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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Post-American Skyscraper

In the days and weeks after September 11 hardly a day would go by without another homemade design for the World Trade Center showing up in my inbox. Some were crude, some were obscene, some were impossible to construct and some were genuinely visionary. Even those most familiar with the crusted workings of New York state and city government, not to mention the bi-state beast of the Port Authority, could hardly have imagined that eleven years later one far smaller tower would still be under construction.

One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower before that name was deemed too showy and patriotic, is a faintly shiny presence on the skyline, glass slowly sliding over stories of naked steel, overshadowed by Frank Gehry's strikingly surreal Beekman Tower with its rippling lines. If you didn't know what you were looking at, you would hardly notice it was there.

Now One World Trade Center will lose a radome enclosure due to budget cuts, which means very little except that the building's ridiculous 400 foot spire risks being classified as an antenna and OWTC will no longer be recognized as the tallest building in the country. The death of the radome is one of the many redesigns to the building that have made it the forgettable structure that it is today. And the difference in those 400 feet is the difference between a 1,368 foot skyscraper and a 1,776 foot skyscraper.

Having lost the Freedom Tower designation, losing the symbolic 1,776  height seems almost an afterthought. The 1,776 number was an artifact of Daniel Libeskind, the original architect, and his vision for the site. That vision was mostly discarded, along with its "sky gardens" and windmills. The "1,776" height is about all that remains of the German-Jewish architect's proposal. And regardless of whether we count the antenna as a spire or not, it will not be the tallest building in the world. Those can be found in the places that funded the terrorists, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, which have used slave labor to build glass and steel pyramids to the glory of their own pharaohs.

The Empire State Building, the Grande Dame of New York skyscrapers, has a roof height of around a 100 feet or 30 meters lower. The difference between a skyscraper built during the Great Depression and one built during the 21st Century Depression is around 100 feet and about a century of aesthetics. Where the spire of the Empire State Building is an organic extension of it, the one atop OWTC is awkwardly placed, it's just there making time and filling up the space.

In its defense, One World Trade Center is graceful enough compared to the Sears Tower or the Dubai Burj, which pile blocks and needles together in a cluster of alien geometry. It will be better looking than the New York Times Building and the Bank of America Tower, which both have that made- by-IKEA look. It will also be completely unremarkable and that is a feature, not a bug.

Its blandness of name and design convey that it is an apolitical structure. Its only ambition is to embody a post-American bigness made possible by a large antenna. Its unexceptional nature is an antidote to the American exceptionalism sparked after the September 11 massacre. Much like welcoming in a mosque near Ground Zero or incorporating Islamic elements into the Flight 93 Memorial, it says that there is nothing especially American here.

One World Trade Center will need to fill all that office space, and many international renters may do business in America, but they don't like us very much. And ever since September 11, American political and business leaders have tried to be as inoffensive as possible, to avoid stepping on anyone's toes with our jingoism and our flags so that next time we don't get bombed.

The former Freedom Tower will be a properly post-American building. It will be large, but vague. It will be big, but not too big. It will be smaller than the towers put up by our enemies so that they will have no reason to feel jealous. It will not stand for anything in particular. It will just be office space, like the city and the country, a place that people can come to do business without making any commitment to it.

"A skyscraper rises above its predecessors, restoring the spiritual peak of the city, creating an icon that speaks to our vitality in the face of danger and our optimism in the aftermath of tragedy," Libeskind had said of his design. One World Trade Center cannot be accused of doing any of that. There is no spiritual peak, not even the one at the top of its no-longer-1,776-foot height.

The rapid construction of the Empire State Building in a year's time during the Great Depression made a statement about the ability of a nation to do great things even in its darkest hour. The slow pace, the perpetual redesigns and the bland final product of One World Trade Center make the opposite statement. A reminder that inept and timid leadership can rob a nation of its exceptionalism.

In 1910 the eleven tallest buildings in the world were in New York City. Now the city doesn't even make it into the top eleven and barely makes it into the top twenty. And the majority of today's top eleven buildings went up after the World Trade Center was destroyed. When One World Trade Center is completed, and, if its antenna is counted as part of its height, it will qualify as the third-tallest building in the world, until the latest monstrosities in Shanghai and Dubai topple it off that list.

A building is not a nation, but there are certain parallels to the diminution of national ambition, and there are undeniable parallels between the stumbling makeshift design process of One World Trade Center and the fumbling War on Terror. A great work can be done in a short time if you know what it is you want to accomplish. The blueprints for the Empire State Building were drawn up in two weeks and the structure was completed in a year. One World Trade Center has suffered from revisions and redesigns because it never had a clear purpose. Most people agreed that something had to go up, but they no longer knew why except that it was empty space and empty space has to be filled.

The Post-American America is a place unsure of its identity, whose new conceptions of American values all too often serve only to negate the old, creating an empty space in which nothing is forbidden and everyone is welcome, but that has no structure, only emptiness.

The New York of 1910 was a unique place, but now most cities are smaller scale versions of it, big, ambitious and empty. Full of skyscrapers designed by the same international firms, stocked with chain stores that are the same all over the world, and full of the same immigrants from around the world. Everyone lives in New York now and no one lives there. Everyone has vicariously walked its streets through a hundred movies and television shows which use it because it is the city. It is the Everycity where we all meant to live.

One World Trade Center is a building for that Everycity, that global city of glassy office buildings and glassy consumers all shopping for the same brands made in the same place. They all speak English, but it's a rough English, except when it's a rough French or a rough German, argot languages, argot designs and argot nations. Everything, politics, movies, buildings and nations, is reduced to its simplest elements, communicating its simplicity to everyone.

Obama came out of that Everycity, a vague blur on an atlas, eating dogs and snakes, before settling in the States for some cocaine and community activism and a run at the White House. A reminder that anyone can do anything here, so long as it's environmentally friendly and not too overtly American. It is a different notion of the American Dream, one that has little in common with it except the grandiosity of its opportunities.

America has lost most things but its bigness. Its buildings may no longer be as big as they used to be, and the bigness is no longer a national ambition, but it is the last thing that the Everycity has retained. It is still the place where you can get rich, where you can get famous, where a boy from Indonesia can make it to the highest office in the land, where anyone with a good story or a good jump shot still has a shot at the big time.

It's not a tower of freedom, because freedom implies too much individual agency. The Everycity has too many people, too much mass and too much tension to have freedom. It has opportunities for those who pursue them hard enough. It does not however have a future. Only the eternal present of buildings that, for all their futurism, are hardly any taller than they were a hundred years ago.

Futures arise from national destinies. In the post-destiny world, there is no future and no past, only a slow decline and decay into a  nothingness without shape, substance or form. A nation unmoored from its past has nowhere to go. It cannot make anything new, because there are no new things. Its horizons are limited to its geometry, it experiments with shapes and colors, it digs through the trash of earlier eras for things it can use, reviving trends, dumpster diving through history while feeling that other eras were more exciting and more interesting than this.

During the days of the city's decline, there was a plan to replace Grand Central Station with I.M. Pei's Hyperboloid, a skyscraper shaped like an industrial part that would have towered over the Empire State Building, for the ultimate Everycity monument. Though Penn Station was destroyed and may see the rise of the Vornado Tower in its place and the Singer Building was smashed to make way for 1 Liberty Plaza, Grand Central survived. The Hyperboloid was reborn in China as the Canton Tower, the tallest structure in China. A fitting place for the land driven to become the new Everycity of the world.





10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good article.

Ayn Rand must be spinning in her grave.

-alamein

www.cremation-usa.com said...

I see freedom on this structure. A learning lesson from the past.

Anonymous said...

Best you've written and right on.
Where's Howard Roark when you need him?

Anonymous said...

Not to be dense but which building is One World Trade Center? Is it the building in the first picture on the left of the screen? If so, it looks like one of those non-traditional aquariums. I don't care for it at all.

OT: I've been shopping for a new betta fish aquarium and have seen a few acryllic ones with a similar design. Kind of bland and very cheap looking.



OT II: NYC is unique when it comes to buildings. I remember hearing that the Dakota was chosen for Rosemary's Baby because the producers wanted the building to be as much of a character as any of the actors.


Keliata

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

It's the first building, that's my own photo.

sablegsd said...

Frank Gehry is a SCFOAA.

Edward Cline said...

"It will be better looking than the New York Times Building and the Bank of America Tower, which both have that made- by-IKEA look."

"Even those most familiar with the crusted workings of New York state and city government, not to mention the bi-state beast of the Port Authority, could hardly have imagined that eleven years later one far smaller tower would still be under construction."

It's interesting that you mention the New York Times and Bank of America buildings. Those, too, were mired in crony politics. Their owners and principal tenants, the Times and BOA, wanted the properties on which they stand, properties on which stood perfectly solvent and flourishing office buildings. When the owners refused to sell, The Times and BOA pressured the state and the city to condemn those properties as "blight" and arbitrarily condemned them, allowing the Times and BOA to pay a penny on the dollar to their owners to purchase the buildings. The owners had no choice but to sell.

This is a story being repeated throughout Manhattan and all the boroughs. Developers with contacts and political clout target a property or even a neighborhood, and go crying to politicians asking them to enact eminent domain. This also occurred when the Port Authority and the two state governments wished to build the original World Trade Center. I remember working in that part of lower Manhattan and watching the older buildings being demolished, and then gawking at a vast hole in the ground. I also watched the Singer Building on Broadway taken down and replaced with what was originally called the Merrill Lynch Building, long before it was renamed Liberty Plaza (that was a legitimate purchase, however). Then came the Javitz Convention Center, which required the arbitrary condemnation of blocks of low-rent and small business structures (again, designated "blight"). Columbia University called in political muscle to have a portion of Morningside Heights condemned so it could expand, as well.

Ever since the LaGuardia régime, New York City has shown an on-and-off again fascist character, by which private property has been at the mercy of political leaders with alleged "vision," which "vision" requires them to look askance at private property and ride roughshod over citizens with no political clout. And don't get me started on the pernicious consequences of rent control, dating from WWII, which ultimately priced the middle class out of Manhattan and into the suburbs, from which workers who empower the city with their productivity must commute.

Yes, OWTC is a study in political machinations and corruption and blandness, and is a deserved monument to a city that was humbled and remains humbled by America-hating jihadists. I'm glad I no longer live in NYC.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Yes unfortunately this is happening all over. Eminent domain used to avoid dealing with the owners.

The Atlantic Yards project seizures were arguably even worse because they condemned buildings that were in no way a blight and the corruption attached to that was incredible and like a lot of ed projects, it's stalled.

Arguably being able to go through the normal mechanisms of buying property is also a test of competence. A project that can't do that is likely to have problems down the road.

And the Times Building has become a white elephant for an arrogant company now deeply in debt to an Arab billionaire.

The Singer building loss was a tragedy in its own way. I could easily envision that being the Woolworth Building.

Anonymous said...

The new Twin Towers should have been built there!

Anonymous said...

Can't it be demolished and replaced with two huge towers, taller than before, undaunted and proud?

rm

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