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In the days and weeks after September 11 hardly a day would go by without another homemade design for the World Trade Center showing up in my inbox. Some were crude, some were obscene, some were impossible to construct and some were genuinely visionary. Even those most familiar with the crusted workings of New York state and city government, not to mention the bi-state beast of the Port Authority, could hardly have imagined that eleven years later one far smaller tower would still be under construction.
One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower before that name was deemed too showy and patriotic, is a faintly shiny presence on the skyline, glass slowly sliding over stories of naked steel, overshadowed by Frank Gehry’s strikingly surreal Beekman Tower with its rippling lines. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you would hardly notice it was there.
Now One World Trade Center will lose a radome enclosure due to budget cuts, which means very little except that the building’s ridiculous 400 foot spire risks being classified as an antenna and OWTC will no longer be recognized as the tallest building in the country. The death of the radome is one of the many redesigns to the building that have made it the forgettable structure that it is today. And the difference in those 400 feet is the difference between a 1,368 foot skyscraper and a 1,776 foot skyscraper.
Having lost the Freedom Tower designation, losing the symbolic 1,776 height seems almost an afterthought. The 1,776 number was an artifact of Daniel Libeskind, the original architect, and his vision for the site. That vision was mostly discarded, along with its “sky gardens” and windmills. The “1,776” height is about all that remains of the German-Jewish architect’s proposal. And regardless of whether we count the antenna as a spire or not, it will not be the tallest building in the world. Those can be found in the places that funded the terrorists, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, which have used slave labor to build glass and steel pyramids to the glory of their own pharaohs.
The Empire State Building, the Grande Dame of New York skyscrapers, has a roof height of around a 100 feet or 30 meters lower. The difference between a skyscraper built during the Great Depression and one built during the 21st Century Depression is around 100 feet and about a century of aesthetics. Where the spire of the Empire State Building is an organic extension of it, the one atop OWTC is awkwardly placed, it’s just there making time and filling up the space.
In its defense, One World Trade Center is graceful enough compared to the Sears Tower or the Dubai Burj, which pile blocks and needles together in a cluster of alien geometry. It will be better looking than the New York Times Building and the Bank of America Tower, which both have that made- by-IKEA look. It will also be completely unremarkable and that is a feature, not a bug.
Its blandness of name and design convey that it is an apolitical structure. Its only ambition is to embody a post-American bigness made possible by a large antenna. Its unexceptional nature is an antidote to the American exceptionalism sparked after the September 11 massacre. Much like welcoming in a mosque near Ground Zero or incorporating Islamic elements into the Flight 93 Memorial, it says that there is nothing especially American here.
One World Trade Center will need to fill all that office space, and many international renters may do business in America, but they don’t like us very much. And ever since September 11, American political and business leaders have tried to be as inoffensive as possible, to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes with our jingoism and our flags so that next time we don’t get bombed.
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