The Towers Tomorrow

A City of Spires Searches for Its Next Skyline

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Symbols of aspiration and faith: New York’s Twin Towers
photo: Sean Beavers

City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!

Walt Whitman's poem "Mannahatta" exalted the boundless promise of New York in 1881. The decades that followed gauged Lower Manhattan's ascendance in literal terms—time and again the world's tallest buildings would sprout from this granite island. New York itself became the quintessential architectural statement of America.

The waters off the Battery were still sparkling that morning 120 years later when two shining jets killed that assumption of progress, humbling this city in ways it can't yet admit to itself. Larry Silverstein, leaseholder for the doomed World Trade Center, has declared 60 stories the highest suitable height for succeeding buildings. That's down from the 110 of the twin towers, yet his spokesman says, "I don't think New York is in jeopardy of losing its preeminence in skylines. I think it's still the most dramatic."

Donald Trump, that Don Quixote of world-record skyscrapers, isn't buying it. He too realizes the local market may have lost its stomach for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Chicago's Sears Tower, Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, or Shanghai's World Financial Center, currently under construction. But he at least admits what's been lost.

"A great building that's 50 stories tall can never be as magnificent as a great building that's 110 stories tall. With height there's a majesty you don't get with a shorter, heavier, fatter structure," he says. "It's a sad case when you look at the World Trade Center now and realize that buildings of that magnitude will never stand there again, or anywhere in New York. To a certain extent, the other side has won."

You can hear the sadness in his voice, strikingly devoid of the ego that made "the Donald" famous. It's not that he won't be raising up a glittering tribute to the Big Apple, it's that no one will. Fear has cut our ambition at the knees, and in decades to come New York will have a second-rate skyline. Can we hold on to our claim as "capital of the world" if other metropolises literally tower over us?

New York has kept its cultural vitality and business verve through loss before—piers of the port city that bristled with Whitman's beloved masts have given way to parkland. Clustered skyscrapers are harder to lose. They set the tone of striving in New York, silently asking millions at once, "Are you big enough for this town?"

Aesthetes who derided the twin towers as the boxes the Empire State and Chrysler buildings came in missed the point of their iconic power. "New York built all of its large skyscrapers through poetry and pragmatism. It was never pure poetry," says Cesar Pelli, who designed the World Financial Center—foothills to the trade center mountains—as well as the reigning Petronas Towers.

So far leading contenders for the devastated downtown site have veered toward the banalities spawned by those two instincts. Silverstein, the pragmatist, has pushed for comparatively squat buildings, for Shaker table legs to replace Doric columns. Once built, nothing grander could be added. Some technology wonks have declared not only the skyscrapers dead, but also the idea of the city itself, replaced by suburbs where people log onto the Internet or teleconference before banks of screens. Yet look at Internet giant AOL Time Warner, which, seeking a new palace of empire, is going ahead with its 80-story set of towers on Columbus Circle. They're not likely to produce a new icon for New York, but they're an icon for the driving ethos of cities—that being close together is better.

And so far, even minimalist poetry has been trite. Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum and a Columbia University architectural historian, suggests that two squares of grass marking the towers' footprints, surrounded by mixed-use development, might be "most eloquent." Freezing the tragedy in time may be suitable for Oklahoma City, but not the contradictory layering and transience of New York. In a mere decade, the squares could turn into places for yuppies to maintain a tan. Others have recommended fountains, but while their rising and falling waters articulate renewal, in reality they renew nothing.

Willis dismisses the urge to rebuild the towers, waving away calls for a triumphal reconstruction effort. "Of course there are always people advocating for everything," she sniffs.

She also makes the case that the tallest skyscrapers are commissioned at the end of long booms. The power to build new skyscrapers doesn't rest with the people, according to Willis: "Just because people have been affected, yearning will not make it happen." But Willis herself points out that the giants going up in Asia are supported by governments, albeit not democracies.

But a public agency, the Port Authority, was the patron of the Trade Center, and President Bush has promised New York's elected senators billions in aid. And the neat academic formulas with which Willis consigns Manhattan's skyscraper dreams to her historical museum fail for one dramatic reason: No American city has had its greatest towers ripped from it by an international murder plot.

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