Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
David Childs, FAIA:
1 WTC Is a Tower That Will Memorialize Twin Voids
In Childs’ vision of Ground Zero decades hence, it will be equal parts church and public square.
By Mike Singer
“I knew something was awry when I saw sheets of paper flying outside of our office window,” said David Childs, FAIA, recalling the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Childs was working in SOM’s office just three blocks from the World Trade Center site when the towers fell. “You watch it, and know your life will never be the same,” he said.
Childs designed 1 WTC, the lead building of the new World Trade Center complex, which in April surpassed the Empire State Building as the tallest in New York City. When completed next year, it will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere by pinnacle height, its spire reaching a symbolic 1,776 feet. As Child reminded, its actual roof height will be 1,368 feet, identical to the roof height of the original World Trade Center north tower.
He describes his new 1 WTC tower as a “simple geometry marker for the memorial, both recognizing those who lost lives and verifying the steadfastness and endurance of our great nation.”
Childs was honored for his contributions after 9/11 during the 2012 AIA National Convention at a special ceremony called “Architects of Healing.” AIArchitect spoke with Childs a few hours before the event, one voice in a chorus of designers speaking of design’s ability to repair the wounds of the past with the places of the future.
AIArchitect: Looking ahead 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now, what do you want people to say about the Ground Zero site and what’s become of it?
Childs: I think there will be a sense of accomplishment—that we have made it better. We didn’t just rebuild, we made it better than before. I hope people see it as seamlessly woven into downtown, which to me will be one of the major accomplishments.
When the original World Trade Center was built, in the late 1960s, it really demolished—destroyed—that whole area, which was the fabric of New York City. And it was off-putting: You couldn’t get into it, you couldn’t see through it, the street grid was broken, and the plaza was lifted high where it was cold and barren.
Now this will all be woven together, so you won’t see the edges as distinct and unavailable as it was before. So when people walk the area, people will see it as something that connects people together rather than puts them off. I think that [connectedness] will be the first sense for those who knew it before and see it now.
They will always have a sense of this great open space that people are drawn to, but they may see it as I see Trinity Church right down at the end of Wall Street—a place of worship, a place where people go to have lunch every day in that graveyard when there is good weather.
What lessons might you have learned from the original Minoru Yamasaki designs for the Twin Towers?
I remember thinking very strongly that there is a certain limit of scale to what one person can do. And Larry Silverstein [leaseholder of the site] said to me, “Let’s go David—you'll be my new Yamasaki.” And one of the things I said to him, and that I felt very strongly about, was that there ought to be multiple hands involved in the project, because that is the nature of New York and of its scale. People would remember that singularity [of the Twin Towers buildings] and now it should be more diverse and open and heterogeneous.
Yamasaki was a great architect but [the late 1960s and early 1970s] was a bad time for urban design. These redevelopment projects sort of landed in a city, and they could have been designed for anywhere. They were not specific for the site. So to now have these mixed uses, it’s much more lively, more New Yorkish. And I think people will feel good about this.
How much did you feel like your new 1 WTC needed to tell a story of the tragedy that happened here? In a project like this, how much explicit narrative is enough?
I am one who errs on not being too much in your face. When I designed 1 WTC, it had a lot to do with the old towers: Its height is exactly the same, its footprint is the same, and its silhouette is the same. But nobody will notice it because it is a very modern interpretation of that piece—very different.
Part of it, of course, is this memory in the skyline. There are these two voids that are now missing, but then the third one is up again. So you feel this sense, most importantly, of the loss. But then you look up, and you see how we came back—our resilience and the vertical exclamation of the memorial in the sky. People won’t be hit over the head by it. There’s nothing on a plaque that says, “This is how to read it,” but it will be revealed as people choose to learn about it. It’s subtle, but can be revealed in multiple ways over multiple visits.