The "New" New York City Skyline

By Paul Goldberger

We are faced with something that has no comparison in our history: skyscrapers as martyrs. Now they are not figures in a race, the way they were in the 1920s, but martyrs. When we see sidewalk vendors selling pictures of the World Trade Center the way they once sold pictures of John F. Kennedy or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, we know something extraordinary has happened, that a building has taken on an overpowering symbolic role.

We think of the skyline as something that grows, slowly, organically. Yes, New York is a place that thrives on a certain kind of anarchy, but the reality is that we expect it to be a controlled anarchy, a kind of contained, energizing chaos. It is not supposed to be subject to cataclysmic change. It is not real chaos. When something on the skyline goes away, the expected order of things is that it is replaced, relatively slowly, by something bigger. I guess you could say that the skyline operated with a kind of Darwinian order, the survival of the fittest - the bigger things on the skyline would always drive out the smaller ones. While we did not always like that or think that it meant that the skyline was inevitably getting better, we tended to make a peace with it. But on September 11th, of course, we experienced something else - cataclysmic, instantaneous change, and the biggest things suddenly became the most vulnerable. It turned the entire order of this organic skyline upside down.

It has been very clear to me since September 11th that while the horrendous loss of life is of course first and foremost in peoples' minds, the affection that people had for the skyline follows closely behind. People really did care about the skyline as an object. They did not see it only as the sum total of the buildings. They saw it as a thing unto itself, and it was the violation of that thing, more than any specific affection for the World Trade Center towers, that has so shaken people.

We face, now, the question of making the city whole - whole both vertically, in terms of the skyline, and horizontally, in terms of the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan and the trade center site specifically. I am struck by the paradox that the hugeness of the trade center towers, which in the 1970's itself seemed to represent the utter destruction of the skyline, is now what people miss most of all. What was demonized is now what is mourned.

That comes, I think, from two things. One is the fact that we can get used to anything. But another is the fact that the rest of the skyline has changed dramatically over the years since the trade center towers were built. It turned from a series of slender and romantic points in the sky to massive boxes, a continuous blur of mass. Once it had evolved into this blurred mass, it needed the trade center towers to keep some sense of projections into the sky. I never imagined that I would think of the skyline as dull without the trade center, but that is exactly what it now is. What we see today is not the skyline of 1968, which didn't need the trade center, but the skyline of 2001, which strangely enough turned out to need it very much.

We have nothing in our experience to prepare us for the job of making the city whole right now. We have never dealt with trauma on this scale. And the question of a new skyline is not anything remotely like a question of aesthetics or style. In a way, it consists of three separate parts, each of which is itself daunting: first, the question of process, or exactly how decisions are going to be made and how they should be made; second, the question of program, or what will be on this site; and third, the question of architecture, or what physical form the new structures will take.

You can't have too meaningful a discussion of the third question, the question of architecture, without knowing at least something about the second, which is the question of program, and you aren't going to know much about that without an answer to the first, the question of process. It should be obvious, but it isn't. I don't know what the process will eventually be. I think it fair to say, though, that, despite what Larry Silverstein seems to want, this is not going to be treated as a simple case of a leaseholder who has lost his property in a catastrophe and takes his insurance money and rebuilds it as he pleases.

That would be outrageous, not only because Mr. Silverstein's proposal to rebuild the trade center as four shorter towers is unconvincing, to say the least. It is only marginally better than the utter foolishness of rebuilding the trade center as it was, a proposal that denies the trauma that we have suffered and smoothes it over as a high-rise theme park. But if Mr. Silverstein's four-tower proposal isn't a Disneyland I think it equally ignores the fact that this is now sacred, hallowed land, land on which everybody in New York and everybody in the United States has a vested interest. It cannot be treated as if it belonged to one person.

Having said that about the Silverstein proposal, I consider that the opposite suggestions, that the site remain a void, to be equally wrong. I understand the aesthetic motivation behind them - it is true that the void carries more weight here than the solid ever did, and that we must acknowledge its awesome and terrifying power. But it is equally true that we are a real city in which life goes on and has to go on. The terrorists wanted to destroy the ongoing commercial life of this country, of which they saw that site as a symbol. Restoring some commercial life to it is essential. I happen to very much like the idea of building the new Stock Exchange there, since there is no better program that would symbolize this site as the heart of our economy. And it would be a lot less disruptive than the present scheme for a tower at Wall and Broad Streets.

I am not convinced that we need all that much office space there - certainly not the equal of what was lost. A lot of it is going to disperse, no matter what we do - to midtown, to New Jersey, to places beyond. It doesn't have to be here, and only some of it will want to be here. I sort of liked Sandy Weill's altogether outrageous suggestion that we put a sports stadium there. It isn't really right, but at least it is thinking freshly and differently about the way in which this piece of land can play a role in the larger city and region that are redefining themselves. It emerges out of a recognition that we may not need all that office space there. Long before September 11, New York, like so many cities, was redefining itself as a place of culture and entertainment rather than a place of commerce. It was becoming a place which people went to out of choice rather than necessity.

If we recognize that, however, I am not sure that a better idea wouldn't be to shift the Guggenheim proposal from the East River to this site. It would be a different building, but I have no doubt that Frank Gehry could produce a design for here that would have the strengths of the present scheme, and maybe not all of the weaknesses, and it would make an extraordinary centerpiece for a renewal project.

In addition to the Guggenheim and the Stock Exchange, much of this land should of course be a memorial. Pieces of the trade center tower facades should be on the site, as ruins. American cities have little experience with the power of ruins, as European cities do, and here is one chance for us to see how profoundly they can shape the emotional content of public space. I would hope that any plan for this site will include at least a partial return to the lower Manhattan street pattern. This is not out of any foolish or simpleminded nostalgia, but only because if we have learned anything since the trade center was designed, it is that the street, not the building, is the fundamental element of urban design; you ignore this fact at your peril. I think those streets should include retail space and housing and commercial space.

We may not want to put 110-story skyscrapers on the site of the World Trade Center, in part because people are not likely to want to rent space in them, and you cannot really expect them to. But there has to be great height, in part as a response to the determination of the attackers to destroy great height, and in part to heal the skyline.

The thing to do, I am more and more convinced, is to build a great tower - not an office building or an apartment tower, but just a tower, like the Canadian Broadcasting tower in Toronto, or the Eiffel Tower -- that can be an observation tower and a television tower and, most of all, a symbol. Since we have a kind of a paradox - you need a skyscraper to make a point, but you don't need one programmatically - the thing to do, I am increasingly convinced, is to build something high that does not fit a conventional skyscraper program. I do not think anything could be more appropriate than a tower that would be as high as the trade center towers were, but would only be a tower - a memorial tower, which would be like nothing else that New York has ever built, and which has no precedent, which is exactly as it should be.

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine. Copyright © 2001 by Paul Goldberger. Not to be reproduced without permission. This essay was delivered at the Gotham Center symposium at the City University Graduate Center on October 29th.