September 2011


When I arrived in New York in the late 1970s, the Twin Towers were up and running, part of the skyline. I had a temp job working in a bank or financial firm, on the 95th floor of the North Tower. Some employees from the old location refused to make the move because of the height. After the attack, I thought about those people. I don’t remember any of their names and only vaguely their faces. None would have survived the airplane strike and fires. They would have been trapped and died in the flames, or jumped.

I didn’t like the towers. They were too brash and shiny new. The other five buildings of the WTC site were more to downtown scale. And there was the plaza with the sphere sculpture and water fountain. During water emergencies, the fountain was dry.

The historical core of the downtown was low rise: the Dutch buildings on side streets, Fraunces Tavern, Delmonico’s, the circular fort in Battery Park, the long, low Battery Park Building and Coast Guard Station, the quaint shops and eateries in the Southport Seaport. Downtown was there the city began (the water once came up to Water Street); Our first president gave his inaugural speech in Federal Hall, one of the most photographed sites in New York.

Downtown was about history not progress. Any upstart could build the world’s tallest building. New York had the neo-Gothic Woolworth building, the Empire State Building, and then the Twin Towers.

Basically, what the Twin Towers lacked was class, charm. The lobby of WTC 1 had cathedral proportions. As a observer of New York interiors, I would rate it second to the Winter Garden at the World financial Center, definitely worth a look, in its day.

When the towers went down, the skyline opened up. For the first time in decades, New Yorkers had the opportunity to re-think their skyline. There were two main strands of thought, at the time. Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted the entire site given over to a memorial, a view I shared. The more popular view was to rebuild the Twin Towers, to repair the hole in the sky and deny the terrorists any victory they thought they might have achieved. Developer Donald Trump would become the champion of this concept and publicly submitted a scale model design of his own. The huge problem with this idea was that it would have suggested, visually, that the attack never took place and hence the 2,793 persons who perished there had been brought back to life.

Soon after the attack, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was formed to oversee the rebuilding process of replacing the 10 million square feet of lost office space. There were expressions of concern that no one would want to work in these new buildings, out of fear or a sense of creepiness. The businesses there at the time were either destroyed or would be someplace by the time all the structures of the new World Trade center were completed.

In December 2002, plans were submitted by competing architects to redesign the 16-acre site, totally demolished in the attack. As I recall, six models were displayed in public and reviewed. Each building of every design was totally white. As near as I could tell, these designs resembled the World Financial Center, a cluster of uninspired designs across the street; nonetheless, a fitting harmony, I thought at the time.

Poorly presented, as they were, these designs were rejected and a new round of more ambitious designs was offered. The more extreme were like daring modern or postmodern sculptures than office buildings that people in suits would work in every day. One featured two twisty towers, as though seen in a fun house mirror. I wondered how the elevators might work. The elevators in the Twin Towers worked flawlessly, although some persons refused to ride alone in them. This design prompted me to write a protest letter to the LMDC. I like to think I helped nix that monstrosity. Among this second group was Polish architect Daniel Libeskind’s master plan which included a 1776 feet high Freedom Tower, which won the competition. Maya Lin, of Vietnam Memorial fame, was one of the judges.

Libeskind’s illuminated models were angular and aggressive, it would be fair to say. They suggested giant ice crystals from Planet Krypton, where Superman was born, jutting into the sky. Larry Silverstein, who had leased the WTC site from the Port Authority only months before the attack, hired an architect of his own, David Childs, to lend a shaping hand to these giant ice crystals, which nearly drove owlish Libeskind nuts. However, for Silverstein to have the insurance money to rebuild, his lawyers had first to convince a jury that the two planes represented separate attacks on the Twin Towers, a neat trick which they managed to pull off.

What would old Peter Stuyvesant think of all this, one wonders?

It was probably too much to have hoped that the powers that be would stop to consider that they liked the new skyline pretty much the way it was. Older cities like Paris, London and Rome preserve their iconic skyline. The British could build a structure taller than Big Ben and Parliament but realize the value of what they have, of history. The Empire State Building, with its graceful setbacks, is our icon. So why not leave it at that and enter New York City into the category of mature civilizations not continually trying to outdo itself? One might have wished.

Great buildings remind us of the wealth, energy and vision of the people who constructed them. The Empire State Building was begun in 1929, at the start of the Depression, and completed in 1931, at a cost of $41 million. It spoke of America’s drive and determination during a tough time. The energy that built it helped carry the country through World War II. From its inception in 1943 to ribbon cutting ceremony April 4, 1973, the WTC project evoked criticism. Lewis Mumford wrote of it as an “example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.” Yet the Twin Towers inspired the lyrical high wire walk of French aerialist Phillip Petite on August 7, 1974, perhaps the greatest public stunt in recent memory.

The night lights in the North Tower seemed like a friendly beacon to me, walking toward the subway after work in winter.

No one who witnesses the 10th anniversary ceremony on TV can doubt the value of the National September 11 Memorial to those who lost loved ones there. They touched the names, made rubbings, placed flowers in the grooves, grieved openly and publicly.

The value of the Memorial and Museum will far outstrip that of WTC 1 (the official name according to the Port Authority) in the life of the city. Architecture has other uses than to impress with its “technological exhibitionism.” In recent years, the paradigm of New York has shifted somewhat from power and speed, the incessant flow of traffic through it streets and avenues, to a more “green” and bike-friendly city, with open public plazas replacing traffic lanes and bike paths along the waterfront and in the heart of the city.

Perhaps, in this way, New York will come to resemble the stereotype, at least, of the laid back European capital, more suited to taking a stroll than rushing to catch a cab. Early indications are that the horizontal changes are popular but the growing numbers of bike riders create competition for parking spaces and conflicts with pedestrians. Bike riders are often accused of not obeying traffic laws.

New York faces stiff challenges as it enters the second decade of the 21st Century. Something like a million illegal immigrants have poured into the city, mainly Brooklyn and Queens, in the past half dozen years. With its rich plate of social services, and limited funds for transportation and maintenance, it remains to be seen if New York can hold on to its middle class or if it will leave for less taxing environments. It remains to be seen if the structures rising at Ground Zero will be the day spaces of happy productive citizens, or defensive towers whose inhabitants seldom touch the ground.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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Visually, of course, Ground Zero and Lower Manhattan have changed tremendously since Sept. 11, 2001. Not only was the entire 16-acre site in ruins but adjoining buildings were damaged by flying steel beams and debris from the collapsing towers. One piece of steel sailed across the street and plunged through the roof of the Winder Garden in the World Financial Center, killing two trees.

In the days following the attack, Lower Manhattan was locked down, with police barricades on the side streets and police officers checking company IDs. Many stores south of Canal Street were closed, some, like Burlington Coat Factory, never to reopen. Lower Broadway was like a ghost town; store front windows were covered in white ash and dust. Satellite dishes were everywhere on the streets. Verizon provided free phone carts on the sidewalks as many buildings had little if any phone service. It was a mess.
Large trucks carried debris endlessly from the wrecked site along West Broadway, which required resurfacing twice, if memory serves, during this period. They worked quickly. In six months, film crews were once again filming in Lower Manhattan. And you know New York is back when they make movies here.

As the Mayor noted on the ten year anniversary of the attack, the district has grown since the attack. Twice as many people live here than a decade ago, and Lower Manhattan is much more of a 7/24 neighborhood than before. WTC 1, aka Freedom Tower is 80 stories tall and growing day-by-day. The National September 11 Memorial opened to rave reviews on the tenth anniversary, and the accompanying museum will open next year. Finally we have got to this point after years of wrangling between the stakeholders in New York and New Jersey.

We have not been attacked in ten years, thanks in part to excellent police work and some luck. You can follow the progress at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation web site.

“Reflecting Absence,” Michael Arad’s winning design for the memorial was the best, in my view, for its simplicity and symbolism, being the footprints of the twin missing towers, a little more than 200 feet on a side, and with running water and names of the victims inscribed in bronze. Memorial Plaza is populated with 300 oak trees on eight acres of the World Trade Center site, an adequate amount of space though not what many of us wanted: the entire site dedicated to the memorial and museum. I’ll have more to say about that in another piece.

So, much has changed. Still, we live under a state of siege ten year after the attack. Nothing reminds new Yorkers more of that then the alert of possible attack on the anniversary itself. Once again, police took to the streets in full battle gear, with helmets and automatic weapons at the ready. Like they say, if you see something, say something.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.