Maki strikes again at 4 WTC

The Japanese architect’s latest NYC building offers shimmering perfection and a silvery brilliance

Apr.April 01, 2014 07:00 AM
4 World Trade Center

4 World Trade Center

If proof were needed of the sad state of architectural criticism in New York City and beyond, look no further than the limited reception that 4 World Trade Center has received to date.

Surely this building, the first to open for business at the new World Trade Center site, has been covered as a real estate story. But no high-profile New York City publications have written a truly critical appraisal of the project yet. There was a time when any new building of such consequence in New York City (and many of far less consequence) would have received front-page coverage in the New York Times. Those days, sadly, are long past.

This oversight is especially puzzling when you consider the importance of the project; the stature of its architect, Fumihiko Maki, and the fact that (after years of dithering, delay and breathless anticipation), we, the public, are finally allowed to enter the World Trade Center site. When I visited the site on the day the building opened at the end of 2013, I felt a delightful, liberating sense that I was trespassing upon forbidden ground, so long had it been since the average citizen of New York had been allowed onto the site.

Yet even if 4 World Trade were not at Ground Zero, the creation of a monument of this size anywhere in the city would surely deserve our most devoted attention.

The present building is the work of a gifted architect. Maki is a winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, and it’s clear he deserved it on the basis of 4 World Trade, which is surely one of the best buildings to rise in New York in some time.

Developed by Silverstein Properties, the 74-story, nearly 1,000-foot-high tower was completed in December, after nearly five years of construction.

Maki is one of a new generation of Japanese architects to build in New York — if “new” can be properly applied to a group of men who are mostly over 80. Two other eminent examples are this year’s Pritzker Prize recipient, Shigeru Ban, who designed the Metal Shutter Houses in Chelsea, and Yoshio Taniguchi, whose 2004 enlargement and enhancement of the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street will soon be modified yet again according to designs by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

What these Japanese architects seem to share is a love of sheer, unadorned neo-Modernist structures that have been thought out to the tiniest detail and then flawlessly executed. The problem with such architecture is that the finished result is so priestly and high-minded that it can sometimes drain all the joy from the building, thus creating something that the discerning public admires more than it loves.

This, I think, is the case at the MoMA, an admittedly difficult project that had to combine and harmonize the often mismatched and preexisting buildings.

As for 4 World Trade, it is still a little early to say. It, too, is a study in that reticence and understatement that appear to have deep, centuries-old roots in the native architecture of Japan. It is surely a good-looking building, in the sense that it has clearly been well-constructed, and that its spare geometry admits of no element of maladroitness. All in all, the tower’s surface exhibits the shimmering perfection and silvery brilliance of a sheared-off side of mica or silicate.

Though 4 World Trade consists entirely of curtain walls, much like 7 World Trade Center across the way, it feels like a far darker building. The result is not exactly forbidding, but it is not entirely inviting either.

There is, at first blush, a deceptive simplicity to the building. It reads, from certain angles, like a simple shaft, from which one quadrant or side has been surgically removed toward the top, thus forming a terrace around the 50th floor. (The one element of drama that Maki has permitted himself is the sharpness of the angle that suddenly forms the base of that terrace.) But from other angles, the structure seems to divide into a pair of independent-but-related buildings, with a protective, even fraternal, relation of the taller to the shorter building.

Other refinements are a chamfered southwest corner, starting at around the 12th floor and rising all the way to the summit, as well as a sequence of elegantly restrained striations at the summit of the north-facing side. Presumably they have been placed there to cover up the mechanical core, but unlike similar features in most buildings, these have a powerful visual charm.

In its form-shifting way, this new building by Maki recalls 51 Astor Place, another commercial building that the architect completed about a year ago. That building, equally dark in appearance, but horizontal in conception, exhibits what is surely one of the most complicated architectural compositions anywhere in the city. It seems to have eight related but different (and uniquely distinguished) façades, even though none of them is exactly in harmony with any of the others. At 4 World Trade, however, that problem has been largely resolved, and the whole is entirely satisfying.

In fact, even though we are still awaiting the completion of Towers 2 and 3 at the World Trade Center — not to mention Santiago Calatrava’s transit hub and a few other projects like the memorial museum — it is not too early to say that the entire site appears to be coming along quite well. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s One World Trade Center is all but complete, and offers an inspiring example. The same can be said for that firm’s 7 World Trade Center, which (although not technically part of the site) is a fine building, and one that stands in such proximity to the others that it seems to reflect credit on the World Trade Center development as a whole. Each of these component parts is ultimately unlike the others, and that impression will surely grow only stronger when Towers 2 and 3 are completed. But with the opening of 4 World Trade, all signs are that the overall development of Ground Zero is turning out far better than many of us expected only a few years ago.


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