Monday, 14 January 2013

The World Trade Center: Alternative Designs

I’ve been to New York City three times. Once was for a weekend in 2000, another for ten days in 2003, and most recently I visited in October this year, for half a day, to register for an offshore pass/permit, and then fly back to Scotland.

That most recent visit, as you might imagine, didn’t leave much time for sightseeing, although as the permit office was just opposite Penn Station, I managed to find an hour to drink some coffee, eat a croissant, and wander by the Empire State Building. But the earlier two visits were all about the sightseeing. The 2000 visit was very fortuitous: a few friends and I had won a Tennent’s sponsored national pub quiz final, and the prize was a long weekend in New York, hotel and prize money included. Not bad, we all agreed. Age 21, it was the first time I’d ever been abroad by myself (i.e. not on a family holiday) and I’d never seen anything like New York before. Everything was big.

Including, of course, the World Trade Centre. With less than four days to tour the sights of New York, I ticked off the obligatory Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and Central Park, and on the final day found myself at the foot of the World Trade Centre, specifically the Twin Towers. No surprises, they were really, really big. I went into the lobby and saw a queue, a reasonably-sized one, by the elevators to visit the top. Time was pressing, but I particularly enjoy going to the top of tall towers or buildings and so was very keen to see the top of the tallest buildings in New York, and at one time the world. But, I realised, to do so with the time I had left would be rushing the experience.

“Screw it,” I said to myself, looking up at the twin buildings. “I’ll be back one day. They’re not going anywhere.”

A year and two months later I was wrong.

So my trip in 2003 was to a different New York. This visit was with a friend, and for a much more leisurely ten days. Of course, it involved a visit to Ground Zero. It happened to be at the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks and we witnessed a solemn and understated ceremony involving the names of the victims being read out by children. Where the two twin giants had stood was now a sprawling building site – it had taken me some time to figure out where I was, so unfamiliar did the site seem. By then, plans were going ahead with rebuilding something, but apart from removing the huge amount of debris, the site did not look at all developed.

It’s been very slow progress since, but a replacement tower is almost complete. Originally called “Freedom Tower”, it has been renamed the more subdued “One World Trade Center”, and will look like this:

It will be third-tallest building in the world, and it looks good, and will certainly be an icon of New York, but I can’t help but feel it’s a missed opportunity. The tortuous process of bureaucracy and hyper-sensitivity to a site that is almost sacred in the eyes of New York and beyond has sent the costs spiralling to something like $4 billion. It has also meant the design has been agreement-by-committee rather than one individual, and this invariably means a safer choice rather than something daring. Perhaps, given the history of the site, this is the right thing to do, but I also feel that this new building is pretty anonymous given its hype, its cost, and its future prestige. The original Twin Towers may not have been architecturally beautiful, but as a pair they were magnificently monolithic and hugely iconic. Their replacement will be very tall, but I don’t think it will be as eye-catching.

The opportunity was there. A few months ago, I picked up a book for a couple of pounds in a charity shop - “Imagining Ground Zero” by Suzanne Stephens – which featured the many proposals made for a replacement building or buildings for the Ground Zero site. Their quality and sanity ranged massively, but there were some excellent choices. Here are some of my favourites (in the order the book presents them).



This was an official proposal, called the “World Cultural Center”, by a team of architects under the THINK monicker. It manages to blend the impractical with the somewhat tasteless. The structures would largely be steel lattices, with the only usable space the “blobs” within. The twisty blobs – a kind of sculpture - near the top are the exact points where the planes hit.

United Architects

Another architectural team, called simply United Architects, came up with this terrifying mass of buildings. Another official proposal, it looks like a bunch of skyscrapers going in for a group hug, or from a distance as though a group of buildings are clambering on top of each other. In fact, it is five structurally independent skyscrapers, interconnected to give the impression of being one crazy wall of steel and glass.

Foster and Partners

A real shame this one wasn’t taken up. By one of the world’s greatest living architects (of relevance to me, he designed the MillauViaduct), this was an official proposal that garnered popular support. And no wonder – it looks great. In typical Foster style, it is elegant and subtle, and would have been a great icon for New York - a nod to the towers it was replacing, but with an aesthetic upgrade.

Richard Meier & Partners

Wow. It looks like a gigantic hashtag has descended upon New York. Another serious, official proposal, this would have been five 339-metre-tall buildings connected at regular intervals to give a grid-like impression, mirroring New York’s streetplan. A little severe, I think.

Coop Himmelb(l)au

Supposed to be a gigantic hourglass (yellow colour optional, I hope), this bizarre proposal wasn’t official but was by invitation of the New York magazine, who weren’t impressed by the official proposals. Here we have three 100-storey towers supporting what looks like a gramophone horn propped up on a cone. The lower cone was designed to be a cathedral-like space protecting the footprints of the original Twin Towers. It’s entirely inappropriate for a new World Trade Center, but I’d love it if someone could build this somewhere. Come on Dubai, this is your sort of thing.

Zaha Hadid Architects

Another New York magazine proposal, this is very visually appealing and very Zaha Hadid. Slender, curvy, futuristic, like molten tubes of glass, this would have been an amazing and appropriate replacement for the original towers.

Foreign Office Architects

This was a proposal in response to art dealer and gallery owner Max Protetch’s exhibition for a replacement World Trade Center, begun just a month after the disaster. Here we have eight bendy 110-storey buildings looking like either industrial chimneys or colossal tentacles. Just what Manhattan needs.


Bendy tentacle-like buildings must have been order of the day back then. Another Max Protetch offering, this one actually looks pretty cool at night.

Jakob + MacFarlane 

Taking the tentacle idea to extremes, this Max Protetch exhibition proposal intended to use the Ground Zero site as a dedicated memorial rather than a rebuilt trade centre. The tentacles – or “slender, fingerlike towers” – would be illuminated with messages meant to have “global significance”. The examples shown here are “Save Kyoto”, “Remember Seattle”, “Fight for Environment”, “Love”, “Memory”, and “What The Hell Guys?”

Carlos Brillembourg

You might have to give this one a second look. Another Max Protetch submission, it’s a copy of the original twin buildings, but cut out from the interior to create two colossal symbolic gateway structures. This would apparently give a 40% increase in window coverage. Great. I suspect Mr Brillembourg simply forgot about the exhibition until the night before, and quickly rustled this up using MS Paint.

John David Rulon

An independent proposal, I can’t find much information on this one, but it sure looks tiring.

Edit: The architect behind the design emailed me, explaining a little more about the design. You can see more on his homepage. What appears on the above, slightly distant, image to be like a spiral of steps climbing up the outside of the building are actually individual office floors, each with garden terraces. The spiral design is a DNA-style double helix. It's pretty audacious, and while I'm not sure if this would have fitted with New York, it would be a pretty incredible building to look at, if pulled off correctly. The garden idea reminds me a little of the Banaue Rice Terraces in skyscraper form. The architect also made designs for the memorial garden at the base. Here are some more pictures, all courtesy of


Kruunenberg van der Erve 

You don’t mess with a man called Kruunenberg van der Erve, and if he says we build mirror-image underground Twin Towers, then that’s what we do.

Miro Rivera Architects

Another independent submission, here we have 3016 bronze columns representing the estimated number of victims of the World Trade Center attacks, both in 1993 and in 2001. The height of each column corresponds to the age of the victim. There would be a building for contemplation and a ceremonial “Weeping Wall”. I have absolutely no doubt this would have been an incredibly powerful, moving, and visually stunning spectacle – a little like Berlin’s striking Holocaust memorial – but my issue with it is the near-idolisation of these victims. This would have taken it a bit far.

Antoni Gaudi

In 1908, the celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi was approached by American businessmen to build a hotel in New York. The 360-metre “Hotel Attraction” was what he proposed. Inside has such features as a 64% size copy of the Statue of Liberty. It never eventuated, but his plans were found years later, and proposed again for Manhattan, this time as a replacement for the World Trade Center. The BBC take up the story.  If you have good eyesight, click on the photo above for more details (apologies for the vagueness – a combination of the source material being fuzzy and not being familiar with my new scanner).

If the World Trade Centre hadn’t been attacked and collapsed on September 11th 2001, would it have made my list? Possibly. Maybe. Yes. I think so. Individually, neither was anything special, just very, very tall. But together they were more than the sum of their parts, creating an important addition to the New York skyline, and having an imposing monolithic presence. Wonders don’t have to be beautiful, they just need to have presence, to be visually striking. Likely the Twin Towers wouldn’t have figured in the higher echelons of my final list, but they would still have rated well. I certainly would like to have visited them again.

As it is, I hope to visit the new One World Trade Center within a couple of years. But it won’t be on my list of potential Wonders, and I don’t expect to have a change of mind upon seeing it. Having visited and researched a number of World Wonders, it’s clear that the world’s greatest structures may be old, new, delicate, or massive, but they are never generic. This new building looks to be pretty impressive, sure, but it also looks like it could have been built in Shanghai, or Dubai, or anywhere that is currently building super-tall skyscrapers. It lacks any element of risk necessary to be a truly great building. Take a look at the Emporis Skyscraper Awards for last year – would it have stood out among these? It’s too sensible. And for $4 billion, why be sensible?


  1. Interesting account of the design process in Daniel Libeskinds excellent book Breaking Ground: Adventures in LIfe and Architecture. For an architect he's a very charming writer.

  2. Hi Jo. Thanks for the recommendation. I've ordered it on Amazon and will hopefully read it before I go to New York and see the new building.


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