Save the Condé Nast maidens from the Tower of Terror!

Scrutinizing culture.
June 1 2011 5:29 PM

Save the Condé Nast Maidens!

Don't lock them up in the WTC Tower of Terror.

(Continued from Page 1)

And then he added (do I detect a note of desperation?):

Now is the time for anyone with alternate ideas for securing the site to present them for consideration.

They admit they don't know if there's a better plan than the one they're putting in place! They're still hoping someone can come up with something better, something more likely to work. Kevlar bubble wrap?

If that's the best the commish can give the real estate types to sell on, it ain't much. According to the city's Police Commissioner, Condé Nast is moving into a building under a threat that will "persist" indefinitely, as long as the building lasts. But they're working on it! Note that he didn't say it was "the safest work environment in the world." He said they're "working to" (as in toward) making it that. How far away they are from that goal he didn't say. What a brilliant gesture on Condé Nast's part to lease 1 million square feet in the No. 1 terror target in the world without an ironclad security plan in place. I hope they got a nice price.

And despite one commenter calling my WTC security stories "a lonely crusade," I was not entirely alone when I first raised these questions. Here's Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times several weeks after me: "The simple question that no one could answer the day after 9/11 remains unanswered today: What sane person would want to work in a skyscraper destined to be the most tempting target for aerial assault in the Western world?"

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And then almost simultaneously Kurt Andersen, in his New York magazine column, called upon the Ground Zero bureaucrats to "Forget the idea that we are obliged to build a super tall high rise for symbolic purposes, to defy the terrorists, or 'repair' the skyline. The skyline was fabulous before the Twin Towers and Al Qaeda will not be diminished a jot" by offering "a provocation to ambitious terrorists around the world."

He added this question: "Will the inspirational jolt we enjoy in 2009 by having demonstrated our architectural gumption, outweigh the horror we will feel if that [edifice] is bombed in 2010?" (Failure to finish on time is the main factor that's kept the Freedom Tower safe so far.)

A look back at the first security scandal is instructive: One of the things the NYPD counterterrorism squad insisted on was that the base of the tower be moved further back from nearby West Street with its heavy truck traffic. (Can you say "truck bomb"?) Of course, I may have missed it, but what's the plan to prevent an explosion originating on one of the hundreds of trains that will be passing below the base of the tower? Is every train passenger and his or her backpack going to be searched? And what about a Stinger missile (widely available on the black market, I'm told) from across the river? Would you want to go to work in place people are scheming 24/7 to destroy?

Oh, but don't forget the bollards! The revised security plan after the scandal of 2005 included more bollards, a word I've come to admire for embodying itself somehow: Bollards are those fire-plug shaped heavy-metal stanchions placed at close intervals around security-conscious buildings to prevent a truck bomb from barreling through. Of course all those trucks making deliveries inside the building? The highly paid security guards who will check them out before letting them in the bowels of the tower only have to make one mistake ...

And then there was bold talk back then that the building security check-in would include as-yet-to-be-proven iris-scanning ID verification devices (when Condé Nast moves in will they offer eyeliner checks, too?). There will be dogs patrolling the perimeter and the pat-down is likely to exceed TSA-style obscenity.

And no worries about the air you breathe: Back then there was also talk of highly sensitive airborne biotoxin detectors so you'll know—after it's too late of course—if someone has infected the air you breathe with anthrax through the ventilating system. Very comforting.

But the pièce de résistance in this tale of folly was the reinforced base and the attempted prism-glass coverup. The NYPD counterterror people were adamant that the base of the building had to be encased in thick concrete for 185 feet up, or the first 20 stories, to protect against a bomb deposited at ground zero of Ground Zero.

But "Ugh," said the aesthetes designing the building. One hundred eighty-five feet of concrete. It would look like a "fortress," said one. "Forbidding," said another. Not exactly in tune with the delicate Condé Nast creative spirit. Actually, more like one of those supermax prisons that they keep psycho-killers in. Condé Nast on Shutter Island!

And so, back in 2006, they came up with this supergenius, highly artistic plan to cover up the supermax concrete and armor-plated fortress: They'd clad the concrete in "prism glass," a super-special reflecting glass, that would make everything look pretty in the sunlight. Designer sunglasses for the building!

Then, whoops, five years later, just last month, the site developers suddenly announced they were dropping the prism glass because the super special prism glass they'd already spent $6 million on "bowed and broke" on testing.

But better late than never, right? How's the testing on those air sensors going, guys? So Condé Nasties, you know your lives are in the hands of some very, very—what's the word?—slow thi nkers. Curious that the announcement about the glass came several days after the Condé Nast announcement—perhaps the slow, slow testing had not quite reached completion. We will test no glass before it's time. Goodbye, prism, hello again, supermax.

And, by the way, I don't think the matter is of more or special urgency just because it's Condé Nast. I'm speaking on behalf of everyone forced to work in this misbegotten building, because, in this economy, who has much of a choice if the boss says, "See you downtown"?

Why had I been on this "lonely crusade" against Freedom Tower folly for half a dozen years before Condé Nast entered the picture? I think it may be because my father was an office worker in the Empire State building when a fogbound plane—accidentally—crashed into it that I'm sensitized to the question.

It's true, though, I have a fondness for Condé Nast, having spent a decade or so riding the elevators to Vanity Fair, where I was a contributing editor, and Mademoiselle, where I was movie reviewer. I learned to treasure the complex and intoxicating mix of subtle fragrances that mingled in the elevator air. And to differentiate by subtle outfit cues, Vogue from Glamour and Glamour from Mademoiselle types. Condé Nast is a storied New York institution whose eccentric creative past is worth reading about—check out Mary Cantwell's memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

I don't think anyone should be forced to work at the new Ground Zero on a daily basis but I would also add that Condé Nast in particular is a culture that would be more sensitive to daily apprehension of "Mumbai style attacks" than a worldwide shipping container corporation, say. (It's not that Condé Nast can't be tough minded, too. They could have unleashed a team of their best investigative reporters—The New Yorker, Wired—on the safety question before signing the deal. They still could. It's not too late. I'd trust these reporters over "security consultants.")

Still, Condé Nast people in general are sensitive enough already, it's their job to be sensitive. Sensitive to the tremors in the zeitgeist, to the length of a hem, the equipoise of a semicolon in Janet Malcolm's prose.

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