Paranoid Giant: Ground Zero’s Cathedral of Commerce Is The Ultimate Failure of Courage

A significant event in the 14 year saga of New York’s Ground Zero took place last month, as the observation deck of One World Trade Center was finally opened, allowing the public to rise up to the summit of SOM’s steel and glass spire for the first time.


Now the dust of construction has settled, we take a look back to the beginning, when designs on this – the fragile heart of NYC – began to take shape. How has the design of this skyscraper evolved over the past decade, and what does the process say about post-9/11 Western Society?

The timelapse elevator ride up WTC 1 includes a brief glimpse of Yamasaki’s Twin Towers


December 2002 – Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Freedom Tower’ was unveiled. Saturated with meaning, the ‘Skyscraper as Symbol’ was taken to a whole new level of complexity, in keeping with the extraordinary social and political demands of this loaded design brief. There were layered references to the past here: the tower’s offset spire echoed the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty… then, of course, there was that 1776-foot height, matching the year of American Independence.


Defining the height of a skyscraper using a historical date appears to laugh in the face of design by function, form or any tangible sense of architectural logic. However, these kinds of symbolic gimmicks were exactly the features that won the public over in the torrid months following their national tradegy: Libeskind successfully tapped into the emotional rationale of New Yorkers. I’ll call that ‘Libeskind Logic’.

Ground Zero’s Cathedral

Evolution of the design for WTC 1… then and now.

11 years on and after many fractious debates and redesigns, Skidmore Owings and Merrill – led by David Childs – have well and truly stamped their authority on the final incarnation. The spire is centered, the form filled out (incidentally creating thousands more square feet of lucrative commercial office space), and the base is encased with concrete and steel in an effort to deter would-be terrorists from attacking at ground level.

This last feature tells its own story: One World Trade Center has been the subject of exponential pragmatism, as the metaphor-ridden glass sabre of Libeskind was diluted to incorporate more leasable space – money talks – and security measures to calm the shredded nerves of the populous. The original American symbol of strength – the skyscraper – has become a paranoid giant, wearing a steel crown and the heaviest pair of lead boots imaginable.

Ground Zero’s Cathedral

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, with all these practicalities dissolving Libeskind’s original vision, the most irrational of design features – the 1776-foot height – remains. SOM stole the freedom away from the Freedom Tower, but left the public with one small reminder of why the USA is still a country of liberty and independence… just.

Yours metaphorically,

The Angry Architect

Images: © 2011 Studio Daniel Libeskind and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP

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