Experts eye new scale for Trade Center site

Urban planners say New York shouldn't seek a `carbon copy' of towers

Terrorism Strikes America

October 05, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

BOSTON - New York should rebuild its devastated World Trade Center district with great structures that are designed for the 21st century, not a carbon copy of the towers that were there before.

Rockefeller Center and Battery Park City could be models for the sort of high-density, multi-building environment that would be appropriate for Lower Manhattan. It is neither necessary nor desirable to build replacement structures that rise 110 stories, the height of the twin towers that were destroyed after terrorists slammed two hijacked planes into them three weeks ago.

That's the consensus of urban planning experts who addressed 3,700 designers, developers and public officials gathered here this week for the fall conference of the Urban Land Institute, a research and educational organization that promotes responsible planning and development.

The meeting is the first nationwide gathering of building and design professionals since the Sept. 11 attack destroyed the World Trade Center's twin towers and numerous surrounding buildings - 27 million square feet of office space in all sprawling over 16 acres. Organizers changed the agenda of the long-scheduled meeting at the last minute to give delegates a chance to reflect on the terrorist activity and what it means for urban areas, including the World Trade Center site.

"The food fight is just starting, and it's going to be one for the books," said John McIlwain, a senior fellow of the Urban Land Institute. "We've learned a lot more about urbanism since the World Trade Center was designed" in the 1960s, McIlwain said. "We know that 110 stories is not efficient, even if people want to continue with the architecture of ego that it represented, and that windswept plazas are not the most pleasant public places. We know how to create a mixture of office and retail and housing.

"People talk about the need for a memorial, and there should be one," he continued. "But not all of the land should go for a memorial. The memorial should be an environment, an even more exciting environment, that can show the world what we've learned [about building urban places]. I think it's going to be a very exciting part of the city."

"I applaud the desire to rebuild on the World Trade Center site, but not a carbon copy of what was there before," said business futurist Frank Feather. "We have to move forward - not necessarily rebuilding in old ways, but looking at new ways of doing things and building at a more humane scale."

The twin towers were the realization of a design concept that was envisioned in the 1920s, and any replacement should reflect more current thinking about urban design, said Jonathan Barnett, an architecture professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"If you ask me, it should be more like Battery Park City or Rockefeller Center than it was before," he said. Very tall buildings "are too inefficient. They use the lower floors to get people to the upper floors."

Several of the speakers said they don't think towers of 70 stories or more will be constructed in American cities in the near future - not only as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks but because market conditions are not right.

Feather said the only place building mega-towers at present is Asia. He said U.S. office trends indicate that many companies will be moving from high-rise office buildings and into low-rise, high-security "creativity parks" on the fringe of urban centers.

"We'll still need density. Maybe it needs to be horizontal, not vertical," said William Hudnut III, former mayor of Indianapolis and now a senior fellow of the Urban Land Institute.

"We need to send a message that America can rebuild," said Hudnut, who described the toppled towers as "an American icon."

"The question for us in urban design is: `What are we doing to encourage people to come together? I don't believe cities are going to evaporate. We have to learn that density is a seven-letter word, not a four-letter word."

Robert Campbell, a Boston-based architect and critic, said that merely reconstructing the 110-story complex "would be asking for trouble," not only because it might invite another terrorist attack but because "it wasn't a very good building."

He said the best model for high density is a city in which buildings rise no more than 20 stories, so people don't lose touch with the street or the public realm.

"Density can be achieved in other ways," he said. "What you are looking for with density is interaction between people, not density for its own sake. ... The isolation of being up 100 stories high in a shaft where you're not really interacting with anyone else, why bother? I don't see the advantage."

Barnett suggested that New York's planning commission sponsor an international design competition to generate ideas for rebuilding the World Trade Center area. He added that the rules should be as unrestrictive as possible so entrants would be encouraged to explore a wide range of ideas.

"We shouldn't move too fast," he said. "Let's ask the best minds in the world and see what ideas they give us."

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