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By Jon Campbell
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The shining tower planned for the gawked-upon gap of the World Trade Center may be the first skyscraper to pray for its city. The designer of the wind turbines that will occupy the top of the "Freedom Tower" wants the rotors to serve as prayer wheels, cycling through mantras of peace.
Tibetan Buddhists write the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" many times over on thin papers and enclose them within cylinders called mani, which are also inscribed with the mantra. These spin on an axle, continuously repeating the prayer. The words aren't directly translatable, but they invoke blessings from Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion.
That tradition could be a starting point for a spiritual gesture in the same airy reaches once filled with death, according to engineer Guy Battle, who's overseeing the wind farm for the planned Freedom Tower. Architect David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, master planner Daniel Libeskind, and developer Larry Silverstein haven't yet ruled on the proposal, and no artists have been commissioned to explore it.
The turbines are to produce a fifth of the electricity needed by the building. "They are simple generators, but they can be somehow linked with the memorial. People could even put prayers on the propellers," Battle says. A reflection of mourning, forgiveness, and hope open to all faiths and ethical traditions would give real meaning to the skyscraper's somewhat stilted name.
Imagine if, from miles away in any direction, you could look to that skyscraper and know that within its ethereal, translucent summit was a testament to our better selves, our shared prayers. That is the architecture of who we are as a people. And coincidentally, the northwesterly winds turning those prayer wheels would follow the same glinting line of the Hudson River that the planes of 9-11 used as a flight path to murder. It's the kind of gentle defiance that would drive Al Qaeda mad.
Leaders of the rebuilding process have emerged from storied grapples over the shape of the tapering structure. The reported debates between Childs and Libeskind about the building's proportions comically reprise the tale of how Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century tea master, was tested by a carpenter over exactly where a flower basket should be placed. So it seems somehow fitting that such a humble, quiet idea inspired by Buddhism and entering so late would bring an apt element of remembrance, and restore to the urban spire a spiritual and aspirational force.
Of course, the prayer wheels would be an unorthodox interpretation of an ancient practice. Such wheels, or mani, are usually vertical, while the turbines would be horizontal. Nor are they usually as hard to see as what Battle proposes. "But the intention is a large part of the process, so if your intention is genuine, then the slight variations in the execution of the device are less important," says Ganden Thurman, director of special projects at Tibet House.
The metropolitan cynic is tempted to dismiss such sentiments as hokey, but at some level, any sincere gesture of love is. Many residents of Lower Manhattan have remarked that the twin towers were a familiar presence, felt over the shoulder even when not seen. The thrill of the new won't fill that void for long. Downtown planners must create a symbol that earns enduring affection by not just building high, but by giving a sense of renewal to those who look up.
Such an invisible aspect wouldn't force any change in the appearance of the Freedom Tower or the contested 16-acre site. "I think the final form will be very close to what you saw at the unveiling. The broad strokes will be the same," says Kenneth Lewis, SOM's project manager. The building will rise from the street grid and torque to minimize wind resistance. Despite its glassy skin, an exoskeleton of diagonal supports and a concrete core will lend the building rigidity. A lacy truss of cables, which Childs says was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, will characterize the upper portion where the turbines are to be housed. Workers in the tower's 2.6 million square feet of office space will be protected by fireproof safe havens and filtering systems to guard against chemical and biological attacks.
Mocked as everything from a martini toothpick to a toy soldier's feather, the spire and antenna have been thorny issues. Skyscraper architect Cesar Pelli has consistently argued that such towers should have a spire, that the tapering profile is intrinsic to the medium. Yet after viewing the Freedom Tower, he told the Voice, "I think they should get rid of the spire. It detracts from the design, makes it lose strength."
The antenna will likely bring the entire structure to 2,000 feet, the limit imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, Lewis said. It needs to be that high to widen the television broadcast area. Even PBS has joined this cause, because the poor can't afford cable educational programs. But at the 1,776-foot mark the materials used to build the spire will change, and it will be illuminated. "The 1,776-foot mark will definitely be acknowledged. The bottom part of the antenna will be like the Statue of Liberty's torch and the upper part like the flame," he said.
It's doubtful that the Statue of Liberty echo will resonate much, over time. In truth, Liberty Enlightening the World already has its counterpoint across the harbor in Battery Park City. The comparatively small, tiered hexagon of the Museum of Jewish Heritage urges contemplation of the genocide unleashed by intolerance and the achievements that are possible for even a minority community when freedoms are secure. But the spire's offset placement atop the Freedom Tower will be distinctivecentering it would push the design toward mimicry, and lopping it off would leave a silhouette that's unjustifiably banal. As Skyscraper Museum director Carol Willis says, "I think that its slender proportions and pointing to sky really satisfy the definition of a skyscraper as a romantic notion."
And height, in this case, does matter. "As architects, we don't talk about designing the world's tallest building," Lewis says, but there's an undeniable groundswell of desire to see the Freedom Tower become the world's pinnacle.
If only for the moment. In a stark reminder of the ways of this world, the ecologically friendly Freedom Tower, even if recognized as the world's tallest by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, will be closely bracketed by two monuments to oil power. For now, the title belongs to the Petronas Towers, designed by Pelli for the Petroliam Nasional Berhad, the national oil company of Malaysia. Upcoming is the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which breaks ground this month and is slated for completion by 2009. The latter tower is also being built by SOM, and will be "comfortably taller" than anything else in the world, according to the firm.
The Burj Dubai derives its graceful symmetry from a six-petaled desert flower. Other examples of the newest generation of record-setting skyscrapers, like the bamboo-stalk-inspired Taipei Financial Center, have eschewed the boxy international style to reflect local cultures and organic forms. But perhaps the unseen prayer wheels will allow the Freedom Tower, as no building ever has, to speak profoundly for, and of, the people of its city.