By David Gelernter
We need to replace the World Trade Center towers with something bigger, better, and more beautiful. Some people are nervous (some people are always nervous) — in the age of terrorism, they say, a Manhattan skyscraper is a mere gross provocation, and dangerous. It is a raised fist or middle finger directed at the sulking sultans and all their violent, misfit friends, the creatures who danced in the streets when the towers fell. A new WTC skyscraper is bound to be attacked again, they figure, and will again prove hard to evacuate. So we should lower our sights.
These same people would probably have argued in December 1941 that it would be foolish for the U.S. to risk replacing her Pacific fleet, because navies are a provocation and are always getting into wars. But no American in December ‘41 was willing for Japanese warlords to shape the U.S. military. Few Americans today are willing for al Qaeda warlords to shape the Manhattan skyline. Not to replace the WTC with a bigger and better WTC would be dishonorable and, ultimately, cowardly.
But we need a new WTC skyscraper not merely to raise high the banner of our contempt for terrorism; we need skyscrapers the way we needed to put men on the moon. All practical arguments are secondary. America is America, not merely New Zealand with more flavors of pizza, because occasionally we soar. We make magnificent gestures. Manhattan’s towering skyline “is to the nation,” wrote E. B. White, “what the white church spire is to the village — the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.”
The skyscraper is a brand new art form, barely one hundred years old. European engineers (especially Eiffel) made decisive contributions to its emergence, but it is a typically American art form nonetheless. The Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan were the first real skyscraper-builders. In such designs as the Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1891), they were first to grasp that a skyscraper is not a mere ordinary building with more floors piled on top. The bold vertical ribs of the Wainwright façade are a row of exclamation points in the history of architecture, each one stretched high like a long-limbed child reaching for the cookie jar. A skyscraper does not “sit” on its “site”; it stands erect. (“Site” is the wrong word for the ground beneath a skyscraper.) Skyscrapers play by their own rules, as Adler and Sullivan were first to show.
It is beautifully appropriate that this quintessentially American art form, this special object of terrorist outrage, should have been pioneered by a collaboration between the designer Louis Sullivan and the engineer Dankmar Adler — who was the son of a rabbi, born in Germany but trained in the United States. To al Qaeda, such a collaboration must be utterly mysterious, a violation of the laws of the universe.
AN UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
The skyscraper is brand new and undiscovered. It is also (in its own way) a violation of the laws of the universe, which is why skyscrapers are so inspiring and (to terrorists) so provoking. Skyscrapers stand for exuberance as a force of nature. To turn over their further development to East Asia, to resign from this game in a funk when we are winning, would be to tell the world that we have run out of ideas, stamina, and daring. We might as well join the crotchety European community and hang out the national “On Viagra” sign, unless we are beyond caring.
It’s easy to prove how raw, new, and undeveloped the mammoth skyscraper is. Merely suppose that you have been asked to design a new WTC. Dozens of ideas come to mind instantly.
A skyscraper ought to be firmly connected to the ground. We ought to be able to see and feel the right angle where tower meets earth. When the connection is smudged, as it usually is, the building floats overhead like a fairy-castle in the clouds, and dominates instead of amplifying the walker on the street. McKim, Mead and White’s Municipal Building of 1914 is a masterpiece of city architecture because (among other things) it straddles Chambers Street in lower Manhattan, and you can walk or drive right through it. (This was a condition imposed on the architects by the city.) The best thing about I. M. Pei’s graceless, over-appreciated, pointy-elbowed East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington is the building’s sharp prow, where two stone walls come together in an acute angle that you can walk right up to and touch — and everyone does. Countless palms have worn a dark dip in the marble. The first requirement for a successful new WTC is that we be able to lean casually against it.
I can’t help picturing this new WTC as a single tower resting on four huge piers at the corners. Approaching the building, you would see a narrow dark strip running between piers. Walking closer you would find stairs leading down into this void, beckoning you into the region directly beneath the building. To walk right underneath a huge tower would be unsettling — and this would be a good place for a memorial to the 9/11 dead. But once I entered this “memorial hall,” I might encounter an architectural curve ball. Although the space itself might be shadowy, the ceiling might be bright — I might look up to discover an illuminated interior dome, tiled in something like natural mica.
Manhattan likes vibrant colors to match its vibrant personality, but modern skyscrapers have rarely taken the hint. The turquoise of Raymond Hood’s McGraw Hill Building on 42nd Street (1930), the black and gold of Hood’s American Radiator Building on 40th (also 1924), the fantastically colorful spire of Cross and Cross’s old RCA Victor tower on Lexington Avenue (1931), have rarely been matched in recent skyscrapers. Cesar Pelli’s drawings for his MOMA apartment building showed subtle and beautiful colors, but the actual building was a toned-down, blanded-out disappointment, like so many of Pelli’s ostensible masterpieces. Roche and Dinkeloo’s matching towers at One and Two U.N. Plaza (1976 and ‘83) are two of the world’s loveliest buildings, and they are a beautiful diamond-blue. The ovular Lipstick Tower on Third by Burgee and Johnson (1986) — the only really good building Philip Johnson has ever made — is vivid red. But there aren’t many other examples. The new WTC should add color to an under-colorful skyline. How can you help imagining it in (say) vivid cobalt-blue-glazed brick? (Or deep maroon? Or verdigris with pale-blue highlights?)
Major skyscrapers ought to provide public spaces all the way up. Why couldn’t I board an elevator and rise into a public space located somewhere in the bottom third of the tower — and keep rising, eventually entering a second and third public area on my way to the top? A restaurant, shopping mall, or garden could be strung out vertically along the whole length of the shaft. (If New York is such a vertical city, why doesn’t it have more vertical art galleries and science museums?) In the post-war era, Manhattan made zoning concessions in return for outdoor public plazas. Today we need more public space inside our towers, at every level.
The most important thing about a skyscraper is the shape of its floor plan. Architects have barely even started to explore the possibilities. Our towers come in “square,” “rectangle,” and pistachio, and that’s about it. Exceptions are rare. Edward Larrabee Barnes built an elegant triangle-plan tower for IBM in 1983, and Der Scutt’s Trump Tower on Fifth (also 1983) is also triangular, sort of. Johnson perpetrated ovals at the Lipstick Building. Daniel Burnham’s beloved Flatiron Building (1902) is, presumably, flatiron-shaped. The Pan Am building of 1963 is traditionally described as “lozenge-shaped,” but architectural historians have long since given up trying to find out what shape “lozenges” are, and are on the verge of admitting that, actually, lozenges are Pan Am Building-shaped. In any case, this pretty much exhausts our repertory of non-square, non-rectangular towers. And there is almost never any movement (no twisting, no turning) in our square or rectangular shafts.
But why couldn’t we have a tower made of stacked cubes that spiral slowly as they ascend? The cubes would all have the same center, but each would be twisted (say) 15 degrees relative to the one directly below. The whole tower would seem to move as it rises. This twisting, striving shaft would evoke the raised right arm of the Statue of Liberty. In fact, if we still went in for the late-’70s and ’80s parody style called “postmodern” (or for 1960s Pop Art, which at its best was far more interesting), our course would be clear: We would replace the WTC with a hugely scaled-up version of Liberty’s right arm, complete with a gigantic raised torch. This strong right arm of America, proclaiming liberty and gathering freedom-lovers home, would be a response to terrorist murder that Saddam Hussein could read without his spectacles.
It would be a good shape for a tower; it would make an arresting anchor for the Manhattan skyline. But it would overwhelm the original, and remind us of the effete insincerity that was postmodernism’s trademark. Good to imagine but no good to build.
But perhaps instead of spiraling, the tower should be a traditional straight square shaft (in bright-blue brick), with a pair of screened-in helical staircases in light blue or gold, spiraling down the outside like oversized Slinkies. Thus, a square shaft encircled by staircases; the stairs would meet the tower at its corners. One staircase would spiral clockwise, the other counterclockwise. Good for an emergency, better for decoration. (And if one of the staircases were replaced by a slide, you would have one of the world’s most popular amusement-park attractions as a bonus — elevator up, slide down — and an even better escape route.)
And come to think of it, I might do the memorial differently: might put it on top. I might encage the tower’s spire in a huge geodesic sphere or some other kind of wire-built globe; it would surround the top like a mammoth three-dimensional halo. I’d use the narrowest-gauge wire I could get away with. In daylight you’d barely see the halo, except when the sun caught it just right. Airplanes would see it glinting, and it would be lit at night. The wire halo-globe would suggest other New York landmarks past and present: Lee Lawrie’s Atlas shouldering his globe in Rockefeller Center, the Perisphere at the 1939 World’s Fair, the great globe in the Daily News Building’s lobby, the Unisphere. Halo-equipped, the new WTC would suggest a sort of memorial candle.
Or perhaps the square shaft should be inside the rising, twisting spiral of stacked cubes — but the cubes should be transparent: steel frames covered in nylon window-screening, with concrete bases. On some floors, you’d be able to walk out a door onto the concrete base of an outer cube. You’d be able to stroll round the outside of the building hundreds of feet in the air.
I might put my tower in a shallow grass bowl. New Yorkers need a place where they can lie on the grass and contemplate a skyscraper close-up. I’d have cables or guy-wires running from the very top to this grass plaza, if I could work them in smoothly; I’d want to be able to stand at the bottom and put my hand on a line that ran straight to the top. That way I myself would be connected to the top. And every tower ought to have swiveling periscope-viewers in the lobby that show views from the roof.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Architects have barely begun to explore the skyscraper’s possibilities. They have barely begun to imagine what a gigantic skyscraper means, how it should work and what it should do.
One final detail: The new WTC ought to be the tallest building in the world. That goes without saying. Have we outgrown the need to put the world’s tallest building right here? Then let Manhattan apply to a monastery and spend the rest of its days in contemplation and remembrance.
THE POWER OF MIND
Nothing is harder to grasp than change over time. We claim to believe in the inevitability of change, but most of us don’t really. We secretly believe that what we see around us is how the world is, period. (To project the consequences of a tax cut, subtract the amount of the cut from projected total revenues as of yesterday. What could be simpler?)
In recent generations, we’ve always seemed to be going flat-out, burning resources with abandon. Big-picture thinkers keep telling us that we are about to run out of this or that. But we never do run out of anything important unless we run out of wisdom and daring first. It’s hard to grasp, but the human mind can’t compare with the mighty Mississippi or the towering Rockies — because it is no mere lump of matter; it acts, and the world changes. One age’s anguish-over-limits is the next age’s footnote. Mere natural resources can’t hold us back. Only men can hold man back.
America began her skyscraper binge at roughly the same time as the western frontier closed forever. Neither event caused the other, but the two resonate together; they have to do with the same deep urge, to push on and not stop. The best thing about Manhattan’s skyline is the story that goes with it. That building used to be the world’s tallest (the Woolworth Tower, Chrysler Building, Empire State, and once upon a time the Twin Towers); but not for long. (Remember that.) Why bother, the sophisticates ask, what’s the point? It’s all just an overpriced boondoggle, like men on the moon. A new world’s-tallest-tower in Manhattan couldn’t possibly serve any real purpose, it would only be a symbol. And they’re right, it would only be a symbol. And no purpose is realer than that.
— David Gelernter, a contributor to National Review, is a professor of computer science at Yale University. Among his books is 1939: The Lost World of the Fair.