July 05, 2005

NYTimes: Freedom Tower

A Tower of Impregnability, the Sort Politicians Love

The darkness at ground zero just got a little darker. If there are people still clinging to the expectation that the Freedom Tower will become a monument to the highest American ideals, the current design should finally shake them out of that delusion. Somber, oppressive and clumsily conceived, the project suggests a monument to a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness. It is exactly the kind of nightmare that government officials repeatedly asserted would never happen here: an impregnable tower braced against the outside world.

The new design by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is a response to the obvious security issues raised by the New York Police Department, specifically the tower's resistance to car and truck bombs. The earlier twisted-glass form, a pastiche of architectural visions cobbled together from Daniel Libeskind's master plan and various Skidmore designs, lacked grace or fresh ideas. The new obelisk-shaped tower, which stands on an enormous 20-story concrete pedestal, evokes a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top. (The toothpicklike spire was added so that the tower would reach its required height of 1,776 feet.)

The temptation is to dismiss it as a joke. And it is hard not to pity Mr. Childs, who was forced to redesign the tower on the fly to meet the rigid deadline of Gov. George E. Pataki. Unfortunately, the tower is too loaded with meaning to dismiss. For better or worse, it will be seen by the world as a chilling expression of how we are reshaping our identity in a post-Sept. 11 context.

The most radical design change is the creation of the base, which will house the building's lobby and some mechanical systems. Designed to withstand a major bomb blast, the base will be virtually windowless. In an effort to animate its exterior, the architects say they intend to decorate it in a grid of shimmering metal panels. A few narrow slots will be cut into the concrete to allow slivers of natural light into the lobby.

The effort fails on almost every level. As an urban object, the tower's static form and square base finally brush aside the last remnants of Mr. Libeskind's master plan, whose only real strength was the potential tension it created among the site's structures. In the tower's earlier incarnation, for example, its eastern wall formed part of a pedestrian alley that became a significant entry to the memorial site, leading directly between the proposed International Freedom Center and the memorial's north pool. The alley, flanked on its other side by a performing arts center to be designed by Frank Gehry, was fraught with tension; it is now a formless park littered with trees.

The interior, by comparison, holds a bit more promise for the hopelessly optimistic. Visitors will enter from north and south lobbies, where they will have to slip around an interior partition set just beyond the revolving doors - yet another concession to security concerns. If the configuration of windows could somehow be improved, one could imagine, with some effort, a sealed cathedral-like room with heavenly light spilling down.

But if this is a potentially fascinating work of architecture, it is, sadly, fascinating in the way that Albert Speer's architectural nightmares were fascinating: as expressions of the values of a particular time and era. The Freedom Tower embodies, in its way, a world shaped by fear.

At a recent meeting at his Wall Street office, Mr. Childs tried to deflect this criticism by enveloping the building in historical references. The height of the tower minus its spire (1,368 feet) matches the height of the taller of the former World Trade Center towers and is meant to re-establish a visual relationship to the nearby World Financial Center, which was exactly half that height. The fortresslike appearance of the base was partly inspired by the Strozzi Palace in Florence, the relationship between the base and the soaring tower by Brancusi's "Bird in Space" sculpture.

But the tower has none of the lightness of Brancusi's polished bronze form, let alone its sculptural beauty. And the Strozzi Palace's rough stone facade is beautiful because it is a mask: once inside, you are confronted with a courtyard flooded with light and air, one of the Renaissance's great architectural treasures. What the tower evokes, by comparison, are ancient obelisks, blown up to a preposterous scale and clad in heavy sheaths of reinforced glass - an ideal symbol for an empire enthralled with its own power.

This obsession with symbolism extends all the way up to the tower's spire. Mr. Childs has long been itching to reposition the original spire, which, as Mr. Libeskind envisioned it, had to be set at the edge of the tower to echo the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty. In the new version, the spire rises out of the center of a tension ring mounted atop the building, an abstract interpretation of Liberty's torch and a concept that, like Mr. Libeskind's, has more to do with pandering to public sentiment than with any big architectural idea.

All of this could be more easily forgiven if it were simply due to bad design. But ground zero is not really being shaped by architects; it is being shaped by politicians. Soon after the new security requirements were announced, it became clear that the entire building would have to be redesigned. That could have been seen as a last chance to repair what had become a confused master plan, one that had little connection, except in the minds of Mr. Libeskind and Governor Pataki, to the original. Instead, the quality of the master plan has been sacrificed to the governor's insistence on preserving hollow symbolic gestures.

Absurdly, if the Freedom Tower were reduced by a dozen or so stories and renamed, it would probably no longer be considered such a prime target. Fortifying it, in a sense, is an act of deflection. It announces to terrorists: Don't attack here - we're ready for you. Go next door.

[original article]

Posted by thinkum at 04:59 PM