What the failure to rebuild the World Trade Center says about America.
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.
The former Freedom Tower will be a properly post-American building. It will be big, but not too big. It will be smaller than the towers put up by our enemies so that they will have no reason to feel jealous. It will not stand for anything in particular. It will just be office space, like the city and the country, a place that people can come to do business without making any commitment to it.
"A skyscraper rises above its predecessors, restoring the spiritual peak of the city, creating an icon that speaks to our vitality in the face of danger and our optimism in the aftermath of tragedy," Libeskind had said of his design. One World Trade Center cannot be accused of doing any of that. There is no spiritual peak, not even the one at the top of its no-longer-1,776-foot height.
The rapid construction of the Empire State Building in a year's time during the Great Depression made a statement about the ability of a nation to do great things even in its darkest hour. The slow pace, the perpetual redesigns and the bland final product of One World Trade Center make the opposite statement. A reminder that inept and timid leadership can rob a nation of its exceptionalism.
In 1910 the eleven tallest buildings in the world were in New York City. Now the city doesn't even make it into the top eleven and barely makes it into the top twenty. And the majority of today's top eleven buildings went up after the World Trade Center was destroyed. When One World Trade Center is completed, and, if its antenna is counted as part of its height, it will qualify as the third-tallest building in the world, until the latest monstrosities in Shanghai and Dubai topple it off that list.
A building is not a nation, but there are certain parallels to the diminution of national ambition, and there are undeniable parallels between the stumbling makeshift design process of One World Trade Center and the fumbling War on Terror. A great work can be done in a short time if you know what it is you want to accomplish. The blueprints for the Empire State Building were drawn up in two weeks and the structure was completed in a year. One World Trade Center has suffered from revisions and redesigns because it never had a clear purpose. Most people agreed that something had to go up, but they no longer knew why except that it was empty space and empty space has to be filled.
It's not a tower of freedom, because freedom implies too much individual agency. It has opportunities for those who pursue them hard enough. It does not however have a future. Only the eternal present of buildings that, for all their futurism, are hardly any taller than they were a hundred years ago.
Futures arise from national destinies. A nation unmoored from its past has nowhere to go. It cannot make anything new, because there are no new things. Its horizons are limited to its geometry, it experiments with shapes and colors, it digs through the trash of earlier eras for things it can use, reviving trends, dumpster diving through history while feeling that other eras were more exciting and more interesting than this.
The Post-American America is a place unsure of its identity, whose new conceptions of American values all too often serve only to negate the old, creating an empty space in which nothing is forbidden and everyone is welcome, but that has no structure, only emptiness.
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