Bring Back the Twin Towers

March 11, 2005 Edition


Today marks the three-and-a-half year anniversary of the attacks of September 11. Some anniversaries deserve to be remembered beyond round numbers.

Terrorists macabrely marked the half-year date in 2004 with their attack on the Madrid train station during morning rush-hour. Despite the fact that subsequent Spanish election results threatened to send a Munich-like message to Al Qaeda, during the intervening months democracy has been on the march and terror on the retreat.

Our resolve has been rewarded in ways that we had no reasonable right to expect.

The defiant push-back of the American people appears not to have sparked a further clash of civilizations, but instead unleashed a long process of liberation in the Middle East. Less than three months ago, we were divided and doubtful about the practical possibility of Arab democracy. The successful Iraqi elections opened the eyes of the world. Today, regional dictatorships are in the first stages of their death throes, making unprecedented concessions to pro-democracy protests from their people. While there will be further twists and turns along this path - along with the possibility of Tiananmen-like government crackdowns - the pace of change is happening so fast that it recalls the Velvet Revolutions of Eastern Europe in 1989.

All this is further evidence of Mayor Giuliani's famous dictum that we are always safer confronting reality than ignoring it.

To that end, New York City may finally be ready to begin a dialogue that we were unable face in the months after the attack. In the spirit of defiance and determination that has led to the still-unfolding transformations around the world, perhaps it is time to ask whether the Twin Towers should be rebuilt and our proud skyline restored.

Such a suggestion seemed almost sacrilegious in the months after the attacks. The LMDC's design competition for a new building on ground zero provoked hundreds of detailed submissions - only some of which were presented to the public - but apparently none proposed rebuilding the World Trade Center. Conventional wisdom said that such a design would only tempt fate, and disrespect those who died in their collapse. On a more practical level, there were well-founded concerns about being able to lease the space. The idea went unvoiced, the option undiscussed. After long process, and apparent intervention by the governor, the Freedom Tower design was selected.

But all has not gone smoothly so far for the Freedom Tower. While 7 World Trade has sprouted up with improbable speed, construction has yet to begin in earnest at ground zero. In the 20 months since the design was announced, no prospective tenants have come forward. Moreover, the design has received a tepid critical and popular response. The building boasts just 70 functional stories - 40 floors less than the Twin Towers they are intended to replace. This is a rare case of New York not building bigger and better.

Into this vacuum has come a bold if quixotic proposal by structural engineer Ken Gardner and Herbert Belton, one of the original architects of the WTC: Rebuild the towers and restore our skyline. Their designs imagine a restored WTC, with improved safety and structural integrity. Their design calls for an increase of five stories on each tower - returning to New York the title of tallest building in the world - with the new towers shifted away from the original footprint, leaving those spaces for a protected memorial including the names of each victim, surrounded by the original lattice work from the fallen structure, abutting a September 11 Memorial Museum. To address obvious security concerns, the buildings would be based on a tube-within-a-tube design: a two-layer steel-reinforced exterior skin outside concrete interior, designed to withstand a jet impact. Elevators would boast a fireproof design, along with six stairwells. The Twin Towers would be connected by a skyway and contain offices, luxury apartments, and a hotel.

There are, of course, numerous practical hurdles to this belated entry to the design competition becoming a reality. I remain skeptical about whether people would want to live with their families where so many others perished. But the idea itself is challenging and when the free-standing model is seen, the effect is breathtaking. It presents a resurrection that we've just assumed is impossible. The value - even as a civic debate - is in its defiance. There is something psychologically healthy about confronting the terrorists' intentions directly. The reconstruction would be a rallying point for the city and nation, a statement that terrorists cannot determine our skyline or our self-image.

E-mails have poured in to the Web site from people who want to weigh in on the design process and the Freedom Tower. One message, typical in tone, came from a Marine corporal, who wrote "Everyone I work with hates that new freedom tower design ... It's really disturbing to think that this weak pathetic design is going to be built." There is some evidence of popular discontent as well. While no official poll on the subject has yet been commissioned, MSNBC put forward an online poll asking "which building design would you prefer to see in NYC? America's Freedom Tower or a new Twin Towers." The responses numbered 3,482, and an overwhelming 80% said they wanted to see the Twin towers rebuilt. While the results of online polls are far from scientific, the results are not ambiguous and beg further exploration.

We have come a long way in the 42 months since the attacks of September 11.The terrorists have failed to remake the world in their image; instead, the opposite is occurring. There is no reason their evil actions should be allowed to permanently shape our skyline. This debate is another step in regaining our confidence and declaring victory. As the new Twin Towers designer Ken Gardner explains his vision of a successful recovery: "the skyline is back and they have democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq."