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1. Scraping the sky
2. New York decides on Trade Center
3. Skyline or bottom line
Structurally speaking

Photo of Chrysler building by Library of Congress.



New York's weighty choice
Perhaps never before in American history has architecture mattered so much to so many. In New York City, business and government, guided by a public still suffering psychologically and economically from the 9/11 attack, and goaded by a kibitzing press, are crawling toward a decision about rebuilding the World Trade Center site.

The twin towers gleam on a sunny day,  dominating  the skyline. They are more than twice as tall as any nearby building.
New York City skyline before 9/11/01. View is from the southwest, in New York Harbor. Photo from Library of Congress.

Seven groups of architects have submitted nine concepts, each backed by an orotund oration on how it would repair the gash in the skyline, remember the victims, and promote growth and healing of a city that considers itself the world's greatest.

The rebuilding is a delicate balancing act - looking forward while looking back. The public rejected a plain-Jane series of office-block proposals last summer and is intent on having its voice. With a decision on the overall site plan expected momentarily, pundits have been opining double-time.

Two giant, scaffold-like towers, connected by a bridge in the middle, dominate the scene.
"Towers of Culture" are open frameworks, roughly the size of the original World Trade towers. Click on photo to see bigger image. THINK Design, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Meanwhile, 17 million square feet of office space sits vacant in New York - more than what the terrorists destroyed. To say that 2.4 square miles of empty floor space could monkey-wrench the rebuilding is to state the obvious: Hyper-big office buildings are economic structures, not, despite the rebuilder's rhetoric, simply oversized, overpriced sculpture or symbols of economic dynamism or political will.

While the average giant skyscraper proposal faces extreme economic pressures, this rebuilding faces an almost infinite number of complications. The 16-acre site is in a congested part of a giant city. It is the logical site for a transportation hub linking Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. The rebuilding must memorialize the 2,823 victims of the 9/11 massacre and embody the national will to defy terrorists. It must be designed and built to satisfy an overlapping series of public and private entities, each guarding its interests. And it must be stronger and safer than any high-rise in history.

And ideally, it will be planned and built in a less contentious, more streamlined manner than its predecessor. First proposed in the late 1940s, the 10-million-square-foot World Trade Center complex did not open until the early 1970s. The Center was one of the giant projects of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and it had major backing from David (the banker from Chase Manhattan) Rockefeller and his brother, Nelson (the governor of New York) Rockefeller.

A lot of eggs were broken in the process of making this omelet. According to New York urban planner Roger Cohen, the project "was widely denounced as a supreme example of self-glorifying monumentalism on the part of unaccountable, autonomous public authorities."

Black and white image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York skyline, with a collection of various size buildings replacing the WTC towers. Some bulge at the center, others at the top.
Does a bunch of bulging towers solve the World Trade problem? (click for big image) Design by SOM, SANAA, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Between past and present
Add up today's potentials and pressures, and the Trade Center project emerges as the most complicated and glamorous piece of architecture and urban planning in memory.

Although much remains to be decided, a few things are certain. First, that the loud and prolonged debate will continue both loud and lengthy. Second, that a memorial to the victims of 9/11 will probably include the "footprints" of the vanished towers. Third, that one or several tremendous skyscrapers will eventually be erected on the site. (The Port Authority, owner of the site, clearly doesn't want the humiliation of settling for a measly 60-story tower.)

Critics, worry-warts and bean-counters alike may wonder: is it smart to build the world's biggest building in a city full of vacant offices? Are giant towers a suitable memorial to the fallen? Is it wise to rebuild at the World Trade Center site, three times the victim of terrorism?

The determination to build high and mighty at the World Trade Center site raises a different question for The Why Files: Why is the skyline so important to cities? Why do people put up such enormous buildings, which are always economically risky, and are now physically dangerous as well?

New York City skyline with two precarious-looking towers.
A couple of chisels on the skyline are, says the architect, kissing (click on photo for big photo). Foster and Partners, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

A line on the skyline
The essential argument is that skyline defines a city. Maybe the Egyptian pharaohs weren't exactly thinking skyline when they had their slaves slap together the pyramids as class-one boneyards. Maybe when the Mayans or Aztecs built pyramids in Mesoamerica, or the medieval Christians stacked the stones in European cathedrals, they weren't intent on impressing the neighbors. But almost inevitably, these tall structures had that effect. They were, after all, a loud-and-clear representation of economic, social and political power.

The importance of skyline was never more clear than immediately after the World Trade towers suddenly fell. Just after 9/11, for example, Seattle architect Mark Hinshaw wrote that "The twin towers of the World Trade Center - among the tallest structures in the world - were vivid, potent symbols of American culture, capitalism and technology" (see "Towers Dominated..." in the bibliography).

We tracked down Hinshaw at LMN Architects in Seattle, and he told us that skylines are "important symbols of a place's dynamism, its culture and economic health, and, for good or bad, a sense of the concentration of wealth." Large cities that are scattered across the landscape tend to be sluggish places, he says. "For bigger cities, the healthier ones tend to have a compact, concentrated, high-rise downtown that is very visible from a number of directions; New York is the extreme case."

Skyline is not just a matter of economics, but also identity. If you believe the ultimate arbiter of American taste - television -a skyline is a city's signature, adds Hinshaw, who directs urban planning at LMN. "Imagine all the TV programs that open with a profile of the city. Almost before the titles come on, you know where the place is, whether it's Chicago, Boston, Washington or San Francisco. In a split-second, you are rooted in the place."

An empty statement?
Impressive skylines are a statement, as the World Trade towers themselves exemplified. When they were planned, says Hinshaw, "There was all this literature about New York -- about how it would disappear [as a world city], about how corporations were fleeing. The World Trade Center was built intentionally to make a statement" about the city's vitality, he says, and even the name was chosen to place New York at the center of world commerce.

The Port Authority was so intent on civic revitalization that it did not mind that its huge buildings remained partly vacant and unprofitable for years ("No private party would have let it sit around for so long," Hinshaw says). A similar story is echoed in Malaysia, where the Petronas Towers remain half vacant, six years after being built by the state oil company.

Two similar gray towers loom into the sky, seen from below.The Petronas Towers, in Malaysia, are now the world's tallest. They're also half empty. Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns.

Part of the reason to build Petronas, says structural engineer Ron Klemencic, was growing urban density, "but primarily it was to make a statement about Malaysia entering the world as an economic power, trying to become visible on the world economic stage." Klemencic, who heads the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, adds, "The prime minister has this idea of raising Malaysia from the third world to the first world by 2020, and part of that is planting your flag in the ground."

A similar skyline-centered syndrome is occurring in Taiwan, China, and Korea, says Klemencic. Later this year, he expects the Council to crown a new building in Taipei as the world's tallest. His firm is designing the structure for Lotte World II, an even taller building that may be built in Korea, he adds. "It's still a twinkle in somebody's eye... The gentleman who wants to do it wants to make a statement" about the economic health of Korea.

A head trip?
To Hinshaw, the desire to build tall may have less to do with politics or ego than with an innate human drive that previously surfaced in pyramids and cathedrals. "It's the notion, in a very primal sense, of reaching for the heavens, getting closer to something higher, pointing upward. It's a visceral thing, the mystery of what's up there, the unknown."

It was only just more than 100 years ago that the invention of steel framing allowed a building's floor count to reach the double digits, he says. "In historical terms [skyscrapers are] a real new building form, and maybe we absorbed the idea without understanding it. Esthetically and psychologically," he says, the big debate in New York seems like "a delayed reaction to the 100-year history of skyscraper construction."

The quest for height has spread beyond the United States, he observes. In particular, along the Pacific Rim in Asia, huge construction is booming. The desire to go tall, says Hinshaw, "Cuts across all kind of areas, this very universal, immutable desire to thrust up vertically."

Long before steel construction, he observes, tall buildings have been built for prayer and spiritual purposes in the Middle East and Far East. "It's pretty amazing, kind of like a genetic code, a memory," he says. "A lot of people would poo-poo this idea, but I think it's kind of hard-wired."

Any role for the almighty dollar?

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The Why Files

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