The Untold Design Story of the Final WTC Building

By: Andrew Rice | WIRED

When Bjarke Ingels set out to create the fourth and final skyscraper at the reborn World Trade Center earlier this year, he faced the same dilemma that has burdened every architect who has ventured onto New York’s most hallowed and expensive construction site. Would he design a stately tower, respectful of the history of the property, where some 3,000 people died in 2001? Or would Ingels, a brash Danish prodigy, follow his instincts and steer the building in a more adventurous direction—and risk running into the controversy that has dashed the ambitions of many a World Trade Center architect before him?

Not surprisingly, Ingels—the founder of the firm BIG and the author of a book called Yes Is More decided his skyscraper could be both things at once.

“The architecture becomes a solution to an almost unsolvable puzzle,” Ingels told me one recent morning. After a secretive design process code-named Project Gotham, the architect was finally ready to talk publicly about his building, which is slated to become the new headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s media companies, 21st Century Fox and News Corp. A tentative lease deal was signed last week, and the first renderings were released today to WIRED. From the World Trade Center’s Memorial Plaza, the new building will appear slender and serious. But from other perspectives, like the one looking south from the fashionable neighborhood of Tribeca—where Ingels lives and where we were having breakfast—the stepped tower will present a more madcap personality: Ingels’ 21st-century reinterpretation of one of Manhattan’s Jazz Age ziggurats.

“We have tried to incorporate that duality,” Ingels says. “On one hand it’s about being respectful and about completing the frame around the memorial, and on the other hand it’s about revitalizing downtown Manhattan and making it a lively place to live and work.”

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The World Trade Center redevelopment began in tragedy and was mired for years in political infighting. But its closing chapters—like so many New York stories—have been plotted by the dictates of the real estate marketplace. Last year, One World Trade Center opened with a media company (Condé Nast, which owns WIRED) as its anchor tenant. The once-dowdy area known as the Financial District has been transformed by an influx of companies from the advertising, design, and tech industries. The neighborhood’s creative direction was powerfully attractive to James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and a key executive at 21st Century Fox, who spearheaded the search for a new headquarters along with chief financial officer John Nallen.

2WTC InfoLarry Silverstein, the developer who leased the Twin Towers before their destruction and has played a central role in the redevelopment ever since, had a prime piece of land to offer: the last of four skyscraper sites set out in a decade-old master plan. But there was an obstacle to making a deal. There was already a design for the building, officially known as Two World Trade Center, which Silverstein commissioned years ago. Lord Norman Foster, the 80-year-old architect of acclaimed buildings like London’s iconic Gherkin, had envisioned a gleaming 79-story trophy along the Hudson River, crowned by a slanted glass roof divided into four diamonds. Due to the complexities of the World Trade Centers redevelopment, a foundation had already been constructed at the time the propertys ultimate owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, built the transit hub and shopping mall that are positioned beneath the site. But James Murdoch didn’t care for the building. That’s why Foster ended up being bumped aside in favor of Ingels, who is exactly half his age—a wunderkind by the standards of the profession.

“The first thing James said to me is he didn’t want to build a tower,” Ingels says. The younger Murdoch is around the same age as Ingels and favors the kind of open-plan work schemes preferred by tech companies like Google. As it happens, Google is a BIG client. Ingels and another architect, Thomas Heatherwick, collaborated on the firm’s proposed new 60-acre Mountain View, California, campus, which features landscaped interiors covered by futuristic glass canopies.

“They liked the idea of a more integrated workplace, where the space flows more easily and people are more likely to collide and collaborate,” says Mary Ann Tighe, chief executive for the New York region at real estate brokerage CBRE, which represented Fox and News Corp in negotiations. It would be impossible, however, to re-create a Silicon Valley campus in Manhattan, where even billionaires are constrained by the street grid. Murdoch gave Ingels the task of fitting his ideal workplace into a vertical structure. (At 1,340 feet, it would be Manhattan’s third-tallest building today, behind its neighbor One World Trade Center and 432 Park Avenue, a new ultra-luxury condo building by Rafael Viñoly.) Over the course of six months, a BIG team came up with a concept that divided the skyscraper into seven boxes, each around a dozen stories tall, stacked like children’s blocks. “It is like seven different buildings stacked on top of each other,” Ingels says.

Fox and News Corp, which have operated as separate companies since 2013, will occupy the two largest blocks of office space, while Silverstein will market the upper floors to other tenants. The blocks get smaller as the building rises, creating setbacks where Ingels has designed a series of outdoor gardens, one for each block. They are supposed to evoke varying climates, from tropical to arctic. (A recent BIG exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, titled Hot to Cold, arranged his career similarly.) In the parts of the building occupied by Fox and News Corp, cafés for employees will adjoin the gardens. Elevator shafts—the vital spinal column of any skyscraper—will be concentrated on the western end of the structure, allowing capacious space for newsrooms. Winding staircases set against the glassy exterior wall are meant to ensure that the companies feel internally connected, rather than divided into floors and fiefdoms. The building’s topmost floor will house a Fox screening room with a stunning view.

Ingels’ design will complete a spiral of gradually taller skyscrapers ringing the perimeter of the 16-acre site, which was originally laid out by architect Daniel Libeskind in the redevelopment’s master plan. It also promises to punctuate the Financial District’s new economic identity. “This clearly moves the center of gravity in the city’s media industry downtown,” said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group. Other elements of the redevelopment include architect Michael Arad’s somber memorial—a pair of cascading pools that mark the footprint of the destroyed Twin Towers—an adjoining museum, and the commuter train terminal, a $4 billion extravaganza of marble, steel, and glass designed by Santiago Calatrava. All are now open, or close to it. Two of the four skyscrapers are finished, and Three World Trade Center is due to open in 2018. Murdoch’s companies intend to move into their new headquarters in 2020, when their lease in a 1950s-vintage skyscraper near Rockefeller Center runs out.

That timetable, however, presumes that the project proceeds as planned—never a foregone conclusion at the World Trade Center. Murdoch and Silverstein recently signed a letter of intent, the first step toward beginning construction, but still have to negotiate a formal lease. Silverstein reached a similar stage of negotiations with Citigroup in 2013, only to see the deal fall through. Much depends on the building’s cost, which in turn depends on its design. Ingels will have to perform his craft on a scale—in terms of height, cost, and the degree of public scrutiny—unlike anything he has encountered before. The tortuous and expensive process involved in building at the World Trade Center has chewed up many other “starchitects,” and many critics say it has yielded a mishmash of sparsely populated office buildings that look banal or worse.

Yet Ingels was more than eager to take on the challenge. “It’s like playing Twister with a 1,300-foot high-rise,” he says. Many structural elements of the skyscraper came predetermined by the intricate underground architecture of the property, which was set in place by Port Authority and Libeskinds master plan. Mechanical equipment, like air vents for Calatravas station, are positioned on the existing foundations and had to be incorporated into Ingelsbuilding. While working around such constraints, he also had to please two very demanding masters: not just Murdoch but Silverstein, who is concerned with the practical necessities of creating rentable office space.

“What you do on the exterior is essentially dictated by what you need to do on the interior, in the core,” says Silverstein, an 84-year-old native of Brooklyn. While Ingels is working on some high-profile commissions in New York—including a striking apartment building on West 57th Street and a waterfront flood protection system known as the Dryline, which has been allocated $335 million in federal funding—Silverstein wondered whether BIG was up to the task of designing a 3 million–square-foot skyscraper. He was fond of Foster’s design and thought it fit well into his World Trade Center scheme.

“My first reaction, my second reaction, and my third reaction were: ‘Will this work?’” Silverstein says. “Will it be respectful of the other buildings? Will it be respectful of the memorial below?” The new tower will stand nearly the same height as One World Trade Center (if you set aside the spire that for official purposes brings the former building to a symbolic 1,776 feet), and Ingels is careful to portray it as a compatible neighbor. “There is some form of twinning,” he says. But Silverstein was initially skeptical of the architect’s stack-of-blocks concept. From some vantage points, such as North Brooklyn, the structure will look a little off-kilter—almost as if it is leaning. At the World Trade Center, the force of gravity is the last thing that an experienced developer like Silverstein wanted to bring to mind. “I think one’s eye is trained over a period of years,” Tighe says, “and asymmetry is not something we typically associate with skyscrapers.”

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It took some getting used to. “I hadn’t seen a building like this beforehand, I hadn’t considered a building like this before, and certainly there was nothing down at the Trade Center to indicate that this would be a trend for tomorrow,” Silverstein says. Rupert Murdoch, still the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to his companies’ business, initially shared the developer’s concerns. “Once it was fully explained to him how the building works so well, so efficiently—brilliantly, I would say—then he got very comfortable,” Silverstein says. “As a result, quite honestly, I became comfortable too.”

The new NYC Skyline Still, Silverstein needed to be convinced that the building fit into the overall World Trade Center ensemble, so he called a meeting at his offices to elicit the opinion of David Childs, chair emeritus of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the primary designer of One World Trade Center. Ingels presented the building, and after some nervous moments—Childs started by saying he’d promised to give his “honest opinion”—the elder architect offered an emphatic endorsement. Later Silverstein received similar reassurances from Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki, the architects of towers Three and Four. “The buildings were originally designed for us almost 10 years ago,” Silverstein says. “The Bjarke design that we’re looking at today reflects the design and the language that works today.”

For all of Silverstein’s dramatics, though, there was never much doubt that he would go along with BIG’s building. Under terms of a deal that Silverstein struck with the Port Authority years ago, Two World Trade Center was only going to be built if it had private financing, and that was only going to come if the developer secured a large anchor tenant. Ingels came with the Murdochs, and the Murdochs were the key to bringing the laborious redevelopment process to a close, cementing Silverstein’s legacy. By the 20th anniversary of September 11, Fox News should be broadcasting from studios that will look out onto the sinuous “oculus” of Calatrava’s train station. Pedestrians walking to and from the memorial plaza will look up and see the latest news streaming on Times Square–style tickers, which will be set into the underside of the building’s cantilevers.

Still, recent history suggests that it will take much ingenuity and elegant compromise to bring that vision of the future to fruition. At the World Trade Center, the politics are even more complex than the economics. “The World Trade Center has this inherent dilemma, that in the public eye it’s a public work,” Ingels says. “But in fact, what’s going to come up there has to happen on traditional market terms. It is not a cultural palace or a museum or a public building. It’s going to be an office building where people are going to have to work and pay rent. So in that sense, probably more than anything we’ve done, it’s really about turning practicalities into poetry.” Of course, that’s an evocative metaphor, but it understates the degree of difficulty. Poetry only exists on paper; an architect must work with concrete.

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News: 06.09.2015