WTC plan: soaring spire over 'sacred ground'

The design, building the world's tallest tower, embodies a determination to rise beyond 9/11.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New York has always stood tall. This is a city that moves up, and not out.

It's no place for false modesty.

So despite post-attack talk of shorter being safer, those charged with rebuilding the World Trade Center site chose Daniel Libeskind as architect. His design thrusts a towering glass spire a symbolic 1,776 feet into the sky, higher than any other building in the world.

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In Mr. Libeskind's words, his creation reasserts "the preeminence of freedom and beauty, restoring the spiritual peak to the city, creating an icon that speaks of our vitality in the face of danger and our optimism in the aftermath of tragedy."

Now, those are bragging rights. Something New Yorkers like to have but don't necessarily need to show off. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, New York was home to the tallest building in the world. But you won't see many natives gawking up at the shining tips of the Empire State or Chrysler buildings - each in its own time titleholder to top spot. New Yorkers just like to know they're there. They're part of the city's soul.

"In New York, the cathedrals are the tall buildings," says Kenneth Jackson, president of the New York Historical Society. "The city was founded as New Amsterdam, and its purpose was to make money. That entrepreneurial strain has run through the city's history for 400 years."

Keeping some things intact

While Libeskind's design would continue the city's tradition of always reaching for the peak of achievement, it will also preserve part of the sunken pit and slurry walls that survived the Sept. 11 attacks that caused the original 1,350-foot-high twin towers to crumble.

Libeskind calls this "hallowed, sacred ground." It's where most of the body parts of the 2,800 people who were killed were found. There will be a park here. But the building is also designed so that each year on Sept. 11 - between 8:46 a.m., when the first plane struck, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower fell - the sun will shine without shadow "in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage."

It was the sense of hope and inspiration that prompted the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the Port Authority, and the offices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki to choose Libeskind's design, which is estimated to cost $330 million. It was chosen over the THINK Team's two latticework structures that rose where the old trade center stood.

Conrad Scott, who worked directly across from the World Trade Center on 9/11, says he felt "uncomfortable" with the scaffoldlike towers of the Think Team. "It's too much of a reminder." But he likes the Libeskind design because it doesn't try to "replicate what was there before" - and because it will create a record-breaker.

"You can give in or move on," he says. "So, you build either the tallest building in the world, or maybe the second-tallest building in world - not to be arrogant."

Some residents' ambivalence about going for the top spot is a product of the 1990s, when there was a backlash of sorts against "tall" in New York. Civic groups charged that the huge residential towers replacing the blocks of brownstones in the East 90s robbed the area of its neighborhood feel. Grass-roots activists fought and succeeded in reducing the height of the AOL Time Warner Building now under construction at Columbus Circle. The city itself even proposed a cap on height, except Midtown and Downtown.

"If you look back over the last 10 years, there was an animus against very tall buildings," says Carol Willis, the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York. "It's quite astonishing and reassuring for me that people want to see tall buildings on the skyline again."

The word skyscraper is actually sailor's slang for the highest mast of the ships that brought their cargo into New York Harbor. In the mid-19th century, people began to use the term to describe the tall buildings that were rising out of the increasingly dense island.

It was the desire for profit that first forced those buildings up: The higher one built, the more return on the investment. In the 1890s, the introduction of steel, advanced physics, and the personal elevator pushed them even higher.

And in the 1960s, the World Trade Center was built to shore up lower Manhattan, which was loosing its economic clout to the suburbs and foreign competition.

Challenges ahead

But it's that very entrepreneurial strain that may make it difficult for Libeskind's dream to be realized as part of New York's skyline. Most of New York's tallest buildings were conceived in economic boom times. With the economy limping along, Wall Street still in the tank, and a glut of office space, it could be difficult to finance, even with the insurance money that will subsidize construction.

And the fact the Libeskind design would create the tallest tower in the world could also cause some problems. While it gives a city bragging rights and draws tourists, after a certain height, the return on investment for the developer begins to diminish, making it less attractive.

Then there's the clouded ownership question. While the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the site, the buildings were leased by developer Larry Silverstein, who will have plenty to say about what finally goes up. That's unless Mayor Bloomberg succeeds in wresting control of the property, which could give the city the final say.

All conflicting interests still need to play out before anything goes up on that site. But it is clear that New Yorkers want to see their skyline repaired - no matter what the cost.

"It's somehow stitching up the psychic wound, the fabric of the city and trying to put back what was there and make it normal again," says Ms. Willis of the Skyscraper Museum. "It has a great deal to do with their decision to want to build tall."

For others like David Porter, a British banker who lost friends in the attack, building the world's tallest structure would make a statement to the world. "It should be demonstration that New York is still here. It's still alive."

Staff writer Ron Scherer contributed to this report.

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