With designing and building the One World Trade Center comes the immense responsibility to compete with the ghost of the Twin Towers. If it had been any other site in the world, the story would be different; nevertheless, the One World Trade Center had to consider the sensitivity of the past, the commercial matters of the present, and its place amongst the skyline of the future. The universally-accepted model for the contemporary tower is thus lost due to a single event. Despite this, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s One WTC is able to redefine the contemporary tower in the metropolis upon reading the tower at the different scales of the city, plaza, and building.
One World Trade Center seems to pride itself on the future-oriented Financial District in which it stands and as one of seven towers planned to replace the original Twin Towers. However, the district contains much more history, with certain approaches towards the tower revealing this. Figure 1 frames the One World Trade Center amongst other towers to reveal a lesser-known history and evolution of the district through not just the architectural lens but also the historical lens. While the foreground contains more brick buildings, the background shows more buildings with glass facades, projecting a future for the Financial District that dismisses the brick and embraces the curtain wall. Additionally, the ratio between glass and facade — the size of the openings —becomes diminished with the favoring use of the glass curtain wall. The facade shows the window being punched out in a grid on the brick building on the right. The next evolution, the building to the right of the One WTC, shows the dissolution of the brick and the use of glass strips to cover each floor. And finally, the construction of One WTC announces the final shift to the continuous glass curtain wall, one that does not obviously show the floors and instead equalizes the facade as a continuous glass surface. This architectural reading of the buildings can be translated into its program: the brick buildings, with the curtains and repetition, must have once been offices that have been converted into apartments or hotel rooms, while the glass towers contain open-plan offices with enviable views. Here, the relationship between material, program and history is direct and evident when viewed collectively. Despite this seemingly direct correlation in this photograph, however, other models of the residential tower question this relationship between material, program and history when buildings like Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue and Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street come into the picture. As Viñoly and Gehry’s contemporary residential towers reveal, the repeated, punched window facade is a model that is very much alive today, although instead of brick they use steel structures to compete with their soaring counterparts of the office building.
Height thus becomes a common thread between the towers being built in the modern era, whether it is the product of capitalism or an ironic nod to the past. Despite how forward-thinking One WTC portrays itself to be, with its glass curtain wall and twisting form, its spire reveals a step back into the past. Unlike the other buildings in the view, the One WTC is topped with a spire certainly constructed to extend the height of the tower to the height of the original Twin Towers. In a sea of flat roofs, this tower appears to raise its hand, cheating, so as to reach for its predecessor’s height. As a tower that situates itself as a model for future towers, One WTC refers back to the past and the history of the area through its desire to reach its original height.
The friction between the brick and the glass, the unitized and the continuous, and the residence and the office space, thus becomes a conflict the Financial District must face. With the coming of more towers, how will the area negotiate with its more historical buildings? Or will it not, replacing brick with glass and small and heavy with tall and light? The One WTC’s single moment of referencing the past through its spire reveals that perhaps even the most contemporary and forward-projecting towers will, knowingly or not, consider its history.
While the One World Trade Center is, above all, an office building, it is also a major tourist destination with its observatory. As shown in Figures 2 and 3 and zooming in to the scale of the plaza, the scene at the One WTC varies greatly with the user it serves: the tourist, and the office worker. With these differences come different approaches towards curating the experience of a one-time visitor compared to that of a frequent visitor and employee. It consequently brings up the question: how should the base of a tower behave as both an office building and tourist destination amongst a sea of people?
One might think that, considering its adjacency with the pools, museum, and terminal network of the September 11 Memorial, the office entrance would reciprocate with an equally-alluring facade; however, except for a projecting glass canopy, the entrance is void of any elements to facilitate in creating a public space. (Figure 2) No benches are placed outside, and a lack of signage implies a more introverted approach towards this side of the tower. Interestingly enough, turning the corner of the tower is a rather hidden entrance to the One WTC Observatory, and it is here where a much-needed public space is activated. (Figure 3) Long benches sit on the edge of the sidewalk facing the entrance, allowing visitors to rest, observe, and photograph the tower Figure 2 (left) and Figure 3 (right) above. While the trees in front of the office entrance are planted in a row, limiting the chance for congregation, the trees in front of the observatory entrance are peppered throughout the sidewalk so as not to create a green wall and disturb the natural gathering of people. These opposing attitudes towards the elevation of the One World Trade Center entrances thus appears as a contradiction: the introverted office entrance sits among a network of active, public spaces, while the extroverted Observatory entrance is tucked behind a quieter pocket of the tower.
While both entrances are remarkably similar as facades — each with a glass canopy, similar surface treatment, and revolving doors — the real changes are introduced as a result of differing site contexts. Despite the apparent introverted employee entrance, its proximity to the subway terminal makes this entrance logical and desirable for the employees who visit the tower on a daily basis. Furthermore, with fewer seating and gathering areas, and the row of trees, this protected entrance behaves as a transitional moment for the employees to leave the bustling 9/11 Memorial campus and tourist population before entering the more quiet offices inside the tower. On the other hand, the observatory entrance for the tourists is a rational location when considering the entrance’s proximity to an additional shopping center. The benches here and public space in front of the observatory entrance become not just a place to view the tower, but also a place to rest from the adjacent shopping center, memorial pools, and the memorial museum. Although each entrance serves different users, its adjacencies, use of trees, and their addition or omission of public furniture produce their own way of providing moments of relief from the site.
Figure 4 reveals a much more intimate, individualized reading of the One World Trade Center. The photograph shows a tower that had to balance many characteristics while struggling with its architectural identity: its twisting, prismatic form is unique but not too spectacular, and its facade glimmers but does not distract. The longer one looks at the tower, the more the building and its details come into focus. Upon turning the corner one would expect to see more of these buildings; instead, however, is not just a piece of blue sky but rather the silhouette of a camouflaged tower slowly coming into focus. The viewer chooses to see it, or not, until sky becomes a tower, its glass curtain wall reflecting its surroundings as if to disappear into the sky. As time passes, its mullions and spire become visible, revealing the One World Trade Center as not just sky, a mirage, or silhouette, but as a piece of architecture amongst the New York City skyline. The photograph thus illustrates the many layers of the One World Trade Center, from its subtleties and relationship with its surroundings, to its final defined form as an international architectural icon. Second by second, the resolution of the tower becomes more defined.
While, for some, there could have been a better solution to this problem without defaulting to a supposedly conservative tower scheme, it only seems appropriate to design the tower that exists today. It behaves well, as it should be, for a tower that must deal with the past. While the other towers in the Downtown New York City area cannot hide from the viewer, the One World Trade Center plays with the viewer. It does not jump out of the sky, it hides in it. The building becomes an optical illusion whose identity constantly changes the more one experiences it. And once it is seen, it cannot be unseen. It becomes a building that, although subtle in form, becomes iconic not just because of its social significance but also because of its many identities.
SOM’s One World Trade Center exemplifies the power of such a high-profile project that inevitably involves history, access, context, material. While it acknowledges its past through the spire, the One WTC signals the future of the Financial District and the universal model for the office tower. The glass curtain wall and the office tower become inseparable, one not existing without the other. The way in which people access the tower, however, become less clear between the office worker and the tourist, relying on site-specific nuances and the tower’s relationship with its surrounding buildings. And lastly comes the existential reading of tower as it is seen up close and amongst the sky, where the history of the district and public access to the building are supplanted by the individual relationship with the building. Although each scale of the One WTC tells a different story, a collective reading as informed by these different scales allows for a more wholistic and illuminating view of the building as it exists today.