us the beloved Twin Towers.

A wide variety of architects willing to execute a comprehensive waiver of their intellectual property rights sought to be considered for executing new design proposals,but had to deal with the restrictive program inhibitions and the threat of their work being altered in the future to meet yet other official biases.

The three big obstacles to ideal design,after all the damage they caused to the initial plans.were assured of inflicting further weaknesses on the successful teams' submissions.

The narrow-minded demand for the total restoration of Greenwich Street was maintained.
This issue is something of a defining factor for those who seek to use the opportunity created by the horrific,murderous attacks of September 11th 2001 to destroy the distinctive character of the Financial District: to ensure that Lower Manhattan no longer has quiet places of low residential density.Reinflicting the crowded streets and cramped blocks that had people moving north to escape them even in the 19th century is not a sign of progress in the 21st!

In seeking to impose a new traffic equation on the area rather than allow the existing limitations to have whatever effect they may have on preserving the existing quality of life,the utopian "connectionists" ignore the severe constraints that ripping the World Trade Center completely apart with Greenwich Street imposes on potential designs. Both office buildings and memorials would be adversely affected by the resurrection of this long-dead thoroughfare.

Not being allowed to block the former path of Greenwich Street with buildings means that everything must either be on a narrow wedge to the east on which any substantial buildings will necessarily look crowded,or on a wider wedge to the west that there will be huge pressure to allow to be dominated by the memorial.The presence of a traffic-bearing street where the spacious Tobin Plaza once stood would detract from both the buildings and the memorial,disturbing tranquility and presenting potential security problems...while the presence of a pedestrian street there would fail to meet the goal of allowing a new southbound traffic path that is the supposed reason for running the street through in the first place.

More broadly,failure to consider plans that provide for the preservation of the World Trade Center "superblock" is wrong for a simple reason...No matter what one's preferences in urban design,this is neither the time nor the place to indulge them.

For gigantic twin towers majestically apart from their surroundings to no longer dominate the Lower Manhattan skyline and symbolize American prosperity and power and world trade and world peace was the dream of the murderers of thousands of good plan that fulfills and endorses this aim can be said to respect the victims of the monstrous attacks of September 11th 2001.

This is an occasion for reaffirming,not rethinking,what the Twin Towers symbolized and the rationales that produced them...whatever we may think of them personally.Just as soldiers will fight for a Commander-in-Chief whose party they always vote against,this is a time for all architects,engineers,and urban planners to unite behind the design principles embodied in those towers,for this site,whatever they may propose for any other.

To let the opportunist urban-utopians reshape the area is to grant the murderers a victory they desired and do not let history record that not only individuals,but the Financial District itself as we know it,was killed by their actions.Such a signal success could not fail to inspire future attacks.

Rather we must favor plans that leave no doubt that the strength of our recovery,not the severity of our wounds,is their defining quality.

Second,The insistence on phased construction was reiterated. While a harmless issue narrowly defined,as it is sensible to plan a major construction project from start to finish,this has been understood in this case to mean dividing the office space into smaller buildings than were there previously,preventing the needed reclamation of the heroic scale of the old Towers or the historic precedent of both the Twin Towers and the Hudson Terminal Buildings torn down to build them of being the world's largest office complex. The desire,we are told,is to build only in response to market demand.

The Twin Towers were not built in response to market demand... they took years to fill,but finally became immensely profitable, 97% leased despite rapidly increasing rents at the time the Port Authority leased it to Silverstein Properties.

Before that,the Empire State Building was not built in response to market did not fill for many years,and was long nicknamed the "Empty State Building".

Before that,the Woolworth Building was not built in response to market was seen as wealthy Frank Woolworth's ego trip.

Had any of these buildings been constructed on a "realistic and prudent" scale rather than with speculative boldness,they would never have become famous or beloved!

No matter what one's views on prudent real estate business practice, this is neither the time nor the place to hide behind them.

If history records that we built only what could be built with tenants ready to sign leases without making prices any more affordable,this again represents a signal and undeserved victory for the terrorists... they would have scared us out of being willing to take the risks we have taken before,that alone have enabled us to create symbols such as those they would destroy.

Yes,it is true that the short-term consequence of the construction of a huge quantity of state-of-the-art affordable office space in Lower Manhattan would be as problematic for landlords as it would be excellent for tenants...but in the long run success of the project would be assured.It would not be the new World Trade Center where space went begging,and it is the space on the higher floors, scaremongers to the contrary,that would be likeliest to find tenants.Rather it would be the competing space rendered obsolete that might therefore might be slated for residential conversion, thus accomplishing a goal of the urban-utopians without forfeiting the grandeur of a world-renowned icon.

We can not forget the Group of 35 report (on the web at for viewing or download) that concluded that the city of New York had a need for 60 million square feet... five World Trade Center complexes...of new office space by 2020. The destruction of the World Trade Center months later added a large quantity of Downtown's best space to the shortage.

Economic downturns related to the attacks have since hurt the local economy,but like the five tallest pre-1960 buildings in the city, all completed during the Great Depression,new towers should be built anticipating the subsequent upturns that are inevitable while they stand.Recent surveys have shown that newer "trophy" buildings are doing better in attracting tenants than either less famous buildings or older well-known ones...and new World Trade Center towers of epic scale will assuredly be the most desirable of all.

Third and most contentiously,The program insisted that the footprints of both former Towers be left completely empty. This is an issue on which polls have shown New Yorkers about evenly divided,with most not having strong feelings though there are some on each side who feel very strongly.

This leaving of the scene of a catastrophe completely empty is virtually without precedent in history...from Halifax to Hiroshima,scenes of far greater devastation,cities have made it a point to rebuild what was destroyed,stronger and better, just where it was,building modest and proportionate memorials. Even New York,at the site of the greatest loss of firefighters prior to the destruction of the World Trade Center,made do with a plaque at the entrance to a new,much larger building on the same site.

Yet the planning process thus far has indulged only those who see the enshrinement of the killers' dream that the footprints be emptied as honoring those whose lives the killers took to achieve that goal. Those to whom the reclamation of even a symbolic portion of the old footprints from the emptiness decreed by the killers for the purposes to which and for which the victims gave their lives is the only way a memorial can do more honor to victims than killers are given no respect at all...they are simply assured that no plan that grants them anything will even be considered.

All three of these restrictions...Greenwich Street,phased construction,empty footprints...might still be part of plans that could reclaim the skyline on the scale deserved.But if they are such good ideas,it would seem that plans that followed them would be able to defeat plans that did not on their merits in an open competition.

How,then,did the architects deal with these misbegotten demands?

The Products

The chosen architectural teams worked within these constraints with varying degrees of success.

Libeskind:The shard-like buildings and empty pit are hardly pleasing to the eye.Office space not being available above the 70th floor is a wholesale surrender to the scaremongers...the purely ornamental spire atop a tiny greenhouse no replacement at all for Windows on the World or the observation deck!

A 1776-foot spire or antenna is certainly a reasonable goal, but it should be on top of a building that in no way represents retreat from the old,and Libeskind's site plan morbidly celebrates terrorist success in humbling us.

Foster:The tall semi-twin towers are a good feature,but their design radicalism serves little useful purpose.Because they are side by side rather than placed offset so as not to obstruct each other's views (a damaging consequence of having to let Greenwich Street by) many people would have only views of each other's 80th etc. floor offices rather than the magnificent vistas that might motivate them to pay premium rents.And the scale of the structure when it comes to floor space is a substantial retreat from the former towers,and thus less likely to appeal to those financial businesses that want large floors.

The allied memorial concepts are disturbingly short-sighted, as is Foster's obsession with the continued lifelessness of the old Tower footprints...again,ensuring an undeserved legacy for the murderers that may well inspire future terrorists to seek a similar legacy of their own.He proposes that half of each of the footprints be reserved for "the families" and be bisected in the interest of this exclusion.

Yet time rolls on...the parents,spouses,and siblings of the fallen who now advocate desperately for a large scale memorial will inexorably dwindle,and the "families" will consist more and more of increasingly remote descendants...a permanent creation for family members only is not something that can be sustained into the indefinite future,and is not a feature of other memorials.

The attacks of September 11th 2001 have left a great mark on history and will assuredly be remembered...but this must not be confused with neverending widespread interest in memorial structures.The sinking of the Titanic still resonates with people around the world, but New York's Titanic memorial is hardly a top tourist attraction. Onetime major tourist attractions like Grant's Tomb lose prominence as they lose relevance to the tourists' times.

A memorial must be built with understanding,drawn from history, of what it faces in the longterm future,if subsequent centuries are to embrace it rather than seeing it as the dead hand of a no longer fresh historical event blighting their present.While the families of those murdered in the World Trade Center attacks can be accomodated in the present time,a reserved location is best placed in an indoor museum where it can be easily reallocated to another use when those intimately connected with the lost no longer come...not an extravagant public area that runs the risk of being a future century's eyesore.

Meier,Eisenman,Gwathmey,Holl:The "picket fence".
This design,like Foster's,promises many people offices with views of each other's high-rise offices,not the views one would seek in a skyline icon.The floorplates of the individual "pickets" are far smaller than in the old Towers,while those of the vast connecting bars are of an awkward shape.

Further,these towers are significantly shorter than the old, and Meier has claimed that "taller is not better"...on this site and at this time,taller is absolutely essential.The symbolic statement of returning,or not returning,the human presence to the height visited in the former towers is what the new construction on this site will be judged for by history,and a positive response of the highest priority.

These five vertical elements could be combined into a smaller number of towers at least as tall as the old,and broader and thus with floors more appealing to large tenants...but the architects fail to advocate this.

Skidmore,Owings,& Merrill et al:Where most plans deal with the L-shaped array of crowdedness decreed by the unwise determination to slam Greenwich Street all the way through the site and leave both footprints completely empty,this design manages to spread crowdedness throughout the sixteen acres.The prospect of office windows looking at offices in the next building over is stronger here than in any of the other plans despite the buildings approaching 1000 feet in height.

Here again,combining buildings into fewer,taller structures with more,larger floors would offer both greater appeal to tenants and tourists and more open space on the site.But the plan's slide show reiterates at every phase the determination to build only in response to market demand rather than with the speculative boldness necessary to make the project an act of laudable courage,a defiance rather than submission to force and fear.

THINK Sky Park:This plan concentrates on the elevated park,which does little either for the economic vitality of the site or the street-level life beloved by activists...the proposed world's tallest office tower is treated as an afterthought, its actual design left to future architects as the final phase of the construction.

Realistically,of course,this 1600-foot office tower (sited on a fully bounded city block,thus far less secluded or secure than the old Twins,and identified as having about 10% less office space than an old Twin Tower despite being hundreds of feet taller) would be the primary economic engine of the project, and ought to be the focus.It is its highest floors that would be the major,enduring tourist attraction,just as the Empire State Building's observation deck has drawn tourists for seventy years while most memorials become backwaters before seventy years have passed since the events they commemorate.It is its office tenants who will draw money into the area,the workers who will find the local retail most convenient and fill the turnstiles of the transit center.Yet the THINK presentation downplays it, to the point of virtual invisibility at the announcement news conference.It drew some raves at the exhibit for its simple silhouette...yet the model is just a massing diagram for an unspecified future design!

For one epochally giant tower to replace two is a half measure; something more like the original towers must be sought.

THINK Great Room:While a dramatically large indoor space is an interesting idea,the proposed "world's tallest structure" (taller than any existing television mast,but shorter than a Polish one that collapsed in 1991) is a disappointment.

This conical structure is not even on the 16 acres,a worrisome abandonment of the specific ground on which the skyline must be reclaimed,but on the comparatively small Deutsche Bank lot across the street.Its office space square footage is scarcely a third of one old Twin Tower's,while other office space is housed in humble little buildings shorter than virtually everything around the site.

While a world's-tallest broadcast antenna would be a welcome addition to a site plan,this plan as a whole fails to fulfill the needs of a good design for the World Trade Center site.

THINK World Cultural Center:This is the only plan to return human presence to the areas once occupied by the Twin Towers themselves,and as such deserves appreciation.However,its skeletal containment of oddly-shaped framed items and its design inviting the vertigo of those afraid of heights as they seek to reach the inhabited structures do not spell the message of strong and fearless reclamation of what was lost,carrying on in memory of the fallen and defiance of their murderers,that is needed.

The signature presumption that commerce on the site has indeed been ended or made far less significant by the attacks is rather another act of submission to the killers even though survivors can again return to where they were at the time of the attacks.

Peterson/Littenberg:This plan has been likened to Rockefeller Center,and to the rejected Beyer Blinder Belle plans of July. It attracts many in that it is centered on twin towers,but the serried setbacks leading to purely ornamental beacons rising above an occupied human space limit clearly far below that of the old Towers represent an unacceptable step backwards.

As with other plans,this could be improved in both skyline and open-space terms by merging smaller buildings into the two main ones to make them larger and taller...but Barbara Littenberg has made a statement in clear repudiation of the proper mission for this project...saying of the proposals,"A lot of these designs engage in gigantism.That sort of arrogant thinking led to the construction of the first towers."

Any acceptable design for this site must be an enthusiastic celebration of gigantism,a frustration rather than acceptance of the attempt to humble us that destroyed the old Towers. We can not build anything that says to the murderers,"You had a point there",that repudiates our buildings that had every right to be there and the people who had every right to go on working in them but were slaughtered.

If she does not have the mindset to modify her design along such lines,I can not see her as qualified to produce an acceptable new World Trade Center.

United Architects:An interesting effort that should be commended for planning 112 stories of occupied height to the top, more than any other project,but the unusual slanted appearance creates the impression of instability even if it is in fact very strong.The desire to be innovative needs to be tempered with caution...boldness should be reserved for the strength with which the principles behind the old Towers are updated for a new generation.

The "city in the sky" is an intriguing idea,a welcome reminder that not everything of interest in a city happens at street level as some of the urban-utopians seem to believe.But the willingness to scale down from 112 to 81 stories is a red flag...there can be no acceptance of a skyline successfully "cut down to size",whatever other elements may prove unaffordable.

The Prospects

The clear need is for simpler designs that draw on the engineering advances of recent decades to reincarnate the spirit of the old Twin Towers for a new generation.Structural design can be strengthened, surroundings and amenities enhanced.But the general goal of very tall,very large office-oriented structures needs to be reaffirmed as the focus regardless of market conditions.

Innovative means of securing financing...perhaps selling "Tower Bonds" to Americans who will invest in a new symbol of pride and freedom because of its record-breaking scale...may be sought,but the goals must not be compromised in the face of the world watching our response to the murderous attempt to bring us down.

Nor will the future judge us well for overemphasis on the memorial compared to the survivors of past catastrophes.We must be sensitive but not perversely proud of the incurability of our wounds.We honor the fallen most by making sure that future generations can have the dreams they did in the same place.

Public pressure for tall buildings has brought marked improvements in the offered proposals so far...but the bizarre shapes of some of the latest concepts seem almost like a conspiracy to put the idea of building tall on the defensive...when building tall does not mean building weird.

The World Trade Center Restoration Movement is planning its own architectural competition for the site,and we believe the results, and public reaction to them compared to the plans produced by the official process,will prove illuminating.

This struggle to achieve the designs this time and place deserve will continue for months and years...and the results will stand for generations and centuries.

January 10,2003