The Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.

What we build.
Dec. 19 2003 6:34 PM

Sneak Preview

The unveiling of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.

It has been dubbed, somewhat inanely, the Freedom Tower, but there isn't a whole lot of design freedom visible in the images released today of the skyscraper that Daniel Libeskind and David Childs have jointly produced for the World Trade Center site. Instead, the torqued, 1,776-foot tower looks the way most of us expected it would: like a gritted-teeth collaboration between two architects whose styles couldn't be more different.

Model of Freedom Tower from the south
Model of Freedom Tower from the south

Libeskind is a highly theoretical architect with only a handful of designs to his credit, most of them aggressively shardlike and cutting-edge. The far more experienced Childs, from the huge firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, has produced countless commercial projects—most recently the huge twinned towers of the Time Warner headquarters on Columbus Circle—that are elegant in a smooth, corporate way. In hammering out a final compromise on the skyscraper, the relationship between Libeskind and Childs by all accounts grew increasingly testy. Reading about it, one thinks of those movies where two people who can't stand each other are handcuffed or duct-taped together and forced to struggle free and then jointly accomplish some heroic task, like foiling a robbery or defusing a crude nuclear bomb.

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In this case, the task was to design a tower that will surely be among the most closely scrutinized buildings in American architectural history. The division of labor has been awkward, to say the least: Childs is serving as "lead architect," while Libeskind, despite having won a competition to create a master plan for the whole Ground Zero project, has been forced to act as "collaborating architect." (The reason for this is that Childs is working for Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease on the site and has a line on the forthcoming insurance payment that is financing the project.) The Lower Manhattan Development Corp.'s spin on the arrangement was that Childs' job has been to give "form" to a design "proposed" by Libeskind.

Then, earlier this month, things got really wacky, with reports in the New York Post and New York Observer that Libeskind sent staffers to SOM to take digital photographs of the Freedom Tower models—which they did over the protests of employees there—ostensibly so that Libeskind could go to New York Gov. George Pataki with visual proof that Childs was hijacking the design. Though Libeskind's office has downplayed the incident, saying it has been misreported, some in the Childs camp reportedly dubbed it "the Watergate break-in."

View with Brooklyn Bridge
View with Brooklyn Bridge

Thanks to the Byzantine control structure for the Ground Zero site, Pataki has more power in the rebuilding process than any other politician, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has done his best to keep the design moving unrelentingly forward, like a forced march, because he wants to time the Freedom Tower's groundbreaking to coincide with the Republican Convention in New York City next summer. It seems, though, at least to judge from the renderings released today, that the architects have not made enough progress to produce the fully realized unveiling we'd been expecting. This was more like a sneak preview.

As a result, it's possible at this point to analyze only a few elements in detail. Even so, Libeskind and Childs' uneasy relationship is clearly visible in the Freedom Tower's design. The building has three different sections, stacked vertically in a way that suggests a softening, though not a complete rounding off, of Libeskind's jagged aesthetic. A twisting lower section will contain 2.6 million square feet of office space on approximately 70 stories, with lobbies and two concourse levels at the base. Above that will be an area rising 400 feet that will hold wind turbines. It is enclosed by a lattice of cables meant to evoke those of the Brooklyn Bridge. The structure is topped by a 276-foot spire, bringing the tower's total height to the symbolic number of 1,776. That will make it the world's tallest building, though because of its open-air top it may seem shorter than numerous skyscrapers around the world. (The Twin Towers were 1,368- and 1,362-feet high but much bulkier than the Freedom Tower.)

The spire echoes the Statue of Liberty
The spire echoes the Statue of Liberty

Libeskind is responsible for the saccharine decision to make the building 1,776-feet tall and for several elements of the tower's body, especially its sharp asymmetry and sloping roof. He's also behind the spire, which is meant to suggest the Statue of Liberty's upraised arm. (The torquing, which will strengthen the building against wind loads, is the addition of Guy Nordenson, the engineer who has been working with Childs and Silverstein. Apparently it has its roots in a design that architect Richard Dattner sketched out in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.) The lattice structure is Childs' idea; it will hold turbines that will capture the wind and provide about 20 percent of the building's operating energy. (The wind turbines will turn the building, or its least its upper third, into an advertisement for the growing field of sustainable, or "green," architecture.) These turbines replaced the hanging gardens Libeskind wanted to include in the upper portion of the tower—a significant loss for Libeskind. Childs, for his part, apparently has compromised on his desire to have the lattice section rise to the very top of the building.

It is tough to tell from the surprisingly small selection of images that were made available this morning precisely how the lower section of the tower will look. (There is also unavoidable symbolism in the fact that SOM, not the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., handled most of the PR duties for today's events.) All the renderings show the building from a distance—as it will be seen from Brooklyn or about 50th Street in Manhattan, for example—instead of giving close-up views of the facade or of the building at street level.

Still, the day did provide yet more fodder for the ongoing Childs-Libeskind soap opera. On the Today show this morning, Pataki, Childs, and Libeskind appeared together for an interview by Katie Couric. When she asked about reports that the two architects didn't much like one another, Childs awkwardly patted Libeskind on the knee, and, calling him Danny, responded that their working relationship had been "spectacular."

That was a particularly evocative word choice: It sounds cheery but also suggests the extent to which each of the key players has already made a spectacle of himself, as well as the way the process is unfolding as if inside a fish bowl. Maybe Childs—or whoever preps him for his TV appearances—should get a crack at coming up with a less bluntly jingoistic name for the tower. After all, he has already been allowed to redesign it.

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