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Superior Complex

How to rebuild New York.

The debate over what should replace the World Trade Center pits two impulses against each other: the impulse to rebuild, as an affirmation of our optimism, and the impulse to perpetuate emptiness in the name of remembrance, by turning the area into a memorial park. Neither alternative is a satisfactory response to the tragic vacancy in the heart of New York. The emptiness alone would allow the terrorists to permanently erase a place full of life and energy; rebuilding alone would be disrespectful to those who died. We must therefore build, and also not build, affirming life while remembering the dead.

The footprint of the two Trade Center towers, each measuring 208 feet square, should be declared sacred ground; literally and metaphorically a cemetery for the 6,000 who died. No great artist commission is necessary, not even remnants of the towers' charred steel frame. Rather, simply arranged on the two squares of land should be a stone for each person, with his or her name carved upon it, set in a meadow. The rest of the site, including the surrounding damaged buildings, should be rebuilt as a vital, diverse complex of business, culture, and residences—a model of the values we cherish in our cities.

Were it even practical to rebuild the complex exactly as before, as some propose, such a project would ignore the cultural wisdom we have acquired since the early 1970s, when the towers were completed. The towers were conceived in the Formalist tradition—Formalist meaning that a single underlying concept of design takes precedence over all other environmental and programmatic requirements. Symbolism takes precedence over human needs. And so it was that the two extended obelisks, the tallest towers ever built at the time, equated height with power (in the tradition of Babel), without deference to the activities within them. Because of their height, their outer walls were made up of closely spaced columns giving them an almost solid appearance. From within, the buildings lacked transparency, light, and view, the very qualities we seek in a high-rise environment. Walking in the plazas and streets nearby, the towers were more overwhelming than they needed to be.

MUCH HAS BEEN written in recent days about the need to replace this Formalism with "a progressive architecture" and, in tribute to the dead, "a humanist architecture." But it's not often clear what people mean by "progressive" or "humanist," or how they propose to achieve it. Surely progressive does not simply mean up-to-the-minute, fashionable geometric configurations. Rather, the new complex must be a vital urban place, enhancing our understanding of publicness. Public spaces (piazzas, boulevards, and gallerias)—almost taken for granted from classical times to the nineteenth century—require good access, a diverse center that draws a variety of people for a variety of reasons and at various times, and a comfortable setting with good micro-climate, shelter, and sunlight. These have proven difficult in the twenty-first century because of the congestion, vehicular traffic, and privatization of space in our cities.

To achieve this ideal publicness, the new high-rise complex must be an inspiring place for work and for living, sensible in its use of resources and materials. Giant undifferentiated floor plates where only 10 percent of the workers sit by a window while the majority spends the working day in artificial light are depressing, so buildings with smaller footprints should be designed. And when thousands are concentrated in towers, garden-like spaces should be provided for relief and amenities. Moreover, for safety as well as for convenience, the towers should not be isolated from each other, but connected at several levels. These connections should be structural—able to transfer wind, earthquakes, and other shock stresses—in addition to providing pedestrian bridges that connect one tower to the other, perhaps every 15 floors. The crossover levels would become natural locations for hotel lobbies, conference centers, gardens, health clubs, and the like. They would facilitate contact between related businesses and departments, and multiply the options for emergency exiting.

The new complex should also improve efficiency. It should consist of a number of towers, probably four or five. They should not be 100-plus stories, since towers of this height require disproportionately more space for elevators and stairs and take away from usable space. Instead a cluster of towers should measure 50 to 60 stories. That would also allow the structures to be built from concrete, which is more fireproof than even the fire-protected steel of the Trade Center. Moreover, ingenious designs have demonstrated that incorporating natural ventilation and sun control can greatly improve the energy efficiency of sealed towers, which normally bake in the sun, require vast quantities of air conditioning, and rely almost entirely on electric lights.

The towers' primary use, as workspace, should be complemented by residential and hotel uses. Vertical zoning should devote two-thirds of the buildings to offices, crowned by floors of apartments and hotels. Mixing these uses within towers offers many advantages; in particular, it creates high-level residences with views. It can also result in an extraordinarily beautiful silhouette on the skyline, because residences that crown tall buildings lend themselves to delicate sculpting. On the lower levels should be retail, cultural facilities, and indoor and outdoor public spaces, designed to connect to and reinforce street life rather than siphoning public life off the streets. Furthermore, the presence of residences downtown would contribute to nighttime and weekend activities, overcoming the evening and weekend abandonment from which the area suffered.

These solutions may sound, in their details, mundane. But the resulting architecture—with the cemetery at its heart—could be transcendent. Any rebuilding at the site of the World Trade Center will be, by definition, fraught with symbolism. People will question meaning and seek expression in every element of the design. Still, it is precisely because symbolic associations abound that the rebuilding must progress beyond the business-as-usual architecture that it will replace. Now, more than ever, downtown New York must represent the best that a free and undaunted society can conceive.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.