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U.S.: Four Years After 9/11, New York Struggles With How To Rebuild Skyline (Part 3)

The passing of four years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States has done little to erase memories of the attacks that killed close to 3,000 people from 80 countries. But in New York City, where the attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, officials are concentrating on rebuilding. They want the new construction to be both a fitting memorial to those who died in the tragedy and an expression of the city’s resilience. But finding the right design for a planned keynote skyscraper – the Freedom Tower – has not been easy. RFE/RL correspondents Nikola Krastev in New York and Charles Recknagel in Prague report in this third and final part of our three-part series remembering 9/11.

Prague, 10 September 2005 (RFE/RL) – If there is one thing all New Yorkers agree on, it is that the 9/11 attacks destroyed the city’s tallest towers but failed to destroy the city’s spirit.

That may be one reason why New Yorkers have invested so much emotion in deciding what should be built at the location of the World Trade Center.

People want the rebuilding to do more than just replace the 110-story twin towers and five smaller buildings that were destroyed in the attack.

They want whatever arises on the site at the lower tip of Manhattan to be both a new landmark for the city and a fitting memorial to the 2,752 people who died there.

"We will build it as a tribute to the courage and the strength of New Yorkers, and we will build it to show the world that freedom will always triumph over terror, and that we will face the 21st century and beyond with tremendous confidence," New York state Governor George Pataki said in describing his vision for the future complex in December 2003.

Describing his vision for the complex’s planned keynote skyscraper, the Freedom Tower, earlier this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "The Freedom Tower will be a commanding architectural symbol, as well as an exquisitely well-designed workplace. It will be a spectacular addition to the city’s skyline, filling the physical as well as emotional void left by the World Trade Center towers."

But agreeing on just what the rebuilt trade center area -- and particularly what the Freedom Tower will look like -- has proved very difficult.
The multiple changes, and the fact that the planned Freedom Tower now has lost much of its originally envisioned asymmetrical shape, have raised questions about how distinctive a building will finally emerge from the project.

The search for a design sparked a contest that was won in early 2003 by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin. His design for a new multibuilding complex included a memorial area at “Ground Zero” and a signature Freedom Tower skyscraper with a distinctive, asymmetric design. The tower was to be crowned with a soaring but hollow metal latticework structure that would give the whole building an almost ethereal look.

Finally, at the top of the tower, there was to be a spire that would both echo the raised arm of New York’s best-known monument, the Statue of Liberty, and make the Freedom Tower the world’s tallest building.

But that design ran into resistance from New York developer Larry Silverstein, the probable owner of the Freedom Tower when it is completed. He objected that the design did not include enough office space and he hired his own architect, David Childs, to work with Libeskind to find compromises.

The uneasy partnership of the two architects has now become legend. At times they have been reported to no longer be on speaking terms. But finally they reached a compromise design and unveiled it at the end of 2003. The compromise design accommodated more floors of office space while keeping the latticework top and spire. And it added a new feature: wind-powered turbines atop the building to generate electricity.

But then, in June this year, the design again had to be dramatically changed. That was because of security concerns that the planned tower would stand too close to a major Manhattan thoroughfare, and thus be vulnerable to a truck-bomb attack.

So, a third design was unveiled. Now the tower is to be built away from the thoroughfare and have its lower part covered with blast-resistant steel and titanium. The upper floors still soar into the sky but the shape of the skyscraper has been redesigned to be straighter and squarer than before and the crowning latticework and wind-powered turbines are gone. The spire, however, remains.

The multiple changes, and the fact that the planned Freedom Tower now has lost much of its originally envisioned asymmetrical shape, have raised questions about how distinctive a building will finally emerge from the project.

Neal Bascomb, an expert in the history of architecture, told RFE/RL that collaboration between several architects -- to say nothing about security experts -- may not be the best way to get a unique building.

“What you have there is two architects, each trying to have his own vision realized. And so just like, this is an oversimplification, but just like the greatest books in the world are not written by two authors at the same time, or the most fascinating paintings aren’t done by two artists on one painting, I don’t know how they can expect to have two architects to have an equal amount of voice and power in defining what is going to be realized for the Freedom Tower,” Bascomb said.

Still, the project is going forward and public interest in what will finally be built remains very high.

Officials put down the cornerstone for the planned Freedom Tower on 4 July 2004. That act sealed the city’s commitment to reclaim its skyline from the 9/11 attack.

But the actual construction of the Freedom Tower, which will take at least until 2009 to complete, has yet to begin. And there is still no certainty that its design won’t change again before then.