The Shrinking Freedom Tower

Do you remember the Freedom Tower? First proposed in the aftermath of 9/11, the building was meant to replace the Twin Towers in the skyline of Lower Manhattan and in the psyche of a traumatized nation. Its spire, soaring high above the skyline, was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind to serve as a symbolic companion to the upraised torch of the Statue of Liberty.

But the size and scope of the entire Tower complex was controversial from the very beginning. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, assertively opined that the entire World Trade Center site should be leveled and converted into a memorial park. And developer Larry Silverstein, who owned the rights of development as a result of having signed a 99 year lease for the Twin Towers just six weeks prior to 9/11, decided that certain secondary buildings within the complex would shrink significantly.

The building itself was renamed 1 World Trade Center in 2009, and was redesigned on several occasions to restore a sense of scale to the surrounding community. Although its construction shell is now rising above the skyline, the development project shrank last week in a highly symbolic manner.

From 1776 to 1368

Until last week, the roof of the building of 1 World Trade Center was planned to tower 1,368 feet above the ground, topped by a 408 foot spire encasing a broadcast television antenna. Thus, the total height of the structure was designed to reach 1,776 feet, a number that represented the year of independence of the American nation.

But last week, the spire was eliminated from the construction plans for reasons of financial and operational efficiency, leaving a 1,368 foot building with a bare antenna perched upon its peak. 1368? That was the year of the establishment of China’s famed Ming Dynasty, hardly a number to be celebrated by the new World Trade Center, albeit a noteworthy cultural event without doubt!

The international Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat weighed in on the decision, raising the possibility that it might preserve the 1,776 foot height by simply declaring the antenna to be part of the physical structure of the Center. Even at 1,776 feet, however, the building would fall far short of the height reached by Dubai’s 2,716 foot Burj Khalifa Tower, a building that was explicitly designed to outdistance future rivals and to maintain its title as World’s Tallest Structure indefinitely.

Imposing Structures, Disappointing Economics

All of the hulaballoo regarding the height of New York’s new World Trade Center, however, serves to obscure a simple fact of economics. Namely, the economics of such imposing structures often fail to satisfy the financial expectations of their developers.

Consider the Empire State Building, for instance. Built in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the edifice remained under-utilized for many years and was known as the Empty State Building. And the Burj Khalifa itself owes its existence to a monetary bailout by the government of Abu Dhabi, eventually naming itself after the government official who provided emergency financial aid.

The original World Trade Center development project  in New York City was likewise blamed for wiping out a ramshackle but lively business district called Radio Row. Although the financial service industry tenants of the Twin Towers undoubtedly paid higher rents than the electronics stores and repair shops that preceded it, many believe that the Towers simply attracted tenants that would have otherwise remained in other Manhattan office towers, thereby depressing office rents throughout the region.

In other words, the Towers may have simply shifted banks and ivestment firms around on the local street map. At the same time, they may have contributed to the decline of the Big Apple’s once-thriving manufacturing base.

Symbolism vs. Functionality

Most of the great man-made structures of the world have become symbolic icons because of their success in fulfilling their original functions. The Pyramids of Egypt, for instance, initially served as tombs for the Great Pharaohs. The Great Wall of China helped defend the medieval Asian nation from invasions by northern armies. And the Brooklyn Bridge provided a transportation link that physically contributed to the integration of New York City and metaphorically symbolized the development of its fabled immigrant Melting Pot.

But the spire of the Freedom Tower was not designed to serve a function. Instead, it was conceptualized as a purely symbolic feature. And, accordingly, it failed to survive the pragmatic construction phase of the building project.

Will the failure of the newly named 1 World Trade Center to achieve a height of precisely 1,776 feet persuade a single potential tenant to select a different building for its office workers? If the answer is indeed ‘no,’ then the developer’s recent decision may well represent a healthy refocusing on the economics of projects  as the primary force behind construction decisions. In other words, a ‘no’ to pure symbolism may disappoint a few historians, but it should please the constituents who hold a stake in the project’s success.