Here’s the sort of thing that writers on architecture rarely, if ever, get to say: In the design of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center site, Sir Norman Foster has been replaced by Bjarke Ingels, a man exactly half his age. Lord Foster is 80 years old, but he stands, in architectural terms, on the outer edge of middle age. Architecture, especially as practiced in New York City over the past half century or so, is an older man’s game. Some of the most important practitioners here have been Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei, all of whom worked well into their 90s. In fact, Pei is still going strong at 98.
By contrast, the relative youth of Ingels, all of 40 years old, is so striking that everyone who writes about him mentions the fact, and he himself must be thoroughly sick of hearing it. To make matters “worse,” he looks and dresses about 20 years younger than he really is. He was in his mid-30s, a time most aspiring architects are either still in graduate school or under the thumb of a master in their 80s, when he was chosen by the Durst Organization to design 625 West 57th Street, the “pyramid” formally known as VIA West 57th. This prodigious structure on the Far West Side, overlooking the Hudson River, is fast approaching completion.
Ingels’ design of Two World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan was revealed on June 9. Seen from the southwest, the building, with its sheer skin of unrelenting curtain-walls, looks, with slight variations, like the sort of boring corporate tower that we associate with the Financial District, a little like what SOM’s 7 World Trade Center or Fumihiko Maki’s 4 WTC would be, if they weren’t so well made.
But move a few feet to the north or east, and a very different aspect of Ingels’ design is revealed. Suddenly, the glass and steel structure reconstitutes itself as seven boxes set one atop the other. More importantly, part of each of these boxes is slightly cantilevered over the box beneath it, creating an odd impression of instability, as though it were so top heavy, it might list to the north and ultimately keel over.
This will not happen, of course. There is always a trick to buildings of this sort, and in the present case, that trick consists of the fact that each of the seven boxes extends further to the west than the one above it, thus providing crucial ballast and support.
Ingels surely deserves praise for this bold design, but it must be said that he has observed and learned from Sanaa’s design for the New Museum on the Bowery, which also consists of seven stacked and cantilevered boxes. But the ascent is more regular in Ingels building, resembling a sequence of steps.
The change of architects is hardly unprecedented in New York or anywhere else: indeed, in the history of architecture, that would seem to be more the rule than the exception. Still, it is striking that as eminent an architect as Lord Foster should be so unceremoniously, and so quietly, shunted aside. Yet Ingels’ design is probably somewhat better than that of his octogenarian rival, even though it too settles for looking dependably corporate.
Foster’s design as rendered, consisted of four towers huddled together, with the tops sliced off at a bias to create an effect reminiscent of the diamond shapes the esteemed architect last used at the Hearst Building at Eighth Avenue and 57th Street. Less charitably, perhaps, they resembled a clutch of four giant and subaquatic tube worms puckering for sustenance in the air over Lower Manhattan.
Silverstein Properties is developing 2 WTC. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the parent of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, and its sibling 21st Century Fox, the film and television giant, have signed on as anchor tenants. They will abandon their long-inhabited 1211 Avenue of the Americas on 48th Street, along with the publishing wing of Harper Collins, which has been on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street approximately forever, and move south en masse, thus depleting two Midtown skyscrapers, in the desire to be closer to the action and excitement that is Lower Manhattan. This shift underscores the radical re-orientation of Manhattan back to its southern tip, after its shift to Midtown in the postwar years.
News Corp. and its brethren, of course, are not financial firms like the ones for whom Lord Foster created his original design. They are a media empire, greater than, but comparable to, Condé Nast, which recently moved into One World Trade Center. And media empires, even more than the leading financial firms, feel the need to be at the center of the action, though the need to pare costs in the modern media environment likely also played a role in the moves.
As importantly, the typology that financial firms require is somewhat different from what media companies are looking for. Lord Foster’s sky-lobby design was considered unsuitable to the needs of the media firms.
In an interview, Ingels described his project as “a vertical village of bespoke buildings within the building, that also can be seen as a single tower.” Containing 2,800,000 square feet in all and rising to more than 80 stories, it will have roughly 100,000 square feet of retail space.
For a time, during the recent economic downturn, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, had planned to build a four-story stump of a building there, but has now come to think better of the idea, in a dramatic demonstration of the degree to which the fortunes of New York have recently revived.
Ingels took grave exception the last time I referred to one of his projects as deconstructivist, a reaction that I am happy to take as irrefutable proof that it was indeed deconstructivist. I was at that time referring to 625 West 57th Street, which, as we can now see, rises up as a torqued pyramid from whose center a huge chunk appears to have been gouged out, like a piece of melon, to form a courtyard.
The Danish architect is clearly uncomfortable with labels of any sort and recently opined that, “A style is in some ways the sum of all your inhibitions.” And yet this building fits more comfortably and readily within the context of the prevailing deconstructivist style than the architect may wish to admit. It occupies its lot with a slightly irregular footprint so as to accommodate that “wedge of light” that Daniel Libeskind baked into his master plan for the World Trade Center site. Likewise, the entire aesthetic thrust of the design is, as I have said, to suggest that the building is about to keel over, a deconstructivist preoccupation if ever there were one.
For now, the proposal puts me in mind of one of those hairdos you occasionally see in which one half of a person’s face looks stodgily conventional while the other looks edgy and punk. As to which of these two aspects will predominate in the finished product, only time will tell.