Design by Committee

The latest version of the Freedom Tower is the best yet.

The best yet

Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg recently unveiled the latest design of the proposed Freedom Tower, planned for the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. This is the third version. The first was part of Daniel Libeskind’s winning entry in the 2002 competition; the second, unveiled in 2003, was the result of an uneasy collaboration between Libeskind and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who is the architect hired by Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the site. The current design, which is entirely the work of Childs, is far from perfect but it is the best of the three.

Contrary to the impression sometimes given by the media, which describe modifications to competition-winning designs as unwanted interferences, great architecture does not spring entirely from the imagination. It took Robert Venturi three years and five different versions to arrive at his influential Vanna Venturi house. Louis Kahn worked his way through several alternatives on the way to designing the Kimbell Art Museum, considered by many his masterpiece. Buildings are not sculptures; it takes time to iron out the contradictions between aesthetics and practicality. The story of the inspired napkin sketch is almost always apocryphal.

Libeskind’s “winning” entry

The 77-story Freedom Tower has benefited greatly from its most recent redesign. Gone are the Libeskind signature elements: the off-center spire—a clumsy visual echo of the Statue of Liberty—the trapezoidal plan, the crystalline form. The tower now has a square footprint (set well back from the street), and a graceful, tapering shape. The gimmicky open-air structure at the top of the tower (which was to have housed wind turbines, of all things) is gone, too. What Childs has produced instead is a simple obelisk, an appropriate shape for a building that is, at least in part, a memorial.

The second Freedom Tower, a collaboration

The latest version of Freedom Tower was the result of last-minute security demands by the New York Police Department, and the rushed redesign has left two important parts of the building unresolved: the bottom and the top. The building sits on a blastproof 20-story-high pedestal of steel and concrete. The first three floors of this base are completely solid; those above it have few openings. Securing the base is a challenging design problem, but there are many examples of beautiful massive buildings, such as the Pantheon in Rome, or the Lincoln Memorial, so it is not an insurmountable one. The base of Freedom Tower, however, needs a lot of work. At the moment it is a masonry cube tentatively supporting a tall glass shaft. The two parts need to be integrated. By making the shaft more solid and the base more glassy, Freedom Tower could celebrate its impregnability, not hide it.

The current design has a 408-foot antenna atop the building. It is obviously an architectural addition to bring the total height of the building up to 1,776 feet, making it the tallest in the world. There are two famous New York skyscrapers that had masts added to their original designs to increase their height—the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building—but in both cases, the vertical extension was integrated into the overall design. That is not the case with the Freedom Tower. Childs has said that the design of the antenna is not final. One hopes that he is not irrevocably wedded to this concept. His handsome obelisk doesn’t need a spike on its top.