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New York’s Freedom Tower already looks dated

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More than a decade in the making, New York’s Freedom Tower opens and already looks dated, says Rory Olcayto

After more than a decade of legal challenges, political infighting, soaring budgets and a change in architect, New York’s One World Trade Centre has finally opened its doors. Staff of Conde Naste - publisher of Vogue, Wired and Architectural Digest among many others - moved in earlier this week, although finishing touches are still being applied - the 102nd-floor observation deck will open next spring.

The SOM-designed building, a descendant of Daniel Libeskind’s competition-winning scheme from 2003, replaces Minoru Yamasaki’s ‘Twin Towers’, destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Famously dubbed Freedom Tower, and designed to a height of 1776 feet to acknowledge the year American gained independence, or freedom, from Great Britain (an idea held over from the Libeskind original), it is the tallest building in the western hemisphere. And while it is nearly double the height of London’s Shard, it doesn’t fare well in a close comparison. Much of this is down to how the building is crowned: SOM’s tower relies upon a rather dated-looking ‘spike’, which feels misplaced aesthetically compared with the sub-Libeskind formalism the bulk of the tower adopts.  The Shard, as Eddie Heathcote noted in his brilliant rumination on Renzo Piano’s tower for AJ’s Stirling Prize coverage, cleverly sidesteps the quandary by dissolving its peak.

Another problem - and this is where it shares similarities with the Shard - is how it sits on the skyline, and how it relates to its less-tall neighbours. Yamasaki’s towers may never have been truly loved by New Yorkers in the way they took to the Chrysler, or the Empire State, but their simple thrusting monumentality - a pair of extruded squares rising higher and higher - had an architectural purity that allowed them to cohere with the various blocky Manhattan gridirons and the manifold extrusions they permit. In a long-view elevation of Manhattan too, there is less of a sense of the townscape rising to a crest at the island’s southern tip. Last week was AJ’s Gehry week, so I’m reluctant to mention him again, but it’s fair to say his residential highrise - 8 Spruce Street - which is walking distance from Freedom Tower, remains New York’s best new tall building for an age.

Could New York’s failure be London’s opportunity?

You might argue that, if anything, the underwhelming Freedom tower signals the end of New York’s reign as the skyscraper capital of the world. Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong would certainly argue that they are the pre-eminent highrise cities today. But might London also throw its hat in the ring? Novelist William Gibson, the man who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ back in 1984, certainly thinks so. Much of his new book, The Peripheral, is set among the ‘great skyscrapers’ and ‘teeming masses’ of the Thameside ‘mega city’. One reviewer says the lead character ‘inhabits a casually luxurious London of glass and steel “shard” skyscrapers and creepy remote-controlled drone bodies with direct sensory experience for the controller’. Could it be that the Shard, in direct contrast to Freedom Tower, signals the beginning of London’s title bid to be crowned the home of tomorrow’s supertalls?

Manchester city united

Can anything stop London’s inexorable rise to total dominance of England, Britain, and the whole wide world? Well yes: Manchester of course. News this week that the city is to have an elected mayor with control over housing, transport and planning, has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by architects and developers.  That these powers have been granted to Manchester alone, however, seems a little odd. Why not Liverpool or Bristol - both of which already have elected mayors in place? Once again, we should look to William Gibson and a quote often attributed to him: ‘The future is already here - it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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