Ever since that awful day when the hijacked jetliners tore into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the decision to rebuild was made, the question lurked: Could a new skyscraper deliver more than just a blunt statement that Americans won’t be intimidated by terrorists?
Thirteen years later we have the answer: A bold but flawed giant, opening next month, that will knock Chicago’s Willis Tower from its perch as the Western Hemisphere’s tallest building. The $3.9 billion, 104-story skyscraper, once called Freedom Tower and since renamed One World Trade Center, simultaneously reclaims the lower Manhattan skyline and reveals anew that America has yet to return to pre-9/11 normalcy.
From afar, One World Trade Center soars above the tightly-bunched cluster of high-rises at Manhattan’s southern tip and commands the vast sweep of New York Harbor with its record-setting height, sharply-cut silhouette and the kaleidoscopic play of clouds and sky on its mirror-smooth, reflective glass walls.
Even this distant view, however, cannot conceal a mediocre mast that fails to hold up its end of the skyline conversation with the great art deco spires of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
The outcome will not satisfy those who hoped for a more poetic skyline and a transformation of the original lifeless, windswept superblock into a thriving urban precinct.
To others, the building’s blunt base will represent a depressing symbol of a new urban woe — the rise of a security-obsessed government that has sucked energy from the public realm. They closed off streets like Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and have barred visitors from such majestic gateways as the bronze front doors leading to the Supreme Court.
In the short-term, at least, the tower reveals that erecting a commercial office building that doubles as a symbol of national resilience can be a dubious economic proposition. In an eerie echo of the Twin Towers, which flooded the market with office space and in their early years had to be filled with government agencies, just 60 percent of One World Trade Center’s space is leased.
One man’s heroic rebuilding may be another man’s financial folly. This one is full of contradictions that express the tensions of our time. One World Trade Center signals the rebirth of the city but stands apart from it. It says “we’re back” but not with the artistry it could have. It’s solid, occasionally scintillating, yet it’s no masterpiece. At least we can be glad that it didn’t layer an architectural travesty on the human tragedy wrought by the terrorists.