One World Trade Center, Building Without Expression

The following opinion piece has been been penned by docent Hansel Hernandez-Navarro, who leads many of our architectural walks in New York City.  Hansel is an architectural conservator specializing in cultural resource management and the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings and monuments. He has done site conservation work in the US, Italy, India, and Portugal. Hansel has also had various research and writing roles at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles,  the World Monuments Fund, and the Museum of the City of New York. Hansel received his Master’s in historic preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He is also active in the documentation and preservation of buildings of the modern movement.


1 WTC in July 2013. Photo by Joe Mabel.
1 WTC in July 2013. Photo by Joe Mabel.

The symbolic skyscraper known as the Freedom Tower (now known as 1 World Trade Center) has been scorned for years by urban planners, downtown residents, and real estate executives who regard it as an oversized and unnecessary exercise in waste, pomposity and conceit. The 3-million-square-foot building still faces the great challenge of attracting private companies, or remaining a heavily subsidized government building.

Initially, the building was filled with negative symbolism and characteristic of the delays at ground zero; corporate tenants and government workers said they had no desire to move in. Many real estate executives railed against building such expensive office space downtown without any tenants.

But lately there has been a transformation. Now many developers are vying for the site. Which brought The Durst Organization to operate 1 World Trade Center by investing $100M. Company president Douglas Durst has said he always felt that the private sector should develop and build office buildings, not government agencies. Ironically, the first WTC complex, which had also been built by the Port Authority, took several decades to become even modestly successful. The current cost of the tower is $3 billion, or $1,150 per square foot.

One World Trade Center was a centerpiece of the master plan drawn up in 2003 by the architect Daniel Libeskind, dubbed Freedom Tower by then governor George Pataki. Libeskind’s design was deemed ‘unbuildable’, so after further discussions and lawsuits, David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill turned the design into a glass tower. But after the Police Department raised security concerns, he was forced to redesign it again in 2005.

One positive aspect: the new plaza design will re-establish Greenwich and Fulton Streets running through the trade center site as a way of integrating the complex with Lower Manhattan, although on a highly restrictive basis.

Residents of the neighborhood have complained that a massive barrier system that would ring the 16-acre trade center site as part of what they call the “fortress-like” security. The $40 million plan (taxpayer paid), that also includes guard booths and gates, would block them in, residents say. The residents have filed a lawsuit against the city, the NYPD and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the trade center. The checkpoints would create congestion in the narrow streets here, and pollution from tourist buses, the residents’ lawsuit has cited.

Downtown Manhattan in 2012, showing 1 WTC, on the far left, under construction. Photo by David C Jones
Downtown Manhattan in 2012, showing 1 WTC, on the far left, under construction. Photo by David C Jones

Although loved and much-photographed by awe-stricken tourists, New Yorkers hate the new building rising on the site. After all the big hoopla of the design competitions, the Daniel Libeskind chosen design, the rejection of the Lisbeskind design, and the banality of the David Childs design, we just don’t care at all. New Yorkers feel betrayed and disgusted by the exploitative shenanigans of the Port Authority and the Federal Government. And we have been paying for these shenanigans.

The current design is the epitome of banality:  a 104-story glass tower sitting on a fortress-like 186-foot anti-terrorist- attack protective pedestal; the awkward juxtaposition of tower and pedestal remains unresolved.  Furthermore, a “communication platform ring” antenna base sits atop the tower’s flattop. They’ve put a hat on the thing.

The new building is without expression, message, and life. It is reminiscent of another massive, and much better tower uptown, the Empire State Building. Why a contemporary architect would design a building, which resembles a more famous one, is beyond any good designer’s comprehension, let alone a regular pedestrian, or visitor. There have been too many hands in this pot.

– Hansel Hernandez-Navarro