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.
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.
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.
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.