At left, the Skidmore Owings & Merrill design of One World Trade Center with the radome; at right, without it

September 11, 2013

A Beacon Diminished
by James Panero

The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is the first that will see One World Trade Center, formerly known as Freedom Tower, topping out at a symbolic 1,776 feet. After years of missteps and inaction, the building's completion, now scheduled to take place in early 2014, will be a welcome end to a fraught project that has long weighed on the national consciousness. Yet just as construction costs have ballooned to nearly $4 billion, making this by far the most expensive new office building in the world, its developers—the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, along with the Durst Organization—have decided to cut one last corner, blunting the building's most prominent and important symbol.

In 2005, once David M. Childs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) took over the design of One WTC, he devised a brilliant solution for balancing the building's monumental and memorial demands with its practical and commercial needs. He took a chaotic jumble of ideas left by Daniel Libeskind, the site's quixotic planner, and compressed them into a shimmering crystal, one that reflected the scale and volume of the original Twin Towers while also recalling the tapered facets of the Washington Monument. From a solid, cube-shaped base (regrettably made more bunkerlike over time), the edges of Mr. Childs's One WTC chamfer in so that halfway up it becomes a perfect octagon and, at its top floor, the building faces 45 degrees off its base.

Two of Mr. Libeskind's proposed symbols remained through Mr. Childs's redesign: the building's 1,776 foot total height, and an illuminated beacon at the top to allude both to the torch of the Statue of Liberty and to the soaring skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline. To accomplish this, SOM brought in the sculptor Kenneth Snelson to design what was meant to be the building's most visible element: a spire to rise 408 feet from the center of the building's 1,368-foot-high roof, bringing One WTC to 1,776 feet. Through Mr. Snelson's knowledge of tensegrity structures—designs with "floating compression," where solid forms are suspended in a tensing web—SOM crafted the spire, 40-stories tall and made of a shell of interlocking fiberglass triangles, into an elegant, tapered sculpture known as a radome. Since the radome is transparent to radio waves, it was meant to conceal the broadcast equipment mounted to an antenna mast inside.

The Stuttgart-based engineering firm Schlaich Bergermann & Partner helped turn this complex idea into reality. WTC.com, the website maintained by Silverstein Properties that chronicles the overall site reconstruction, continues to advertise the many benefits of the innovative design: The radome would "resist wind loading, and create a protected maintenance area" for workers attending to the broadcasting equipment contained inside it. Much like the building itself, the radome would serve the building's functional needs while also completing its aesthetic mandates.

Nevertheless, in 2012 the owners of One WTC announced a stunning last-minute design change: They would eliminate the radome and leave exposed the antenna that was meant to be hidden inside. The owners cited the radome's supposed cost—$20 million—to bolster their decision. Inquiries to SOM concerning the spire were referred to their "clients" at the Port Authority, who in turn referred them to Durst.

"The architects wanted more heft," said Jordan Barowitz, a Durst spokesman. "So they proposed the radome to give it more surface area so it could be seen from a greater distance. But it was impossible to maintain"—a claim that its designers have refuted.

This newspaper and other media outlets have reported that since taking an ownership interest in One WTC in 2010, Durst has been agitating for the radome's elimination—a push rejected by the agency's executive director at the time, only to be approved by his successor. "I don't think it will affect the visual appearance," Douglas Durst, the chairman of the Durst Organization, said regarding the radome's elimination. "I try not to get involved with the aesthetics." In fact, the financial incentives of Durst's co-ownership deal, it has been reported, are structured in such a way as to prioritize cost-saving construction over aesthetic concerns.

Much of the controversy over the elimination of the radome has focused on One WTC's final height and whether the exposed antenna would count toward its total. The difference would be between "the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere" (including the antenna) or merely the third-tallest in the U.S. (without it). The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the nonprofit organization recognized internationally as the arbiter of construction height, states that it considers spires in calculating architectural height but not "antennae, signage, flag poles or other functional-technical equipment." In May 2012, shortly after Durst and the Port Authority announced their change order, the council referred to several articles concerning the "questions on One World Trade Center height" on its website and issued an early warning about the 1,776-foot designation if the antenna is left without its radome skin.

It could be that Durst and the Port Authority have a plan to win the council's approval through a technicality, such as by leaving the very tip of the radome in place while eliminating the rest. But any way you measure it, they plan to rob the skyline of a promised symbol and leave it with a structure that, at its best, resembles a 400-foot umbrella stand. The results of their decision are now apparent, as the spire's internal sections, assembled in Montreal and shipped to New York, have been hoisted atop One WTC.

In a 2012 statement, Mr. Childs called the radome an "integral part" of the building's design. He also offered to find a suitable compromise. "We stand ready to work with the Port on an alternate design that will still mark 1 World Trade Center's place in New York City's skyline." Unfortunately, it appears the owners have chosen to follow the cheapest and worst of all possible routes. Rather than design a new spire, they are instead using the older design, minus the sculptural shell, in a way that was never intended.

Just imagine constructing the Statue of Liberty but then, for cost reasons, forgoing its sculpted copper skin. Of course, as nothing more than an exposed metal skeleton and a spiral staircase, Lady Liberty wouldn't be the same. In certain ways, the current short-changing at Ground Zero is even worse. One WTC rises over hallowed ground, pointing to the heavens from the place where over 2,600 souls lost their lives. The substitution of its graceful spire with a radio antenna reduces the building to the mundane and diminishes its meaning as a monument and memorial.


UPDATE: Douglas Durst responds to the article on the WSJ comments page:

Durst is an advisor, not a developer of 1WTC.and has no decision making authority on construction matters. PANYNJ made the final determination to eliminate the radome not to save money, but because the radome structure could not be maintained. Durst tried for several months to find away to maintain the radome, but the building was nearing completion and it was too late to engineer a new structure. Incidentally, radome is put on after an antennae is installed. The radome structure designed by SOM would have made broadcast antennas infeasible depriving PANYNJ of much needed revenue. 

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