“Survival Is The Issue Now”

This story has many beginnings. It begins on the morning of September 11, 2001 when two planes hit the Twin Towers. It begins sometime that afternoon, when Larry Silverstein – the leaseholder of what would become ‘ground zero’, and a man who understood that grief and profit are mutually exclusive – realised he would have to rebuild. It begins before that, when the C.I.A. funnelled arms to Osama bin Laden and Islamic militia groups in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Those are just the obvious starting points. One could unfurl a timeline of American history, point to any moment and ask that the story be told from there. This is an American tale, one of money, nostalgia and fear. While this story has many beginnings, it has only one protagonist, always acted upon, never acting.  Like Gatsby’s mansion, it is the physical manifestation of a certain temperament during uncertain times. I am referring to that which came after the Twin Towers, that which stands in their footprint: One World Trade Center (1 WTC), once known as the “Freedom Tower”.

September 11 2001 – April 8 2005

Our insufficient start is April 8, 2005 in New York City. It’s a spring day, somewhat warm and drizzling. In his downtown office, developer Larry Silverstein, then in his early 70s, is reading a “multipage document” that had been delivered earlier that morning.  He and his staff are neither happy with the content, nor the timing. Once just a relatively anonymous but wealthy proprietor in Manhattan, as the WTC leaseholder Silverstein was thrust into a hostile spotlight following the 2001 attacks. Silverstein, who usually took breakfast in the restaurant atop the North tower, was spared because he had accompanied his wife to a doctor’s appointment that morning.  Four years later, and without any tangible progress rebuilding the WTC, the public resented the elderly developer. One was never sure if 9/11 upset him because it happened, or because it happened to his buildings. Really, he just understood his trade as one that never gave quarter to mourning or tact. After all, the most infamous real estate deal in American history was the one that created Manhattan when, in 1625, a man named Peter Minuit ‘bought’ the island from the Native Americans for goods worth 1000 dollars in today’s currency.

In the modern era, the process of buying and developing land is much more drawn out and contentious. Between 2001 and the document arriving at Silverstein’s office in 2005, numerous squabbles of varying degrees occurred over the World Trade Center site. Amidst the foreign drama of troops flooding Afghanistan, came a domestic dispute between bitter partners wedded by violent circumstance. By comparison, it appeared petty. With hindsight, it appears portentous and should have alerted us to the impending disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq. If America couldn’t build a series of skyscrapers quickly and efficiently on its own soil, how could it build two nation-states on someone else’s?

Everyone with interests in 1 WTC got involved: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which owned the land, Silverstein, Silverstein’s insurance agencies, the City of New York, the State of New York, local residents, and the public in general. While to tell the whole story would take a volume or two, know that what transpired had all the hallmarks of a major development project: corruption, delays, greed, community board meetings, more delays. But rebuilding on the site of the worst terrorist attack on domestic soil in America’s history is no ordinary matter. The lack of a skyscraper at Ground Zero was conspicuous and embarrassing for the post-9/11, American narrative. Amidst the rhetoric of coming together after September 11, the gruelling process of deciding what 1 WTC would look like was an unpleasant reality check. In a very backward way, the debate proved that the terrorists really hadn’t won, that even in the face of horrendous death, individuals and corporations would vie for financial gain.

The proposal of architect Daniel Libeskind, the same man who designed the Holocaust museum in Berlin, won a juried competition. None of his design (which was a peculiar, jagged glass skyscraper) except the building’s height, came to fruition. This was because, legally, picking the architect was up to Silverstein who had already selected David Childs, an architect at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. As unknown as Silverstein before the attacks – especially compared to an architect like Libeskind – Childs catered to Silverstein’s needs and, like Silverstein, was fully prepared to disregard Libeskind’s design. It was only after much petitioning by Libeskind and the public that George Pataki, the Governor of New York, interceded. Pataki persuaded his old friend Silverstein to get Childs to keep the height of 1 WTC put forward by Libeskind. With signature American subtlety, 1 WTC was to be 1,776 feet tall to equal the year America declared independence from Great Britain. (1625 feet tall might have been a bit too controversial.) This one capitulation was not enough for Libeskind who, exhibiting all the modesty one might expect from a wealthy, internationally renowned mega-designer, was said to declare, “I am the people’s architect!”

In  2003, Childs put forward what was supposed to be the final design of 1 WTC. In it, he called for a twisting, trapezoidal tower of glass. Ada Louise Huxtable had (not kindly) labelled the original Twin Towers “pure technology”, and Childs’ design echoed this, with the top 400-feet of his proposal consisting of an open-air shaft housing windmills and power-turbines to create green energy. Thick metal cables wrapping around this upper section were to evoke those used in the Brooklyn Bridge, just as an offset spire echoed the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty. In renderings, it looked like a massive, if somewhat disjointed, middle finger. Add in the vestigial 1776-foot height from Liebskind’s design and the message was concrete: “Fuck you, terrorists. Sincerely, America.” The little spire would even turn red, white and blue in case you forgot what country you were in.

April 8 2005 – 2013

The reasons Liebskind’s design never came to fruition, and indeed could have never been built regardless of who picked the architect, were all typed-up in the black-and-white document that Silverstein read on a wet spring day in April 2005. Authored by the New York City Police Department Counter-Terrorism Bureau, the document contained a number of security issues with Childs’ 2003 design. Coming four years after the attack and a year-and-a-half after the public unveiling of the design, the NYPD intervention blindsided everyone. Here was a new character emerging on an already well-trafficked stage. Incensed at the timing and the prospect of more delays, State staffers quickly leaked that Governor Pataki was livid with the NYPD, who on their part claimed they had raised security issues from the outset. What followed was a costly continuation of the development woes that characterized 1 WTC.

Originally conservatively estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, the cost of implementing the NYPD’s recommendations spiralled, helping make 1 WTC the most expensive office block in the world at $3.2 billion and counting. Additionally, some officials believed that the security review “could unduly worry New Yorkers and possible tenants of the buildings”. With trademark tone deafness, the already unpopular Silverstein even floated the idea of having public funds pay for the NYPD’s security amendments, a major change for a mostly privately-funded project. (In 2006, a fed-up Silverstein handed over the rights to build 1 WTC to the Port Authority.) For its part, the Port Authority raised tolls on commuters to help fill the budget gap. Yet, regardless of the discontent spawned by the NYPD’s report, just sixteen months after the unveiling of Childs’ design, 1 WTC underwent major design changes to address potential terrorist threats. Only the symbolic height remained unaltered.

The exact contents of the document remain secret, but their recommendations are literally concrete. Through them, 1 WTC embodies the fear that permeates post-9/11 America. Bowing to the pressure of the NYPD, 1 WTC is an incarnation of both insecurity and a police state.   We are lucky in this regard; Foucault tried in vain to visualise the power dynamics of our society and here the NYPD has done it for us. Amorphous, unassignable, ever-shifting systems of security are congealed into a real building that renders physical their typically invisible dynamics. In the words of John Colgan of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau, “the design is not sacrosanct [… it] is a medium within which our security requirements will be met”.

The Architecture of the Security State

Above all else, car bombs raised their hairs. None of the changes could prevent ‘another 9/11’, but they ensured that if a car bomb went off, 1 WTC wouldn’t collapse. There is something atemporal about this; a post-9/11 security apparatus to protect us from pre-9/11 terrorism. Nonetheless, Childs added a 200 ft. high “pedestal” of steel and concrete to his design. Where once would have been a shimmering lobby of glass, there is now a lethargic square, 80 ft. high, without much natural light. Virtually windowless, only a few slits will be cut into the concrete. To compensate, Childs covered the concrete with massive LED fins which, if glossy renderings are to be believed, will light up in an array of colours. The originally planned prismatic glass panelling was scrapped due to concerns they would shatter violently if a bomb detonated nearby. The remaining 120 ft. of the pedestal will be completely empty, reducing leasable office space, but providing a structural buffer in case of an attack.

The Security State is as aesthetically pleasing as it is conceptually pleasing. If you get a chance, look at the hideous NSA Powerpoint Presentations that detail their mass surveillance. Light is antithetical to security, both in the sense that additional windows in the base of 1 WTC would reduce structural stability and in a more basic sense. Indeed, security services have darkness encoded into their nomenclature. Their operating expenses are hidden in CIA black budgets. Their torture is done at black sites. Any light shed on the process of protecting the United States is deemed a threat, both to the security of the country but also to the integrity of the systems that only go unchecked for as long as they are unknown. There is always the chance that if we become aware of the true depths of the Security State we might deem it unnecessary and dismantle it. Or at least deprive someone, somewhere of a juicy government contract organising metadata. The Security State protects itself as much as it protects others to the point where one wonders if it can tell the difference between the two.

Whilst New Yorkers simply wanted something, anything, to be built, much of the press lampooned the new design. The New Yorker architecture critic referred to it as a “bunker”, which is a telling misunderstanding. It is hard to imagine the NYPD taking this as criticism.  They don’t care. They wanted a bunker. One does not design anything else to stop a bomb, and that is what 1 WTC is supposed to do. More than inspire, more than heal a nation’s wound, even more than make money, 1 WTC is meant to stand up, forever.

The bunker lobby is inscribed with this desire for self-preservation.  Unlike barbed wire or blast-fences, which can be charitably referred to as ‘ornamental security’, in that if you take them away the building they protect remains, the bunker is structurally fundamental and will be relatively invisible beneath the LED panelling. When the NYPD announced they would be setting up an ornamental security cordon around the WTC site, local residents sued, claiming it would turn the neighbourhood into a fortress. Yet, it is better for security to be visible and egregious than invisible and still egregious. The bunker will not be seen and, as such, will resist meaningful criticism. Yet it will still cast a shadow, subconsciously moulding our impressions. Eventually it will be accepted, taken for granted, or, fulfilling the perennial desire of the egotistical powers that be, it will be thanked for maintaining its own ugly structure.

In Their Footprint, Even

Although admittedly less hideous, the other major change demanded by the NYPD is no less significant. Originally, Childs’ design called for a trapezoidal footprint, the technical term for a building’s base, which measured 200 by 260 ft. This was unacceptable. The corners were too close to a nearby highway, and would sustain catastrophic damage if a large car bomb were detonated. To satisfy this concern, Childs changed the footprint of 1 WTC to a 200 by 200 ft square, increasing the distance of the building from the highway by 100 feet.

This alteration gave 1 WTC the exact same footprint as the Twin Towers, each of which also measured 200 by 200 ft., and captured, quite unintentionally, the inescapable truth that 9/11 is still with us. Or rather, that our fear of another 9/11, the same fear that caused the NYPD to demand this change, keeps it with us. Through its security architecture, 1 WTC is a building deeply entangled with the circumstances that engendered its creation, and not in a cathartic way. Not out of choice but fear, it bears the footprint of its fallen predecessor. Through its design, a design that so obviously highlights the security necessary in a nation perceived to be under continual threat, 1 WTC permanently reminds, reinforces and re-conjures the events of September 11 rather than being a contemplative work of monumental architecture.

The distinction to make here is between sculpture, which might capture a particular sentiment of fear, and structural architecture, which responds to forces. 1 WTC was not designed to capture a collective, unconscious fear of future trauma but it responded to them. The spectre of attack was considered in the same manner as gravity or load-bearing: a force of nature to be accounted for. In some sense, the completion of 1 WTC – scheduled for sometime this year – might help anchor September 11 in the past. Yet, the design of a building cannot bury and mourn that which is still present. From the blast-resistant concrete to the revised base, September 11 and the way it has altered our world are quite literally inside 1 WTC. They are the skyscraper’s organs. As one critic noted, the design is “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.”

Indeed, 1 WTC is a manifestation of our fears, both of terrorism and of subversive architecture. The symbolic height of 1,776 feet is particularly offensive in its onerous and obvious patriotic equation. It is pre-school symbolism, as if the collective promise of a young nation were reduced to the mere transitivity between date, freedom and building. If the concrete base shows our, perhaps prudent, fear of bombs then the symbolic height shows, however poorly, our warranted fear that something more fundamental is under threat in the post-9/11 era. Officially defunct but still used by many, the title “Freedom Tower” reeks of this collective insecurity about America’s domestic liberties and perception abroad.

Perhaps this should all come as no surprise. Regardless of the architect hired, the NYPD would have stepped in with security concerns. A bunker-skyscraper is the logical product of a fearful society wishing to rebuild in the towering image of a safe but lost pre-9/11 era. One wonders if we could have ever built anything else, and one waits for the day when we can.

At a recent Senate hearing, a Senator asked Michael Sheehan, the assistant Secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, how long the War on Terror would last. Sheenhan took a second: “At least 10 to 20 years.” The Defense Department quickly clarified his remarks: 10 to 20 years + the 12 already fought. If Sheehan’s prediction is anywhere near as accurate as the estimated completion date for 1 WTC – so frequently pushed back that Godot is booked to perform the ribbon cutting – it will be a much longer haul than that. This story of many beginnings has no ending.

—Isaac Kaplan

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