Recounting the Most Challenging Architecture Project in History: One World Trade Center

Saxon Henry Saxon Henry

In the introduction to her new book One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building, Judith Dupré — the author of the bestseller Skyscrapers — calls its designers Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) “a firm with unparalleled expertise in skyscraper design.” The practice, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, recently won numerous A+Awards for projects that include the Jiangxi Nanchang Greenland Zifeng Tower in China and the JTI Headquarters in Geneva.

Dupré’s new book; courtesy of Little, Brown and Company; © DBOX

Dupré’s intelligent examination of the project’s evolution, design and construction, which holds such a complex layering of emotion for so many, possesses a clear structure that will serve as a comprehensive historical document long into the future.

But that doesn’t mean the book, designed by DBOX and published by Little, Brown and Company, isn’t a fascinating read, as she has assembled the varied aspects of the project — and there are many — with a dedication to the story’s narrative arc. You feel the building being born: its first heartbeat thumping, its first breath expelled, its first brainwave signaling its significance within the gestalt of the 21st century.

Sketch by David Childs; © Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Early design investigation models; © Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

“Every inch of One World Trade Center’s skyscraping height was contested, often bitterly.”

The author touches on the embedded nature of the design, its roots sunk into the bedrock of the city, infusing itself with New York’s DNA. “Pioneering building technologies and life-safety methods that were first developed for Seven World Trade Center, also designed by SOM, were refined and expanded at One,” Dupré explains. “Innovations at both buildings helped rewrite the New York City Building Code, which had been essentially moribund since 1968.”

Dupré conducted more than 70 interviews with the players who were intimately involved in the project from the structural engineers WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff to the various architectural firms involved. “Some — like David Childs, Daniel Libeskindand Santiago Calatrava — are boldface names,” she notes, “but others who are less well known, like Robyn Ryan, the woman who managed the logistics of installing the tower’s glass curtain wall, brought fresh, no less valuable insights.”

One of the final steel beams being raised to the top of One WTC; © The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

“The push and pull of multiple agendas produced better buildings.”

Dupré’s investigation resulted in what she deems an illustrated record of the site’s emotional, technically demanding reconstruction. “As with any great endeavor, every inch of One World Trade Center’s skyscraping height was contested, often bitterly.” She marks the ebbing and flowing of controversy to illustrate the path to a superior structure.

“The push and pull of multiple agendas produced better buildings than a lesser struggle would have. The ‘to-ing and fro-ing and the conflicts and the resolution and the consensus are what makes the project real. It’s not just some abstraction,’ said Daniel Libeskind, who created the site’s master plan. These struggles provided the psychological means, critical to the mourning and rebuilding process, of reconciling the losses suffered there.”

One WTC reflected in 4 WTC; © Achim Bednorzt

Chapter by chapter — through the competing visions, the evolution of the tower’s design, the influence of Seven World Trade, the engineering challenges, the construction timeline and even its spiritual legacy — Dupré is the reader’s Virgil, leading the follower into and out of the dark woods through the tangled and rough progression that resulted in a beautiful thing reaching into the heavens.

The mammoth eye with which it surveys the cityscape and a confluence of rivers emptying into the gathering sea peers from page after page heavy with luminous photography. It takes a fierce spirit to make New York City a diminished backdrop to its rising spire, a necessary stance given Lower Manhattan will forever hear the echoes of tragedy, even as a new resilience takes hold downtown.

One WTC by night; © Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

“The site is so vested with memories, sorrow and ambition … ”

“One World Trade and every other structure on the site hold our impossible wish: to have back everyone who was lost on September 11,” Dupré writes in her Afterword. “Of all of the challenges that the World Trade Center has had to face, perhaps the biggest one is exorcising the ghosts of the structures that it replaced. The site is so vested with memories, sorrow and ambition that no building could meet the layers of expectation laid on it.”

For the world at large to understand the complexity of these layers, the story had to be told in as coherent a fashion as is humanly possible, and in this task Dupré succeeded as brilliantly as the light glinting from One World Trade’s surface on a sunny afternoon. Quite a feat, considering it would have been easy to be blinded by the immense task of the effort she undertook.