A World of Difference

September 11, 2001 will forever be ingrained in the minds of all Americans and many others around the world.  It was on this day that America lost its sense of safety and became more vulnerable than it ever had before.  Almost 15 years later, the memories still seem recent and the pain has yet to substantially subside but the proud people of the United States have progressed and life has continued.  Shortly after Ground Zero had been cleared, the abysmal scars sent residual shockwaves through those that watched the towers crumble on that somber day.  It was determined that in good American fashion, life needed to proceed and the scars that we wore would have to be dressed to heal and grow once again.  Shortly thereafter the masterplan for the site of the horrific tragedy was set and the buildings began to sprout up shrouding the two deep cuts that remained in place as a reminder to never forget what happened and the pain that accompanied.  

Fast forward to June 9, 2015 in the New York studio of Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels where the celebration need not be stifled anymore.  BIG’s overhaul of Pritzker winner Norman Foster’s 2 WTC design beamed from the computer screens as the project team tiredly congratulated one another.  The final piece of Ground Zero’s masterplan was finally led out of the gates for one last time with promise for a seal to finally be put on that bleak day.  All was finally right as the Murdoch’s described their level of comfort with Ingels and his true visionary sense of design - something they felt Foster severely lacked.  America will finally be able to put 9/11/2001 behind them and hopefully allow the rest of the wounds to close up and heal over.  It was truly a symbolic unveiling that got much more than the architecture community buzzing.  2 WTC is the final piece that will allow the country to end its grieving process and like the architect’s vision - progress past the worst attack on the mainland in its young history.

2 WTC 

Bjarke’s video that accompanied the unveiling of this top secret design demonstrated his “whiz kid” demeanor while showcasing his cutting edge new design that guaranteed to be a vertical urban neighborhood, likening the cantilevered design to his now native Tribeca.  This type of spiel has been heard time and time again as Ingels has continued his search for perfect harmony through hedonistic sustainability - a way of leveraging human activities and natural landscapes to create a euphoric and Utopian ideal.  Many architects have searched for clients that will allow them to bring science fiction to reality, only Ingels has been lucky enough to encounter several in his young career.  Ingels’ idealistic visions for his buildings are something many architects share, an identity that all will be alright in an increasingly Dystopian society that continues to fold over on itself.  Looking through Ingels’ portfolio of completed work, the biggest discrepencies are noted between his surrealistic visualizations and the actual built constructs.  Realities of the world are skewed in these beautiful artistic compositions that paint pictures of urban greenspaces and greenroofs amongst backdrops of gleaming city towers and chance encounters of strangers in common areas.  What has actually been materialized in some projects such as the '8Tallet' and 'The Mountain' in Copenhagen is a disconnect from reality.  Greenroofs which are actually brown and public spaces that are sparsely used as well as poorly detailed pieces of architecture.

8 Tallet in Copenhagen - BIG

The Mountain in Copenhagen - BIG

BIG's focus continues to be on the bigger brushstrokes which leaves the smaller details unresolved and generic - a favoritism toward a grandeur in geometry offsets attention to humanistic experiences. In his W57 project (now under construction), the overall composition has emerged as a series of flat and vertically constricted floor plates that are only enhanced by an applique facade that does little more than decorate the structure. The renderings produced for this project disregarded context and human scale favoring views from afar and computer-applied lens flares.  Ingels’ creates wonderful idealistic buildings that seem to never materialize in this less than ideal world.

A large part of 2 WTC are the green terraces that are formed by the shifting geometries occurring anywhere from the ground level to the 80th floor.  The promising vertical parks are shown as public gathering spaces with many trees and plenty of grass.  Interior spaces flow from inside out and provide for stunning views both down and out at the iconic city’s skyline.  What may result of these precariously perched vertical parks is a wall much too high to see over and greenspaces that require intensive irrigation just to keep them alive.  Wind speeds at these levels may be unbearable on most days leaving these outdoor spaces seldom used if even built at all.  Many of DBOX’s preliminary (beautifully) rendered views of the new tower show promise when there is still much more to figure before these spaces may even work. 

Formally, the tower is foreign in a sea of rectilinear towering rectangles with little or no deviation from a base geometry at the ground level.  This anomaly, however is not a negative.  While the stacking boxes is reminiscent of many early Koolhaas ideologies of building a literal diagram, it may just work.  Cantilevering the masses and decreasing their size through vertical ascent is a logical way to think and allows for the creation of the barely functioning exterior greenspaces 1,000 feet in the sky. What makes this project so inspiring is the fact that it could end up becoming something much different than other entities which call the NYC skyline home.  Cities are eclectic beings which expand, contract and re-identify themselves as time progresses.  Yet many of the great American urban centers seem to hold on to an iconic image painted in many people’s heads decades ago.  Ingels’ proposal breathes some fresh air into America’s identifying city while still following the rules just enough to exist beyond virtual reality.

A Memorial?

Contextually the BIG tower does little to engage its neighbors.  While to its credit it is different, the tower disregards its surroundings in favor of its own aloof agenda.  2 WTC doesn’t quite feel like a memorial rather a series of off-kilter lego bricks that will eventually form space and climb into the mighty New York sky.  What references does this building make to the hallowed ground it stands upon?  As a matter of fact, what references do any of the four towers make to the grounds they stand upon? The lack of cohesiveness of the site is inadequate of any true remembrance to those who died on 9/11.  Instead each creates a singular agenda based upon each designer’s ideologies surrounding death and patriotism - ideologies that seem awfully similar to the other towers nearby built solely for a specific corporation. Ingels’ tower can be seen as the only attempt at scrounging around for some progression for the country symbolically through a piece of architecture.  

SOM designed WTC 1

Richard Rogers and Partners' 3 WTC

Fumihiko Maki's 4 WTC

Tower 1, 3 and 4 each reminisce upon a modern minimalism with such blunt contextualism that the differentiation and significance of their existence gets lost in the rest of the concrete and glass jungle.  A visitor to the city who desires to spend time at the hallowed ground would be hard-pressed to actually find the ground since its identity is shared with all of the others around it. The least that could have been done is to solicit a design which calls attention to itself, memorial design is one of the few areas where flagrant use of architectural metaphor and symbolism can be used.  Whether a product of client/political barriers or insufficient project funding, the identification of the towers on this site do little to call attention and remembrance to the events that played out there.  Each tower that is currently standing references its typology to each other and then the rest of the New York (or any other urban center) skyline - where is the significance and meaning behind the disastrous event that occurred? While each new structure is beautiful and technologically advanced in its own way, the overall significance as a memorial will never be truly recognized as each simply is a building, a normal piece of architecture that just wants to fit in with the rest of the city.  

Foreign Artists

Among one of the most under-recognized issues surround the entire WTC complex is that only one of the design firms selected was of American origin.  Richard Rogers, Fumihiko Maki and BIG/Foster+Partners are all foreign designers which may or may not have satellite offices in the United States. The tragedies that took place on 9/11 directly affected each and every American, yet only one firm was able to partake in manifesting their emotions.  This means one of two things - either the American architecture scene lacks the true ability to express a progressive architectural and national agenda or the true significance behind this project was only to draw upon starchitects like name brands.  It may be hard to believe that no other American firms were capable of creating something similar - if not better - than what currently stands on Ground Zero.  The message sent by Silverstein Properties among the other important figures is that this tragedy had less to do with nationalism and creating a cohesion of American bonds and more to do with an exhibition of flagrant architecture that could never truly understand the pain that still exists and the scars that will never fully heal.  

2 WTC has been met with mixed emotions.  Some critics have already expressed concern in the loss of an ‘iconic’ Norman Foster building while others are excited to see if Bjarke Ingels can finally realize his visions in the real world.  Perhaps the Danish architect achieved the most progression and identity of all the other submissions. His utopian idea directly contrasts with the dystopian occurrences of 9/11 which will provide a somber reminder of the past (look down) and hopeful view forward (look up).  2 WTC may be another of Ingels’ creations that never actually exists in reality as it did in the renderings, but it at least has attempted to exhibit true progression and difference in identity.  Only time will tell if politics will disallow such an audacious - by American standards - structure to be built in our most prized city.  Certainly, many Americans who cherish the identity of the country hope it is reinforced with a foreigner’s dream, a true defining factor of the melting pot America has become.