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David Childs, FAIA, on Rebuilding Lower Manhattan

The tragedy of 9/11 brought SOM’s now-retired New York principal the opportunity to take on what’s likely his most high-profile commission ever, and to restore some much-needed public space to Ground-Zero’s neighborhood

By John Gendall

David Childs, FAIA, the former SOM New York principal, was just a few years shy of retirement when the Twin Towers fell in 2001. Asked immediately thereafter by real estate developer Larry Silverstein to oversee the site’s redesign, Childs entered a new and very public stage of his career, managing an eminently sensitive site while contending with a host of factions (politicians, the public, developers) with vastly different ideas of what Ground Zero should become. A 2003 design competition won by Daniel Libeskind, AIA, muddied the waters further, asking nagging questions about authorship of the site that are just now being answered.

Childs has already made his mark on Ground Zero. 2006 saw the completion of his design for 7 WTC, and this year on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Michael Arad, AIA-designed memorial will open as eyes continue to look skyward at Childs’ 1 WTC, set for completion in 2014. Having turned 70 this year, he “officially retired,” as he puts it, but maintains the title of consulting design principal. On the eve of Ground Zero’s rebirth as a public memorial, AIArchitect spoke with Childs about reconstructing Lower Manhattan and designing what will be New York’s tallest building.

AIArchitect: How did you become initially involved with the Ground Zero site?

Childs: Before 9/11, when Larry Silverstein leased the World Trade Center, he asked me to work on the site design. It was about three weeks before 9/11 when I agreed to do that. In fact, I had a meeting scheduled on 9/12 to show him a scheme that addressed design problems with the lobbies and that windswept plaza.

After 9/11, Larry called and said, “Now I want you to rebuild these towers. You’re going to be my Minoru Yamasaki.” He wanted me to start immediately. After considering it, I told him that there were three things that needed to happen for me to take it on.

The first was to re-install the street grid. The 1970s were a bad time for urban design. This was the time of superblocks. We had to change that scale. Greenwich Street was important to me. It runs at an angle because it used to be at the edge of the Hudson River. The original towers erased it, but we put it back. It should be the backbone of whatever we do.

The second was that it had to be on grade. Those buildings had to be brought down to the sidewalk like the buildings around it.

And what was the last expectation?

I told Silverstein I shouldn’t be his Yamasaki. I wanted to represent Silverstein, but the project should be like the rest of New York—designed by multiple architects.

And what did he think about that?

Oh, he was really floored. He had me start with WTC 7. But then he hired other architects to design other towers—Rogers, Foster, and Maki.

Architecture became very much a part of the public discourse in the rebuilding process. What did you make of that?

Architects should be particularly proud of this project. It was such a terrible tragedy, but we played a very important role in the recovery. Looking at it from many sides—design, engineering, technical, all of the consultants—it really is a success story.

But it wasn’t always entirely smooth. What about the arrangement with Daniel Libeskind?

That was a difficult moment for architects. In opening up the masterplan to a competition, the site design became covered with architectural expression, and the public expected the project to be built exactly as it was represented. It was an ideas competition, though, and the winning solution by Daniel Libeskind did many of the things that I and others wanted to do, like reinstating the street grid. The press tends to focus on the controversies, but I think it worked very well. We can feel extremely good about the plan, and architects should be particularly proud of their involvement.

Ten years later, the site is really starting to take shape. When were you last on site? What were your impressions?

I was there just last week. Immediately after 9/11, many people thought we should either keep the site empty or rebuild exact replacements. It’s taken a decade, but, frankly, that’s not that long for a project of this scale. It’s actually amazing it’s gone this quickly. [The tower] recreates a modern version of one of the towers. It has a special job to do in the skyline, like a steeple in a medieval town. It works as a marker in the sky for the memorial.

And, I must say, what’s really great about the progress down there is the memorial. People always talk about buildings, but the great spaces of the city are open, public spaces—streets, parks, plazas. There’s a great new space there, and what it does is link parts of downtown [together]. Battery Park City, for instance, used to be an orphan. Now, it will be connected. It will also be seen as a place for fresh air and pedestrian-oriented public space. It’s really powerful urbanistically.

This project is almost always understood symbolically, but what about this building’s form and structure interests you?

No one asks about that, and I’m glad you did. Those original towers were not that good, so one of our priorities was to make it better. The U.S. invented skyscrapers, but we’ve fallen behind. WTC 1 is a solution to many technical problems, and it represents the very best in codes, structure, and safety. It’s a concrete core with steel exterior, which is an efficient and safe system, but it had not been done in New York for a host of reasons, mostly because of the arrangement between trade groups. The form tapers on its four corners, which buildings (like trees) want to do anyway. The original towers had such deep floors, they were psychologically oppressive. The taper solves this, and it keeps the building efficient, since we can taper the core, too. It’s a very efficient glass-to-core ratio with highly sophisticated window walls that keep out UV [rays] but let daylight in. There is a lot of safety redundancy in the building. The egress width is enhanced. One of the problems on 9/11 was a communication breakdown between first responders, so we included a radio system throughout the building.

You’re quite the New York City booster. How does it feel to have played a big role in such an important project?

I call myself the world’s greatest New York supporter. For the city to be able to come back and fix a disaster is remarkable. It helps to heal the wound caused by 9/11. But it also heals the wound caused by the urban superblocks of the 1970s. It restores public space and the street grid. This is a truly New York project.


David Childs, FAIA. Photo courtesy of SOM and Greg Betz.

WTC rises to the top of the New York City skyline. Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc./dbox studio.

A rendering of 1WTC, slated for completion in 2014. Image courtesy of SOM/dbox studio.


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