By Blair Kamin | Chicago Tribune
4 World Trade Center a respectfully restrained piece of complicated puzzle.
A dozen years after hijacked jets destroyed the twin towers, a new district is finally taking shape at the World Trade Center — pointedly different from the sterile superblock it replaced, but far from assured of either real estate success or urban vitality.
Tourists flock to the park and square reflecting pools of the National Sept. 11 Memorial, now two years old. The steel ribs of Santiago Calatrava's soaring, budget-busting transit hub have poked above ground, with completion expected in 2015. A new underground concourse, also by Calatrava, links the Trade Center with a nearby office complex. A subterranean museum, where visitors will see pieces of mangled steel from the twin towers, will open next spring. And the district's tallest tower, the almost-finished 1 World Trade Center, now commands the lower Manhattan skyline. It, too, will open next year.
Next week, though, attention will be focused on the ceremonial opening of a shorter skyscraper, the $2 billion 4 World Trade Center, the first office building to be completed within the borders of ground zero's ever-contentious 16 acres. At 977 feet, it would be the tallest skyscraper in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas or Philadelphia. But here it rises in the figurative shadow of 1 World Trade Center, which claims a height of 1,776 feet. Perhaps it was good to be out of the limelight.
Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the subtle, self-effacing high-rise compels with its combination of sharply-honed, light-reflecting minimalist geometry and sensitive, city-embracing urbanism.
Those two don't always mix, yet Maki has skillfully balanced them and other competing demands peculiar to this project: Respecting the dead and building a lively city, delivering a robust structure that can withstand a terrorist attack and creating a sense of openness, contributing to an ensemble of towers and achieving a presence of its own. The design is fundamentally sound, even though it lacks the brio of Maki's best work, like the Spiral Building, a Tokyo mid-rise that houses a variety of cultural activities and a delightful spiral ramp within its fragmented, collaged exterior.
Located at the southeast corner of the Trade Center site, across the rebuilt Greenwich Street from the memorial, the tower consists of a trapezoidal top set on a parallelogram-shaped mid-section and base. Its smooth glass skin conceals powerful bones — notably, a steel frame that dispenses with evenly-spaced perimeter columns for pairs of muscular columns framing 80-foot-wide spans that open the interior to its surroundings. Two notched corners articulate the envelope with thin, vertical channels that run from sidewalk to summit. The effects are, by and large, compelling.
Maki wisely accepted the broad outlines of Daniel Libeskind's ground zero master plan, which called for rebuilding streets that were eliminated to create the Trade Center's original 1960s superblock and forming a cluster of skyscrapers that would spiral upward to the new 1 World Trade Center. His tower is appropriately dignified as it faces the memorial to the west, but it promises to be equally well-attuned to bustling, storefront-lined Church Street to its east. A still-to-be-completed retail atrium and transit hall could prove a powerful magnet, integrating the tower's base with its surroundings.
With its stepped crown pointing directly toward 1 World Trade Center, as if in homage, Maki's design knits together the urban fabric on the skyline as well as the street.
Yet while Maki took Libeskind's cues on urban design, he went his own way on architecture, discarding the jagged, crystalline forms of Libeskind's 2003 master plan for the calmer language of abstract minimalism. Thicker-than-normal exterior glass and energy-efficient coatings make the tower's walls elegantly flat and mirror-like, not distorted, as office building glass typically is. From a distance, the skyscraper has appealing contrasts of light, reflective surfaces and dark ones. Its smoothness is especially apparent on the façade facing the memorial. There, mechanical louvers and the noise they emit were eliminated out of respect for the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11.
Rather than shutting itself off from the memorial and its park, the tower's high-ceilinged lobby effectively makes use of them as "borrowed scenery," in the words of Osamu Sassa, who served as Maki's project architect. The black granite walls that clad the elevator core beautifully reflect the trees. A semi-circular titanium piece by Japanese artist Kozo Nishino floats gracefully above the lobby. Wood walls that shine with a reflective coating amplify the presence of LED screens at the back of the elevator lobbies that display time-lapse images of water, sky and trees.
The office building floors are unusually expansive, a byproduct of the building's unique structure — a welcome reversal from architect Minoru Yamasaki's closely-spaced, view-blocking columns of the twin towers. "Larry Silverstein (the developer of the Trade Center) wanted to produce the best quality office space and Mr. Maki wanted great architecture. Common to both of those is tremendous views out the windows," said William Faschan, a partner at Leslie Robertson Associates, 4 World Trade Center's structural engineer and the engineer for the original Trade Center.
At ground zero, however, nothing is ever easy, and so it is at 4 World Trade Center. Only half of the tower's 2.4 million square feet of office space is pre-leased, and one of the tenants, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is already trying to sublease some of its space. That makes next week's ceremonies, which will include Tuesday's performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a Wednesday opening, seem more like marketing hoopla than a bona fide opening. Indeed, 4 World Trade Center is, for now, a shell. Tenants will start moving in next year.
The lack of tenants does not bode well for the planned 2 and 3 World Trade Center towers just up the street. Without them, gaping holes remain in the skyline, and the new district and its envisioned spiral of towers seem incomplete. But developer Silverstein is counting on a repeat of 7 World Trade Center, which opened nearly empty just north of ground zero in 2006 and is now full. "C'mon down, we'll show you around," Dara McQuillan, a spokesman for the developer, said during a tour last week.
For now, then, despite signs of progress, the new district's future remains fraught with economic uncertainty and continuing concerns about security, evident in 1 World Trade Center's glassy but fortress-like base. It is not easy to build great cities, and it is even harder to build them under such trying circumstances. 4 World Trade Center is a good first step, but the jury is still out on whether the district as a whole can realize the aspirations that Libeskind eloquently articulated 10 years ago.