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Ground Zero deserved quick procurement and brilliant architecture, but got neither

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Ten years after an event that demands great design, we have an incomplete tower with few notable features, sustainable or otherwise, says Christine Murray

Ten years since the events of 9/11, replayed footage on the telly will refresh the shock of the day that took 2,753 lives.

The anniversary will see thousands of journalists, philosophers, politicians and thinkers grappling for perspective on the event that ‘changed the world’.

Inevitably, there will be commentary on the terrorised political culture shaped by the so-called attack on America. There will also be questions about how much has really changed – as Ian Martin lampoons in his satirical column this week, ‘We all “feared” that 9/11 would mean no more tall buildings. Look at us now. Extruded vertical luxury in every city!’

The embarrassingly slow redevelopment of Ground Zero illustrates the analysis paralysis provoked by 9/11. The plethora of stakeholders, not least the families of those who died, could not find consensus on the site, caught between urges to preserve the wreckage, the symbolic importance of a tall building as a defiant tribute to the resiliency of New York, and the commercial pressures of private developer Larry Silverstein (who bought the 99-year lease on the World Trade Center for $3.2 billion just six months before they were destroyed).

The good news is that the stakeholders managed to agree on the elegant memorial fountains by architect Michael Arad in the former footprints of the towers, which open on Sunday. But of Libeskind’s masterplan of five towers, just three are going ahead; both Richard Rogers’ Tower 3 and Norman Foster’s Tower 2 have been delayed.

Trawl through the AJ archives and in 2005, New York governor George Pataki is hailing Foster’s appointment to design Tower 2 as ‘just the latest signal that the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is moving forward’. By 2006, at least 60 groups had rallied against Foster’s scheme. And in 2009, a leaked document by the city’s Port Authority revealed that Foster’s Tower 2 and Rogers’ Tower 3 may not be completed for 20 years because the property market could not support the combined 700,000m² of additional commercial space.

As of now, neither Foster’s nor Rogers’ tower has a confirmed completion date, and Swiss bank UBS has pulled out of talks over a future tenancy in Tower 3.

One tower, however, is rising: the underwhelming, aesthetically bland, very tall (tallest in America) One World Trade Center. Formerly the ‘Freedom Tower’, its height of 1,776 feet (541 metres) bluntly refers to the year America declared independence, firmly ticking the requisite box of tower-as-American-finger salute.

But for architects, the development of Ground Zero may as well symbolise how multiple stakeholders, political correctness, market forces and commercial pressures can hamper inspiring design. Ten years after an event that deserves brilliant architecture and quick procurement, we have an incomplete tower with few notable features, sustainable or otherwise.

The tragedy of the new World Trade Center is that it is now a commercial development like any other – mired by the same bureaucracy and mediocrity.

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