The absurdity of the announcement that One World Trade Center has “won” the competition for what we are now to consider the tallest building in America is astonishing. The fact that a mast takes this banality of an office structure to 1,776 feet in itself underscores the misuse of history for commercial purposes. It is made even worse by the absence of the lattice designed to contain that “spire” and which was the best thing about a building that has been dumbed down over a decade in one of the worst farces of political and economic role-playing this country has seen—at least in the field of architecture—in a long time.
Why are we supposed to care about this? Because it proves that we did something big. It apparently does not matter that what we did at such a large scale is bad.
I have noted before that the quality of office buildings in this country seems to be diminishing along with their relevance. Who needs more Dilbert-lands crammed into hermetically sealed tubes looming over our cities? We need to reuse what we have to create flexible, humanly-scaled places to work that promote a real relationship with each other and our environment.
Just as bad as the announcement of the One World Trade Center victory over the much more interesting Sears Tower (or Willis Tower, as we are supposed to call it now) was Chicago’s loss of Prentice Hall to what now looks like another building you will have a hard time remembering and, I think, an even harder time inhabiting. I was ambivalent about tearing down those silos, but what will replace them will be so far worse that now I wish I had not been so nuanced. None of the finalists in the medical center’s competition have many redeeming qualities other than the contrast between curvy and straight sides and the different qualities of glass they propose to use.
All this just confirms to me that the best thing to do in just about every case is not to build something new, but to reuse what we have. That is an environmental imperative, but it is also a social one, as creating the new out of the old will almost always make it open up in new ways in a manner that an alien abstraction never can. The need to reuse is also a result of the reality of our current affairs. It is not that architects are worse than they were, it is that the restrictions on what we can build are so severe that it takes an exceptional set of circumstances to produce a building that will be better than what it replaces, no matter whether that is an existing building or an open lot.
I ask you: name one truly beautiful, innovative, pleasant new office building of more than 100,000 square feet that has been constructed in the United States in the last year? I look forward to any nominations.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.