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The Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center Site

Testy Collaboration between Daniel Libeskind and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Makes Progress


Daniel Libeskind's original plan Collaboration plan with David Childs

Daniel Libeskind's original plan on the left and "collaboration" scheme, unveiled December 19, 2003, with David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on the right

By Carter B. Horsley

Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the extremely impressive Jewish Museum in Berlin, won the design "competition" for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, but Larry Silverstein, who controls the lease on the site, commissioned David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the project's tallest structure that became known as the "Freedom Tower."

In recent months, the "collaboration" between the two architects became exceedingly testy and appeared headed on a crash course.

Libeskind apparently had been relegated to becoming the site's "planner" and Childs, whose major works in Manhattan include the Post-Modern but very handsome World-Wide Plaza on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street and the slick, reflective-glass "twin" towers of the AOL-Time Warner Center nearing completion now on the west side of Columbus Circle between 58th and 60th Streets, apparently was going to be the architect of the tower.

Press reports leaked intimations of Childs's design as a "torqued" tube crowned with a trellice inside of which would be wind mills, a scheme about as radically different from Libeskind's plan as conceiveable.

The unveiling December 19, 2003 of the new plan on which the two architects were politically forced to collaborate therefore was almost event, one that some thought would result in a travesty of this very, very public design process. It was, however, a tremendous surprise and relief and the two architects wrought something of a miracle, certainly in record time.

The new design is impressive. It gives New York a new skyline icon as its spire will top off at 1,776 feet as Libeskind had insisted and Childs's diamond-grid façade is not totally at odds with Libeskind's original diagonally textured façades. Moreover, Childs's has not banished Libeskind's slanted roof concept.

The new renderings and models indicated that the new "Freedom Tower" will be a soaring, asymmetrical structure of considerable elan. They did not, however, offer enough detail, especially of the windmills and the base of the tower, to quash all criticism. The windmills are contained in the structural cage that rises above the office building and while the notion that they might provide up to 20 percent of the tower's energy requirements is environmental comforting it is not clear how safe, let along beautiful, they might be. Depending on which report one read, the tower will have 62 or 70 floors of offices and their summit will be about 1,150 feet in the air. The tower will supposedly have an observatory, presumably at that level, as well as a restaurant run by the operators of the Windows on the World restaurant that had been near the top of the demolished South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Libeskind's original tower plan called for a 70-story office tower abutted by a 1,776-foot-high space-frame-like structure with gardens. Childs argued that the "side" tower was too expensive and that a better solution was to add on to the top of the office tower. His solution was an open, cable structure that would rise above the slanted-roof office portion to about 1,500 feet, above which would rise a spire. The windmills would be attached to two columns that would rise somewhat shorter than the cable cage's 1,500-foot summit.

View from south of the Statue of Liberty

Photomontage and rendering of view of redeveloped World Trade Center as it might be seen from south of the Statue of Liberty

Libeskind's asymmetrical tower was intended in part to pay homage to the upraised torch arm of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. Childs's cables are intended in part to pay homage to the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, across Lower Manhattan, over the East River. Such concepts are alright even if quite abstract, although one might have thought that a more obvious homage might have been to the fallen "twin towers" of the World Trade Center and indeed one contributor to the discussion board at digitally altered one of the new renderings to duplicate the tower with a twin, a rather effective and impressive concept.

View from Brooklyn north of the Brooklyn Bridge

Photomontage and rendering of redevelopment World Trade Center as it might be seen from Brooklyn north of the Brooklyn Bridge

Although press reports in the week or two prior to the unveiled "leaked" news that the Freedom Tower would actually have a television antenna that would bring its height to 2,000 feet, the official unveiling made no such reference.

The north tower of the demolished World Trade Center had a tall television antenna that brought that tower's height to more than 1,700 feet but not as high as the Freedom Tower spire, not including an antenna.

In an article in the December 20, 2003 edition of The New York Times, David Dunlap sarcastically wrote: "It will certainly be the world's tallest cable-fraed, open-air, windmill-filled, spire-studded superstructure, rising atop 70 stories of offices, restaurants, a broadcast center and an observation deck. Whether that makes it the world's tallest building is another matter....The CN Tower in Toronto unhestitatingly describes it self as the world's tallest building, at 1815 feet. But some see it as more of a mast, with a relatively small amount of occupied space....Then comes Taipei 101, a 101-story tower nearing completion in Taiwan, at 1,667 feet, with the top occupied floor at 1,470 feet....That leaves as the reigning champion the 88-story twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which measure 1,483 feet at the top of their spires, but only 1,229 feet at their top occupied floors."

Clearly, the tower will have difficulty claiming to be the world's tallest building, or even structure. The office portion of the tower will contain about 2.6 million square feet of office space, or about the same as the MetLife (formerly the PanAm) Building that straddles Park Avenue in midtown. The design plan for the tower, which can be found at, states that there will be "opportunities to highlight the design with inspiratonal lighting." "Like the shell of a nautilis, the form of Freedom Tower developers from the logical development of structure. An innovative diagonal structural grid - or diagrid - encircles the perimeter of the tower and sets in motion the twisting of its form. Paired with a concrete core, the diagrid system lends substantial rigidity to the overall building structure whileproviding column-free interior spans for maximum flexibility. Above the occupied spaces, the diagonal, twisting geometry of structure extends upwards as a lacy system of steel cables....Supporting the cables like the masts of a sailboard are two circular structure cores contaiing elevators and stairs."

Aerial view from the north

Photomontage and rendering of the proposed project in aerial view from the north

Critical reception to the new design has been generally favorable. The front page of The New York Post December 20, 2003 proclaimed "Power Tower," and an article in that edition by Steve Cuozzo maintained that "Ona site defined as much by heroism as by atrocity, the Freedom Tower is heroic," adding that "Its truncated pyramid form rises from a parallelogram-shaped base - but it's more intriguing than that suggests." "The gently twisted, 'torqued' façades and slanted roof of the commercial base skews its geometry just where it threatened to be predictable, yet without the knife-edged facets of Libeskind's early drawings.""

Herbert Muchamps, the architecture critic of The New York Times, wrote on December 20, 2003 that "the architects have come close to transcending what's left of their battered selves," adding that "With some shrewd editing, the design could become one of the noblest skyscrapers ever realized in New York." "These refinements," he continued in his Page One column, "should not be difficult to achieve."

In the December 20, 2003 edition of Newsday, Justin Davidson provided the following commentary:

"The weakest elements of the design are those at the borders where Childs' method and Libeskind's literary ideas meet. The tower's three levels - solid base, airy torso and slender needle - are well articulated but need to be better glued together. For now the top third of the building looks a bit like a nutcracker soldier's tall hat adorned with a wispy feather that is practically begging to be knocked off.

There are questions at the bottom of the building, too. The high-ceilinged, unpartitioned lobby might end up feeling palatial or cavernous, depending on the details. On the eastern side, the lower stories of the skyscraper might be joined to a performing arts center, a building that has yet to be commissioned or conceived, much less designed, so it's impossible to know how the tower will present itself to the throngs who flow westward from the new transit hub."

The new, tapered, asymmetrical design promises to be an intriguing and alluring new skyline landmark. The devil, of course, is in the details and the renderings and models that were unveiled December 19, 2003 are still "preliminary" and subject to "refinements." The public design process for both the office buildings and the memorial at the World Trade Center site have been extremely frustrating and something of a travesty in their misleading the public's understanding of what might actually be built. Design by politics and committee is almost always compromised. This tower will only contain at most 70 office floors, which will occupy only about two-thirds of the structure's height. In recent years, flat-topped towers have become rather passé, witness many of the superstructures and esoteric birdcages atop the newer buildings of Times Square. The form of the new structure has elegance and good proportions, but it remains to be seen whether its cable-cage top and spire are gangly, if not preposterous, or beautiful. One hopes the latter. The "torqued" façades are supposed to help the building weather wind loads. One hopes that the windmills are carefully studied and tested to prevent whistle or unexpected aerodynamics.

Libeskind is an architect of high-tech poetics. Childs has been heretofore a good practitioner of classy but basically conventional high-rise office towers. Despite the hoop-la and controversies over their collaboration, the two architects have somehow forged an interesting new design that is likely to become popular because of its asymmetry and its height. Seventy or so floors of offices is not a lot in the global skyscraper contests, but this design is a much better start than most of us anticipated in this very tortured design process, but it's still a bit early to give a final verdict.

See The City Review article on the eight finalists' plans for the memorial part of the proposed redevelopment

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