Ten years ago, when we started chronicling the rebuilding of downtown New York, the World Trade Center site was nothing but an empty hole in the ground. Beset by the nastiest politics, paralyzed by corruption and avarice, overwhelmed by grief, these sixteen acres had become a symbol of our national fecklessness, proof of our decline. Nothing good, it was thought at the time, would ever happen there. Now the memorial and the museum are done, the site is almost completely finished, and the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere is just opening for business. Who cares if no one showed up for the grand opening? And who cares about the architecture critics? Their haughty scorn is surely confirmation of its greatness. The rebuilding is finished. Welcome to One World Trade.
YOU REALLY OUGHT TO SEE IT FOR YOURSELFyes, you: Come to New York City; visit Ground Zero. Skip the museum: There the dead are deafening, a pandemonium of grief, a mausoleum with escalators, complete with human remains, recordings of mass murder, and a gift shop where the commodified fetish of massacre fills the shelves and the cashiers are trained to beg each customer for an extra buckon top of the twenty-four-dollar entry fee. Mourning and reflection are yours for free on the plaza. Bear in mind that death and metaphor and symbol are the same forces that tore the old place downwielded by fanatics for martyrdom, and by politicians for power, and by one and all for profit, because neither the Dutch nor anyone else dug in and stuck it out to go see plays and museums. Sure, these sixteen acres are a battlefield, a mass grave, a mud-caked trough of capital and corruptionpretty much what you’d call any patch of land on the planet at one time or anotherand now, again, they’re a place where people come and go to work.
I first stood upon Ground Zero in 2005, when it was still a ruin, a slab-on-grade pit seventy feet below street level, with a single 460-foot ramp leading in and out. Two squares of orange traffic cones outlined the perimeter column stumps where the Twin Towers had stood. A couple of construction trailers, locked and empty. A cornerstonea Freedom Tower cornerstone, twenty tons of Adirondack granite dedicated on July 4, 2004, inscribed to honor the 2,753 souls killed here on 9/11hidden under a warped and leaking plywood cover painted blue. Nothing came down the ramp. Nothing moved at all.
The problem wasn’t that the pit was empty. The pit was by then too fullstuffed with sorrow and human remains, clogged by rhetoric and metaphor in the service of political ambition, and flooded with tens of billions of dollars up for grabs the moment the old World Trade Center fell. This was never going to be quick or prettynot here in New York City. This isn’t Pearl Harbor or Oklahoma City; these are sixteen acres of the most precious, profitable land on the globe, at the heart of a world capital on a perpetual wartime footing. Bombed in 1993. Vaporized in 2001.
Guess what: It’s back. They opened the Freedom Tower at last, on November 3, 2014. You’ve got your memorial plaza now, and the museum, and a pristine Tower Four, opened the week beforeand now you’ve got the big boy. Two-point-six million square feet of office space, 1,776 feet tall, 104 floors of fortified concrete, the most costly office tower ever built atop a mass grave. Too soon? Sacred ground, I know. But would you have this city build a sixteen-acre crypt? Not here. Here, you go to work. That’s why people stream here from around the world and all the statesto get their ass to work, to make a buck. Closure is beside the point: Some losses can never be made good. And there’s no honor in a monument to existential dread, no chance of redemption without work. Not here, in this city. And not here, where so many died, at work.
Here, finally, people are coming backto One World Tradethis morning. To work. In the Freedom Tower. I’m actually a bit verklempt. I saw Freedom Tower steel poured molten and then rolled in Luxembourg, jumbo H-flanged beams, and I signed one in Zuccotti Park just across the street here. I saw the bedrock blasted here, rode with concrete drivers and watched ’em pour. I witnessed that cursed cornerstone, muck-stained and forgotten, loaded onto a flatbed, cinched inside a dollar-store tarp, and hauled up the ramp one Friday morning, never to be seen again. And I watched this tower get built, built by $4 billion and union labor, plus the force, cosmic and commercial, that through the green fuse drives the fucking flower.
The Freedom Tower holds a warm place in my heart, you could say, but the rest of me is cold. The sky this November morning is low and flat and gray; the Hudson River wind smacks of early winter; and of course we must suffer through yet another ceremony. But this is the strangest Ground Zero ceremony of all. Tomorrow is Election Day, and nobody who’s anyone is here to preen. Not the governors of New York and New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, who share control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns these sixteen acres and built this tower; not Barack Obama, who stopped by in 2011 to lay a wreath a few days after ordering Osama killed and returned to sign a Freedom Tower beam in 2012; even New York City’s new mayor, NotMikeBloomberg, stayed away.
The Port Authority threw this party. With 40 percent of Freedom Tower office space unleased, they were hoping for a grand opening; there was even talk of Alicia Keys warbling the local anthem. But the PA takes its marching orders from Cuomo and Christie, andnot for nothing: It was Christie’s Jersey crew that shut down the George Washington Bridge and pillaged the PA for years as Cuomo looked the other way, all matters still under investigation by two separate federal prosecutors plus the SECboth governors killed any notion of a gala in the crib, leaving this morning’s ceremonial duties to the anonymous gent in the topcoat stepping out of an idling chauffeured Mercedes and strolling to the microphone to greet the smallish media throng.
“This is a terrific day for Lower Manhattan,” he says, “a wonderful day for New York City, and an absolutely great day for Condé Nast. Thank you all for being here.”
“Who are you?” shouts a reporter.
“I’m Chuck Townsend.”
Somebody else asks who’s in Chuck’s car, perhaps hoping for a dignitary less minor than Chuck himself. He’s the CEO of Condé Nast, publisher of glamour magazines, which signed a twenty-five-year, $2 billion lease in 2011 for twenty-some lower-level Freedom Tower floors. This blessed morning, a cadre of execsfinancial analysts and suchare due to move in as the vanguard of a glossy force of thirty-four hundred. Maybe there’s a celebrity editor keeping warm in the Mercedes and handy with a quoteAnna Wintour, the lioness of Vogue, say.
“That is my driver, and he drives me every day,” Chuck says. “Thank you very much.”
Chuck steps back two paces as a burly man steps up. He’s Pat Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director, and he’s all bundled up in his winter jacket, ass-length, tan, buttoned to its brown corduroy collar. Pat looks like he just stopped by to rake some leaves.
“Look, a terrific day for New York,” he begins. “The New York City skyline has been restored. Welcoming Condé Nast to One World Trade Center”and here Pat loses interest altogether. “Uh, restoration of the city skyline, uh, creation of thousands of jobs.” This is a verbatim transcription, and I nearly feel sorry for him. Like almost every PA executive director who came before him, Foye’s a hack. Cuomo, his patron, took office in 2011, knifed Pat Foye’s predecessornobody’s hack, which is why Cuomo fired himand stuck Foye with the PA job. It was far too late for Cuomo to earn credit for anything good that might happen at Ground Zero; Foye’s main job was to mind the store and see to it that nothing big went wrong. Nothing did, until one morning in September 2013, when it finally came to Patrick Foye’s attention that the world’s busiest bridge, the PA’s George Washington, had somehow been hijacked and held hostage by Chris Christie’s thug brigade for four days before the PA’s executive director knew dick about it. It’s rare to see Pat Foye out and about these days unless he’s giving testimony.
None of that matters much this morning. I’m here to kvell upon the guest of honor: the Freedom Tower. On a clear day, I can spot its slender finger from my attic window in north Jersey, fifteen miles away. The closer you come, across the Hudson or East rivers, by ferry or train, bus or car, the better it looksa tapered, twisting obelisk whose curtain wall of glass mirrors the sky. The tower was designed three different times, each version simpler than the one before it; from distance, it’s a perfect signifier for the site. On the city’s west horizon, it dwarfs even the Empire State Building; from the streets of Lower Manhattan, it looms. Close up, it feels like the Twinsand like any other superskyscrapertoo big, too blunt, too much mass upthrust too high, impossible, inhuman.
The Freedom Tower’s particular burden is its base, a two-hundred-foot cube of concrete and metal covered in thick glass and stacked twenty stories high, meant primarily to absorb and survive the next attack. In 2006, the PA proclaimed that it would not ask its own staff to return to work in this building, saying they had already suffered enough trauma and horror at Ground Zero. Two nights ago, during his Saturday Night Live monologue, Chris Rock suggested renaming the building the Never-Going-in-There Tower, wondered why it wasn’t sponsored by Target, and asked if the tower could duck. Now a reporter asks Pat Foye about Rock’s riff.
As One World Trade reached the ninety-second floor, workers closely inspected the slider crane for any structural flaws following a storm, July 21, 2012. At this point, the project was in the throes of cost-cutting. A simple building is not tolerant of cost cuts, said architect David Childs, and theyre going to screw it up.
“Didn’t see it,” Foye snaps. “Next question.”
There is no next question. There is only the same question rephrased, fielded by the Port subaltern who follows Foye to the microphone.
“As Pat Foye said, we’re truly the safest place in America, if not the world.”
On the Memorial Plaza, a few yards away and separated from the Freedom Tower by nothing but the forbidding force of that base, the square footprints of the old Twin Towers, precisely where they stood, are each a vast waterfall, each plunging thirty feet, each surrounded by parapets etched with the names of the 9/11 dead. Fifteen million pilgrims and more have come here, and at least a hundred or two walk there this morning, but not one has strolled over to see what all the fuss is. In part this is a tribute to the solemn, splendid beauty of the plazaa perfect piece of Ground Zero and a stroke of urban genius: After thirteen years of chain-link fencing and manned checkpoints, human beings can now walk onto and through these sixteen acres from the city streets around them.
But the towerthat behemoth of a baseis too close to see, too abrupt, too huge to approach. It sits apart, across a narrow lane blocked by a guard booth and retractable metallic dragon’s teeth to force vehicles to halt. With no sun in the sky, the Freedom Tower still throws a fearsome shadow.
DAVID CHILDS, THE ARCHITECT WHO DESIGNED the Freedom Tower, was not invited to its ungrand opening, nor was anyone else from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Wall Street office, a five-minute walk from here. SOM, founded in 1936, the world’s premier corporate-architecture firm, issued a press release on November 3 and announced a contest inviting the public to submit photos of the tower, with the prize a scale model of it.
“I’m sort of persona non grata, which is so surprising to me,” he says. “These things become very personal. You get all wrapped up in it. I felt often like the Ancient Mariner, having to tell my story, living it on and on. I just wish that it would be over, franklyit’s haunted me for a long time. All these problemsI knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t realize that by the end there’d be so much difficulty piled on, in a very intense way, a way that was unnecessary and very damaging. I’m floored when we haven’t been welcome on the site.”
The first time we met, in 2005, Childs was sixty-four years oldhe joined SOM in 1971 and has built office towers around the worldand so tickled with the Freedom Tower that he excused himself after a few minutes, returned to his office with a plastic model, one foot tall, and set it on his desk.
“Dead simpleso that it can have some sort of memory and identification,” he said at the time. “And when you look at it from New Jersey, or flying in, or coming across the bridges, you’ll know exactly where the memorial is. The memorials are the voids, the sadness of what happened. This is the victorythe triumph of the fact that we weren’t defeated. We came back.”
Not quite. The model atop Childs’s desk in 2005 was already version three of the Freedom Tower. Childs had nothing to do with version one, a sloping seventy-floor tower stuck to a 1,776-foot glass spire. This was the brainchild of Daniel Libeskind, a celebrity architect whose “Master Plan” Governor George Pataki himself had picked for the rebuilding in early 2003, vetoing the choice of a panel of experts named to judge a “Master Plan” competition run by a golemthe Lower Manhattan Development Corporationalchemized by Rudolph Giuliani and Pataki in November 2001 and stuffed with their own appointees. The LMDC, brought to life to disperse $10 billion of federal money at Ground Zero, combined the sheen of independence with no oversight at all beyond Pataki’s desk.
Pataki adored Libeskind’s plan, and little wonder. Libeskind, a short, square man who dressed all in black, from the thick frames of his glasses down to his hand-tooled cowboy boots, came to New York City by ship from his native Poland as a teen, sailed past the Statue of Liberty, and fell madly in love. His Ground Zero had a goddamn name for everything, including the plan itself, which Libeskind called “Memory Foundations.” It had a “Wedge of Light” and a “Park of Heroes,” too. He named the 1,776-foot America’s-birthday-candle glass spire “Gardens of the World” because its open frame incorporated hundreds of vertical feet of, um, gardens. The tower was designed, in Libeskind’s poetic pitch, to restore “the spiritual peak to the city, and [proclaim] America’s resilience even in the face of profound danger, of our optimism even in the aftermath of tragedy. Life, victorious.”
Such poetry made George Pataki drool. Sure, there were hitches; Libeskind had never birthed an office towerthe tallest building he had ever gotten off the ground stood four stories highand it showed. Libeskind insisted that his 1,776-foot spire should commune with the Statue of Liberty’s torch, rising from New York Harbor to the south; to facilitate their visual colloquy, the Libes kind plan put the tower in the northwest corner of the sixteen acres, closest to the Hudson Riverthe trickiest spot on the site to build it. Its column footings would have to weave through a busy commuter rail line, geotechnical engineers would need to blast farther down to find bedrock firm enough to bear its weight, and Libeskind had plunked the tower down only twenty-five feet from a major West Side artery, a roadway with six lanes of heavy all-day, all-night traffic.
But there was a much bigger hitch: Seven weeks before 9/11, the Port Authority had leased the World Trade Center to a private real estate developer, Larry Silverstein. The born-in-Bed-Stuy Silverstein, a self-made man after half a century spent buying, selling, and building buildings in the city, owned a 131-foot yacht, a reputation for tough and ceaseless negotiating, and a 1,160-page, $3 billion, ninety-nine-year lease on Ground Zero that obliged him to rebuild the ten million square feet of office space destroyed on 9/11. His lease also gave Silverstein the right to use his own architect. Big-ass hitch.
Silverstein had already hired David Childs to spruce up the Twin Towers right after signing the WTC lease, and after 9/11 he immediately asked Childs to design a new office tower at 7 World Trade Center, just off the PA’s sixteen acres, to replace a forty-seven-story tower, the last building to collapse on 9/11. Larry’s lease required him to keep paying the Port Authority $10 million per month in rent on the World Trade Center’s smoking ruins, and he was eager to rebuild, quick, and said so, in the papers, three days after the attack. To a city shocked and mourning, such talk of rebuilding on a literal funeral pyre seemed ghoulish.
“Larry and I took a lot of grief at that time,” said Childs, “because many people felt that this had now become sacred landnothing should be done.”
Many people did feel that way, but none who mattered. Even Rudy Giuliani, in his farewell address as New York City mayor, called for remaking Ground Zero entire into a memorial, but he knew much better. He was leaving City Hall with great reluctanceafter trying and failing to muscle through an emergency extension of his mayoraltyand Giuliani’s rush to create the LMDC showed that he fully grasped Ground Zero’s value, capital and political, which he has milked ever since without pause or shame.
As for George Pataki, he hoped to ride the Freedom Tower’s spire like a rocket to the White House. He did not need a stinking lease. He had a man, Daniel Libeskind, and a plan.
SOME BEAST SOMEWHERE MAY BE MORE formidable than a New York City real-estate sensei armed with a phalanx of lawyers and a ninety-nine-year lease, but George Pataki wasn’t it. Master Planner Libeskind clearly had no legal right to design any of the rebuilt towers at Ground Zero; Childs, under the terms of Silverstein’s deal, did. Larry didn’t love Libeskind’s Freedom Towerfor one thing, it was too obvious and inviting a target, plus vertical gardens don’t lease office space; they usurp it. And both Childs and Silverstein wanted the tower moved to the southeast quadrant of the site, where it would be cheaper and easier to build.
“I told Larry, ‘Half of this is in the water,’ ” Childs said. ” ‘We’ve got a train under here. Everyone’s going to rush to design what things should look like in the sky; they’re never going to be built that way.’ “
Pataki refused to move Libeskind’s Freedom Tower or reduce its height. Larry, shamed for his rush to rebuild by a local media handy at demonizing developers, wouldn’t let go of the lease. What followed was a forced architectural marriage between Childs and Libeskind that cost six months and brought forth Freedom Tower 2.0, a design that killed the plants, shrunk Libeskind’s spire to an off-center 276-foot shank, and added turbines to the tower’s top four hundred feet, to reap the wind up there and help power the joint. Good enough to hold an old-fashioned Fourth of July groundbreaking, complete with cornerstone.
Ah, but sure enough, there was another hitch, and it was epic: The New York Police Department believed that Libeskind’s Freedom Tower, with its base sitting twenty-five feet from a six-lane highway, would be unsafe from attack. The NYPD said so to the Port Authority in a detailed letter sent to the Port by the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism in August 2004. That letter’s fate remains unknownlost in the mail, as a PA spokesperson once claimed, or, far more likely, ignored. Those sixteen acres are the Port’s, not New York City’s; the PA has a police force and zoning codes of its own and a death-grip on the site.
So the NYPD sat down with Silverstein and brought in outside experts to speak to its belief that a future attempt to attack the WTC was a certainty. Once all this leaked to the press early in 2005, Pataki had no choice but to proclaim that he was looking forward to “another magnificent design that will once again inspire the nation and serve as a fitting tribute to freedom,” and kick Libeskind to the curb.
The memorial pools, located in the foot- prints of the Twin Towers, cascade down thirty feet, with deeper recessed pools where the core columns of the towers were once planted in Manhattan bedrock.
A major office tower redesign can take six months; Pataki gave Childs eight weeks to deliver Freedom Tower 3. Childs shrunk and squared the Freedom Tower base so he could move it as far as possible from the highwayninety feet instead of twenty-five. The base, which now had to be built to meet the same security standards as a United States embassy on unfriendly soil, would have no offices on its first twenty floorshence the Cubejust the tower’s mechanical systems, protected by two-inch-thick glass. Childs and his team tried to soften and distract from the monolith with faceted prismatic glass to clad the base and small side gardensheck, they tossed in a wee poolbut even in the drawings, the base still looked ominous.
Still, George Pataki loved this Freedom Tower most of all. Not only had Childs presented him with a 1,776-footer, but now the tower would top off right at 1,368 feetin homage to the old Twinsand be crowned by a centered 408-foot-tall light-shooting spire sheathed by a sculpted shell of fiberglass and steel called a radome. At the press event to unveil the re-re-redesign, Pataki nicknamed the spire the “Torch of Freedom.” After Pataki’s “Sacred Duty” speech, one reporter asked why no one from the Port Authority had come.
“I think the entire Port appreciates that this isn’t about any entity,” Pataki said.”This is about our future, this is about our freedom, this is about America.“
Absolutely. Pataki even had a three-foot model of the Freedom Tower madecustom-built with its own little rolling suitcaseso he could wheel it along to show off on his trips cross-country to raise money for his stillborn presidential campaign.
Most architecture critics, a bilious lot, found the new design dull; at worst, there was a general consensus that the base evoked paranoia and perpetual war, with the Times critic, who hated the thing base to spire, writing that the tower was “fascinating in the way that Albert Speer’s architectural nightmares were fascinating: as expressions of the values of a particular time and era.”
Childs was less irked by being compared to Hitler’s architecttough town, New Yorkthan he was by those dismissing his redesign as just one more ho-hum skyscraper or a missed opportunity to make a bold artistic statement.
“We are building an office building. It ought to be iconic and solemn, and yet beautiful and simple. Memorable. But it also has to be something that works. It has to be an efficient building that can attract people down here. I believe in program and function being the forces that create beautythey’ve got to come first. Tall buildings are the result of engineering as much as anything. These buildings are formed by a knowledge about what they are to doit’s not just an arbitrary sculptural act in which you say, ‘Okay, let the engineers figure out how to do it.’ There’s a lot of architecture that does thatand some of it’s very beautiful. It’s not my kind of architecture, and particularly in this case, this building had to be much more than just a sculptural gesture.”
GOVERNORS, DEVELOPERS, AND ARCHITECTS COME and go; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey abides. It sprung to life in 1921 because someone had to do something: New York City is mainly three islands, and the two states, filled then as now with aggressive, ambitious assholes, could find no way to manage the flow of goods, services, and humanityor to fairly split the profits therefromwithout lawsuits and sporadic gunfire. Thus, by lawan interstate compact negotiated by the two states and enacted by the U. S. Congressthe PA was designed to run itself and live forever.
A century ago, this was a Progressive-era leap of faith in benign, expert governance shielded from public whim and political predation. A twelve-member board of commissionerssix appointed by each governorwould shape long-range regional transportation policy. New Jersey would choose the board’s chair. New York would choose an executive director, the hands-on CEO who’d guide its operations day-to-day. The PA would knit the competing interests of the separate states into the commonweal, ensuring a network of cost-efficient transportation systemsentirely self-funded: zero tax dollars neededto make the very nation’s economic engine purr and hum.
In the real world, hid from public view or vote, led by an entrenched emperorAustin Tobin, its executive director from 1942 to 1972the Port Authority amassed incredible wealth and power. It owns and runs the three major airports that connect the world to New York City, the major bridges and tunnels, the major seaports, and the commuter railroad to and from Ground Zero. Its annual operating budgetmore than $8 billion in 2014and its capital planning are entirely funded by the tolls and fees and fares and rents that it collects and by the long-term bonds it issues for sale, based on its semi-infinite revenue stream. Politicians at every level rightly came to fear Tobin’s power and do his bidding; no one else knew who the fuck he was. Nobody said no when he settled on a grand legacy commensurate with his reign andbecause the PA had the right of eminent domain, toocondemned and seized that sixteen-acre parcel in Lower Manhattan and built the World Trade Center, complete with the two tallest buildings in the world at the time. It was an outrage to the city’s private real estate developers, who all of a sudden were bidding projects and competing for tenants against a quasi-governmental behemoth with money to burn: tough shit for them. Tobin bought off the New Jersey side of the PA by placing the WTC on the west bank of the Hudson and taking over the Jersey-owned commuter railroad, whichthanks mainly to the PA’s bridges and tunnels: Austin Tobin hated trainslost money. In short, the WTC was exactly the kind of project the PA was built not to do: a complex, costly, endless distraction; decades passed before the Twin Towers were filled with tenantsthe World Trade Center had next to nothing to do with transportation, and was a money pit.
Tobin died in 1978. The agency he built into an empire is now a local joke and an international disgrace. The way the PA fulfills its core mission is in plain view 365 days a year. La Guardia, JFK, and Newark Liberty airports all are train wrecks of disrepair and dysfunction, any one of which would shame a public agency that gave a shit, which the Port demonstrably does not. The PA’s train line loses $400 million a year. Its reeking midtown taint, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, has been riddled for decades with filth and crime. The Port shrugs, shrouds itself in silence and opacity, and answers to no one but its stewards, the governors of New York and New Jersey. That’s how Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie came to run it in a manner befitting the Gambino and Genovese families making common cause of a bistate titty bar. And that’s why George Pataki’s “Torch of Freedom” had to die.
BY THE TIME PATAKI LEFT OFFICE, ON THE FINAL DAY of 2006, David Childs was working for the Port. The governor had held his last Ground Zero ceremony less than a fortnight before, to witness the welding of two Freedom Tower columns to its concrete core. It had taken a year and a half just to bolt two pieces of the tower’s steel uprightbetter than nothing but not much, not near enough to make Pataki look like a contender. The rebuilding was gridlocked, paralyzed. Silverstein controlled the Freedom Tower in Ground Zero’s northwest corner and three other skyscrapersalso office towersto be built along the eastern boundary of the site. The Port Authority controlled the memorial turffully half the sixteen acres, more or less in the middle of it, including the footprints of the Twin Towers. The PA also had a fancy new train station planned, squeezed between two of the eastern office towers. The station, designed by megastarchitect Santiago Calatrava, amounted to a $4 billion winged-white-concrete wetting of New Jersey’s beakthe most expensive train station ever almost built, already six years late and still under construction, serving a train line losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
The rebuilt Ground Zero would be packed so tight at street level that the Calatrava station’s wings, which were supposed to open and closehis young daughter released two doves at that groundbreaking, which turned out to be pigeonswere clipped after engineers realized that they might not clear a neighboring tower. But the real problem sat seventy feet below street level: The entire infrastructure was interlocked. Each Port project connected to one of Silverstein’s; building on separate sites separately was impossible, and every aspect of the foundation work that had to be done before building actual buildings could begin became a ferocious, protracted landlord-tenant battle.
Silversteinstill paying the Port its monthly $10 million Trade Center rent, still fighting his insurers, still willing to defend his lease in court if that’s what the PA wishedtook an ugly public torching. Pataki’s days in office were numbered, his Ground Zero legacy an orphaned cornerstone sitting in a puddle of brack at the bottom of a chest wound still weeping with human remains. The governor and the PA declared an end to negotiations in April 2006, and Pataki told the press that Silverstein had “betrayed the public’s trust and that of all New Yorkers. We cannot and will not allow profit margins and financial interests to be put ahead of public interest in expediting the rebuilding of the site of the greatest tragedy on American soil.”
It was perfect political tradecraft, a fog of stupidity and jingo echoed by the Times (GREED VS. GOOD AT GROUND ZERO) and the Daily News (GET LOST, LARRY), and it was born of Pataki’s desperation to have somethinganythingto show as evidence of leadership. The Port made Larry an offer he couldn’t refuse: It sliced his rent and agreed to speed up foundation work for Larry’s three eastern office towers. It was a good offer; those towers would be quicker to build and easier to lease: They were much closer to the train station and not nicknamed by a politician. What made it a great offer was that all Pataki and the PA asked in return was the Freedom Tower.
Larry let them take it off his hands. And when the governor invited him to the Ground Zero ceremony to mark the passing of the “Torch of Freedom” to the Port Authority, Larry was glad to show. We’re talking about a guy whose pelvis was crushed by a drunk driver five days before his bid was due to lease the WTC in 2001, when he was seventy years old; he had his doctors dial back the pain meds, brought his real estate team to the hospital, and kept working. Being called a traitor by the governor of New York was small potatoes.
“Listen,” he said after the ceremony, “after all the name-calling, we’re still working together, right? So what does it mean? What does it accomplish? I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to finish this job. I saw this not just as an obligation but also a privilege, to rebuild. And I felt itand I feel itas an obligation to my children, to my grandchildren, that this thing get rebuilt. We’ll get it done.”
The deal was sweet for Larry”I’m not complaining,” he saidbut not for David Childs. By 2006, Childs and Silverstein had finished 7 WTC, a trapezoidal beauty, 750 shimmering feet, fifty-two floors, and 1.7 million square feet of office spaceall now fully leased. Childs designed it to let Greenwich Street come back throughthe old 7 blocked itand he put a small park steps from its front door. New York City real estate developers don’t typically spend money on such things unless an architect can convincingly explain why they’re so vital. Silverstein nursed every nickel, but he also knew the historical heft, and the spiritual demands, of the Freedom Tower. Childs’s SOM team and Larry and his boys had bonded over countless Freedom Tower design meetings, putting dollars on the architects’ renderings, hammering out the details of an office tower the same way developers like Larry Silverstein do it every day: to a nub.
“He listened,” Childs says. “He cared. He wanted it to be his legacy. He had a certain amount of faith.”
Not that the Port Authority gave a rat’s ass about any of that crap after Pataki left. The PA hadn’t built any sort of skyscraper in forty years; its engineers weren’t worried about inspiring anyone but the Port’s financial analysts, and the financial analysts were inspired solely by the murderous mounting costs of the whole rebuild. It was standard practice for contractors and suppliers to wait months for past-due PA payment; the agency was cutting whatever it could. The Memorial Museum and plaza were holy. The train depotalways “the Calatrava”had rabbinical supervision on both sides of the Hudson River. The Freedom Tower? A foundling, a mewling orphan with a Godzillan appetite for cash.
George Pataki’s brief successor, the whoremongering Eliot Spitzer, came into office threatening to scrap the whole thing. Instead, the PA stripped it, piece by piecestarting with the Cube.
Side gardens? Dead.
Broad steps, where folks might sit and eat their lunch? Dead.
Stainless-steel spandrels? Shot through the eye like Moe Greene.
Again and again, David Childs went back to the drawing board. By 2008, he was clinging to his prismatic glass. Barely.
“This is a good office building, and the structure works. But there’s another thing that this building aspires tothat other, final, symbolic, proportionate light-filled thing that inspires you. When the glass is on it, the faceted glass, with all the light going through and bouncing backit’s really going to be quite amazing. But we’ve got to get the right glass. A simple building is not tolerant of cost cuts. It is dependent on the detailing, the right materials. Once you take this tower and put it in its place, you’ve got to do it right. And they’re going to screw it up.”
IN 2010, AS THE FREEDOM TOWER’S PROJECTED COST passed $3 billion, the PA put a piece of the building up for sale and struck a deal with Douglas Durst. For a lousy $100 million, the Durst Organization obtained a 10 percent equity interest in the tower, along with a $15 million management contract whose fine print made plain the Port’s one true priority: If Durst could find costs to cut, Durst would pocket 75 percent of every penny it could save on the job up to $24 million, and less above that. Durst didn’t outbid other developers who wanted inthere were fivebut it had something special going for it: Condé Nast was already Durst’s tenant in a tower at Times Square andwho knew? who even coulda guessed?might relocate downtown, for the right price.
Surprise: Durst found costs to cut. It got rid of Childs’s glass tout suite and set its eyes upon the spire. That forty-story radomethe sculpted, tapered cable-and-fiberglass shell, shielding and concealing the broadcast antennae and tower mechanicals, its web of interlocking triangles climbing the sky: What the hell was that piece of shit doing up there, besides costing $20 million?
Childs was helpless, frozen out. Douglas Durst is a third-generation real estate king; his father had waged a public war against building the old World Trade Center, and Doug himself put a full-page ad in the New York City papers in 2007, urging new governor Spitzer to bury the Freedom Tower. It was Durst’s building now. Andrew Cuomo and Patrick Foye had no investment in the Torch of Freedom. His new boss saw no reason to give a moment’s thought to Childs’s pleas to spare the radome.
“I was so eager to try to get to Durst,” Childs says now, “to understand what he thought was wrong, and I realized right away that he didn’t want to talk to me, didn’t want to see me, didn’t want to take me up on my offer to redesign the spire or to solve problems. He just wanted to go in there with his ax.”
Childs was informed by a press release that the Torch of Freedom’s vest slept with the fishes; Durst told the press that the radome had to go because of potential maintenance and repair issues, which was bullshit. David Childs took boldand, for any architect, exceedingly rareaction: He issued a statement of his own, expressing disappointment and offering to work with the PA on a redesign. “Eliminating this integral part of the building’s design and leaving an exposed antenna and equipment is unfortunate,” he wrote. “We stand ready to work with the Port on an alternate design that will still mark the One World Trade Center’s place in New York City’s skyline.”
But $20 million saved was at least $10 million earned for Durst. Childs’s statement did have some effect: The Port told David Childs to shut the fuck up. With his loose talk about “exposed antenna and equipment,” Childs was jeopardizing the Freedom Tower’s status as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Because the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which is the international decider of these things, it has rules, goddammit, and while it’ll include spires as part of a tower’s height, “antennae, signage, flag poles or other functional-technical equipment” don’t count.
No worries. When it came time to present the Freedom Tower’s 1,776-foot case to the council, Port Authority executive director Pat Foye was on it. Even better, Foye knew just the right person for the jobDavid Childs.
“I had to go at the request of the head of the Port to Chicago, to argue why this sad little piece of steel up there was really a spire. And I swallowed my pride, and I won. And was there a word of thanks? No. And do you think I was welcomed back on the site as a prodigal son? No.”
There were times, says Childs, when despair made him want to walk away from the project, and each time he told himself, “This is bigger than thatget in there and make it as good as you can.” He also understood that the Freedom Tower is finally no one else’s public legacy but his.
“I don’t want it to be the thing that I’m remembered for, because in fact I’ve done a lot of things that I’m much prouder of. They’re up. They’re built. They’re finished. And I have great relationships with the clients. But you don’t get to choose those thingsthat obituary’s going to say ‘One World Trade Center.’ I’m impressedI’m surprised, actuallythat there are still so many people who call it the Freedom Tower. I still do, out of spite. That name stuck because at least it’s a name. One World Trade Center fell down.”
Childs went to his office on November 3, 2014, as usual. But he would’ve been happy to join with Pat Foye and Doug Durst to greet Condé Nast. Gladlyjust to see people coming in to work.
“The whole idea wasn’t to rebuild buildingsthat’s the architectural drive, but I always felt very strongly that the idea was to come back and prove to the world that we had returned, and returned better than before. And that’s all about people gathering together. We are an animal that wants to be together. We are very social, and that’s why architecture is such a social act. We want to be together for worship and play and trade, all those things. This is a marketplace and a gathering of people. Seeing them going to work in a normal situation really meant we’d done it.”
DONE. LAST TIME I WALKED GROUND ZERO, ALMOST Thanksgiving, that is exactly what I’m thinking: Somehow they got the motherfucker done. It’s dusk, cold, and spitting rain, getting darker by the second, and when the LEDs behind the glass light up, the base warms up a little. But not much. There’s still nowhere to sitno terraces, no stairs, just a long tall fortress wall facing the six-lane roadway, protecting the concrete moat surrounding the Cube.
Tourists walk the Memorial Plaza. There are places on this earth where the dead speak louder than the living; now New York City, which never, ever shuts the fuck up, has one of those.
The restored skyline of downtown New York City.
I’ve spent time at othersSobibor, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Little Bighornbut this place is louder, including the dead. They haven’t been here long. The young architect with me, Jeff Holmes, was on David Childs’s Freedom Tower design teamhe left SOM a few years back to start his own firmbut hasn’t been down here much. He pays tribute to Arkady Zaltsman, a colleague killed here on 9/11. Zaltsman was at an 8:00 A.M. client meeting on the 105th floor of the South Tower. He was forty-five years old, with a wife and daughter, when he left home that bright blue morning, on his way to work. He’s a gathering of letters now, a name engraved upon the parapet that guards the old towers’ void.
“It is about the people,” says Jeff Holmes. “Most of the stories aren’t. They’re about all kinds of things, but not about the people on the ground. To finally have people in the buildingI just came from a meeting with one of my guys, and I asked him how he felt when Condé Nast moved in, and he teared up on me. It’s emotionally draining, the challenge of a marketplace that’s meant to be a memorial to an incredibly awful event. Both at the same timeit’s impossible to be both. But it isthere’s the building, and there’s the old footprint. It’s just good, good for it to be coming back together.”
Finally, truly, good is good enough. Knowing that the world will outlast us doesn’t matter. The fear that comes with knowingthat’s the Cubematters nothing. We’re alive. We laugh. We love. We go to work.