Let Freedom Tower!

Pataki’s premature groundbreaking is par for the site.

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Model of Freedom Tower, seen from the south

The rumor began showing up in the press more than a year ago: New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki, was thinking about holding the groundbreaking ceremony for the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero during the GOP’s National Convention at the end of this summer. Even for a career politician, it seemed a nakedly opportunistic idea. It also seemed a little premature, given that so few key elements of the skyscraper were in place. It was unclear at that point what the tower was going to look like, how it was going to be paid for, and how tenants would be found to fill its 60-plus floors of office space.

So Pataki, of course, did what any cautious, self-respecting politician would do under the circumstances: Together with the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, he decided to hold the groundbreaking eight weeks earlier.

And so at 10 a.m. this Sunday, Pataki will grab a shovel and a hard hat, or whatever implements politicians are using for such events these days, and smile for the assembled photographers as the cornerstone for the tower is officially lowered into the dirt. He’ll then give a short speech politely ignoring the fact that it is still unclear what the tower is going to look like, how it is going to be paid for, and how tenants will be found to fill its 60-plus floors of office space.

This is what it has come to at Ground Zero: A premature, election-year press conference held on Independence Day to celebrate the start of construction on a building called the Freedom Tower, which is designed to be precisely 1,776 feet tall and to rise next door to a vaguely conceived but lavishly outfitted museum called the Freedom Center. Who says patriotism is dead?

Architecture by committee

If all this were happening in service of a truly great piece of architecture—or even a very good one—it would be easier to keep the cynicism in check. But the Freedom Tower doesn’t promise to be much better than pretty good. As all the world must know by now, the thin, torqued skyscraper is the product of an unhappy collaboration between Daniel Libeskind, the site’s master planner, and David Childs, a partner in the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the architect handpicked by World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein.

As a symbol of the tortured rebuilding effort where the Twin Towers once stood, the ungainly Freedom Tower could not have been better assembled. First, take the early sketches drawn up by Libeskind’s office for the building, which imagined it as the glinting, hard-edged, sloping-roof culmination of a series of five towers sweeping in a counterclockwise motion from the southern edge of the site to its northwest corner, each one taller and grander than the last. Then ask a few politicians, the staff of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and some engineers from the Port Authority to marry that design with a typically sleek, agreeable skyscraper from Childs’ office. Add some wind turbines and a steel lattice dreamed up by the engineer Guy Nordenson, and there you have it.

A building is bound to lose something vital in a process like that. There are certainly architectural partners out there who’ve found a way to work effectively as creative equals, but the process can take decades to perfect, even for those happy to share credit. Libeskind and Childs had only a few months, and they were working in the glare of an incredibly bright spotlight.

With Libeskind and Childs’ client, Silverstein, having seen their power over the site erode significantly in recent months, it’s hard to say what changes will be made to the tower as it goes up. Now that legal setbacks have cut the amount of insurance money Silverstein stands to collect to roughly half what he was hoping for, he will clearly be unable to pay for the entire 10 million square feet of office space included in the master plan. For a while, it seemed possible that he wouldn’t be able to swing even the Freedom Tower, but the political symbolism that Pataki has attached to the building means it would be surprising if its rise were somehow stalled. Still, when it is built, the tower may look significantly different from the renderings trotted out on Sunday.

Most likely to disappear is Libeskind’s spire, the element that takes the building to its symbolic height and allows Libeskind and others to bill it as the tallest in the world, even though its highest occupied floor will be closer to a modest 1,100 feet above the pavement. On a $1.5 billion building whose financing is likely to be very tight, it will be tough to justify paying extra millions for an extension of the tower that serves no practical purpose. The whole wind-turbine system also appears to be on the chopping block.

Then there is the question of tenants. It’s possible that Pataki will announce a deal with an anchor tenant for the tower on Sunday morning, but without one, the building remains effectively a speculative venture. Prospective occupants are hardly rushing to secure their space inside.

All this is looking more and more like the process that brought us the original Twin Towers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Then, as now, an ambitious Republican governor pushed through the construction of an oversized new architectural project that promised to flood lower Manhattan with more commercial space than even the rosiest projections suggested it needed.

History seems to be repeating itself, in other words, and hardly in a way that breeds much confidence. That suggests that if the Freedom Tower planners were going to hold the building’s cornerstone ceremony on a holiday that shares its name with a well-known Hollywood movie, Independence Day would be the wrong one. Remember that 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray in which he kept waking up to discover he was living the same day over again?

Exactly. Feb. 2 would have been a much better choice.