Rebuild It Big!

The World Trade Center is not a memory, but an aspiration.


I was never among the detractors of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In the late '80s and early '90s I lived in the East Village and loved seeing them daily as I walked to work. I'd take anyone who visited me to see them. My favorite memory of the towers is from two years ago, near the peak of the dot.com boom on Wall Street. My wife and I were staying at our favorite hotel, the Millenium Hilton just across from the World Trade Center. We liked the hotel because it had one of the most inspiring views in New York. From rooms on the 50th floor or above you could catch glimpses between the towers of boats sailing on the Hudson River.

The last time my wife and I were at the WTC, we were having drinks at the bar at Windows on the World prior to dinner there. It had rained all day, but the sun was finally coming out. Out of the floor-length windows on the 110th floor we suddenly saw a double rainbow over Wall Street. (No pot of gold was visible.) Everyone in the bar rushed to the windows to get a better view. Everyone was smiling and toasting one another in celebration. A perfect fin de siecle moment.

That wonderful moment, alas, is irretrievably in the past. Now it is time to look ahead. On May 30 an empty flag-draped stretcher will be carried out of the World Trade Center site to mark the official end of the cleanup phase of the recovery. In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, it was estimated that the cleanup would cost $7 billion. Instead it has cost $750 million and is well ahead of schedule.

But what will replace Manhattan's lost towers? A few overly somber and timid souls want the whole 16-acre site to be turned into a memorial; one even suggested a grove of 3,000 pine trees. (If you want to see pine trees, go to the Catskills.) Fortunately, the city and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) have rejected such melancholy proposals. The LMDC has already devised some generally sensible guidelines for the rebuilding of downtown New York. They emphasize the development of mixed commercial and residential use on the site and include a memorial and the reopening of several streets that had been blocked by the Twin Towers.

The LMDC will soon select consultants to oversee the competition for the plan to rebuild. Will New York's peerless skyline once again assert the city's status as foremost on the planet? Or will the city fathers and mothers succumb to the counsel of those who want New York to lower its profile by lowering its skyline? The World Trade Center towers did not belong to just New Yorkers. They were national symbols even as the White House and the Washington Monument are today. That's why the towers were attacked. To show our resilience, to show our spirit, to show that what the buildings represented does not crumble as easily as do steel and glass, they should be replaced by an even grander set of buildings.

Architect David Childs suggested in The New Yorker that his clients, newly conscious of their status as targets, would not be interested in building such visible symbols as the World Trade Center towers in the future. I don't believe it. If given the chance, few people could resist living on the 100th floor of a building at the tip of Manhattan. And for those who fear that the new buildings would represent an irresistible target—the world does not lack in tall buildings even now. And to give in to such fears would be tantamount to admitting that a world of peace and prosperity is already a lost cause.

Fortunately, there are architects with appropriately big visions. One of the more inspiring is the Liberty Square proposal, in which the world's tallest building stands as the culmination of a revitalized downtown. Other suggestions were on display earlier this year at the Max Protech Gallery, in an exhibit featuring some 35 designs for the site. Some are impractical, even fanciful, but others expressed the grandeur suitable to the site. One proposal involves building a 2,000-foot tall television transmission tower with an observation deck and restaurant on or near the site. Such a tower would be taller than the world's tallest man-made structure—the 1,815.5-foot CN Tower in Toronto.

"Now that the Trade Center has become a martyr to terrorism, I suspect that architectural criticism of it will cease altogether. It has become a noble monument of a lost past," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker a little more than a week after it had been destroyed. It's time to look to the future. Let's hope that American never-say-die orneriness wins the day and New York restores its skyline by building a heroic structure that will symbolize the city and America for the next century.