Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer



by Dominic Bradbury; 01508 471294; 07050 129839

It is the most sensitive piece of real estate in the world. The very words ‘Ground Zero’ conjure a procession of haunting images: the planes piercing the towers, the falling figures and architect Minoru Yamasaki’s glorious Twin Towers crumbling into an epic cloud of dust after almost 30 years of ruling the Manhattan skyline.

It was a day that changed the world we live in forever and - given the intensity of emotions surrounding the Ground Zero site and the many voices who claimed input into its future - it was always going to take time to decide what should cover New York’s deepest scar. Few could have guessed just how long, but 10 years on, Ground Zero has at last been transformed with the opening this month of a 9/11 Memorial to honour the dead and work progressing alongside on a new skyscraper, christened the ‘Freedom Tower’.

The events of 9/11 were not just an assault upon a city and a society; they were also an attack upon a skyline and architecture itself. As an endless procession of trucks carried nearly two million tons of debris and rubble to the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island, architects and planners were asked whether the Twin Towers could have been safer, why escape had seemed so difficult, why firefighters struggled to gain access, and why the towers had collapsed so quickly.

The two 767 jets had badly damaged the buildings, cutting off anyone trapped in the levels above, but it was the raging fires they started that compromised the structures even more: one storey instantly imploded upon another, right down to the base. Detailed reports would take years to compile and would eventually change the design of tall buildings forever, with engineering changes to prevent pack-of-card style collapses and greater priority for safety systems and emergency access.

The rubble was cleared by the following May, but the drawn-out saga of what should happen to the World Trade Centre site - where six neighbouring buildings had been so badly damaged that they too had to be demolished - had only just begun. To replace the Twin Towers with fresh skyscrapers might be a symbol of renewal and the enduring vitality of the city but might it also create a new target? And then there was also the question of how best to create a fitting memorial to the nearly 3,000 victims of the world’s worst terrorist attack.

In the meantime, New York was left with a vast and sinister hole in the ground, like an open grave. Looking down upon Ground Zero from a neighbouring building was to see – for years - a muddy pit, bordered by concrete retaining walls that helped prevent flooding, populated by an assembly of trucks and construction vehicles making no obvious progress.

So many different groups had a stake in what was to happen here, yet the key to the future of Ground Zero lay in the delicate relationship between the owners of the land itself – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – and the real-estate magnate Larry Silverstein, who had acquired the lease on the World Trade Centre site less than three months before the attack, and who was quickly involved in a protracted settlement process with insurers. The scale of Silverstein’s ambition was always going to be limited by the size of this settlement.

In 2003 the Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind developed a masterplan - he called it ‘Memory Foundations’ - for the 16-acre World Trade Centre site, including the Freedom Tower and a series of subservient and smaller towers. Most assumed that Libeskind, whose headquarters sit a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre site, would design the Freedom Tower himself, but ultimately it was David Childs of SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) who was given the job. Formally known as One World Trade Centre (1WTC), the tower underwent several design revisions, due in part to security concerns and rows over money, but the final design was unveiled in 2005 and the foundations laid a year later.

By then the client for 1WTC had become the Port Authority itself after Silverstein decided to concentrate his efforts on realising three other landmark towers on the site. These were commissioned out to – among others – the British architects Norman Foster (the designer of the 78-storey, 1,270ft 2WTC, due to be completed in 2015) and Richard Rogers (the designer of the 71-storey, 1,170ft 3WTC, to be completed a year earlier).

SOM had already designed the 7 World Trade Centre building nearby – the first completed project on the site, which opened in May 2006. With the design of 1WTC, the focal point of the whole area, Childs and his associates needed to accommodate the needs of not just his client, but all the new security and safety recommendations that had been put into place in the wake of 9/11. After all, the new building will be, as New York’s police commissioner Ray Kelly has said, ‘the nation’s number one terrorist target’. At 104 storeys and 1,776 feet high, 1WTC will be the tallest building in America, and the third tallest in the world, with 2,600,000 sq ft of office space. (Without its communications mast, it will stand 1,368ft, the exact height of the Twin Towers.) It takes the form of crystalline obelisk, a glass sculpture that appears to taper gently as the sequence of triangles that form its surface meet at the summit.

1WTC has been designed around a central concrete core that holds all the vital safety systems, from reinforced emergency stairwells to sprinkler supply pipes, as well as the elevators. It will boast an enormous windowless concrete base to withstand ground attacks and, higher up, blast-resistant glass. It has been engineered so that in the extreme event of any partial collapse, the falling debris will be scattered rather than just taking out the floor below. The tower should be complete by 2013 and work is well underway. By mid-August, construction workers had reached the 80th floor.

The tower will stand directly next to the 9/11 Memorial that opens this month, designed by the Israeli-American architect Michael Arad – of Handel Architects – and the American landscape architect Peter Walker. The Memorial is a polar opposite to 1WTC: a plaza of white oak trees punctured by two vast reflecting pools, fed by waterfalls, each about an acre in size, sitting upon the square footprints of Yamasaki’s lost twins, with a modest museum alongside.

Finally, the pit in the ground has gone. There is still a long way to go at Ground Zero, but things are moving fast. The photographer Robert Polidori has been documenting the slow evolution of Ground Zero, and will continue to do so until the buildings are completed. QUOTE FROM POLIDORI HERE

The powerful team of international architects behind the Ground Zero project is trying to deliver something unique, within an extraordinary balancing act. They know that everyone will be looking at what they achieve with the keenest of eyes. This part of Lower Manhattan may well be changing beyond recognition, but it will always be weighted with symbolism and emotion.