© James Ewing | OTTO

Just when you think that the news about the security-hardened banality that now rises over Ground Zero could not get any worse, it just did. Even the spire of the formerly-called "Freedom Tower"—that beacon of hope that was to lift the group's tallest structure to the patriotic height of 1776 feet—will now be just another antenna. In the latest round of cost-cutting, it lost its "radome" housing of interlocking fiberglass triangles, which would have made it a more substantial element while making use of innovative design principles. Now the Tower, renamed One World Trade Center, will just be another bureaucratic base for transmissions.

Some of us remember the hope that rose out of 9/11. When developers and planners tried to build an expedient collection of structures as quickly as possible, the populace rose up. Maybe they should not have. A competition drew the process out for several years. Counter-proposals of considerable merit appeared and were ignored by the developers. The result of the competition was that Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, won by shedding what was left of his tortured, ethically engendered forms in favor of snazzy spires he presented in cowboy boots.

No sooner had work started on this array of second-hand avant garde thrusts, but Libeskind himself was kicked out in favor of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). David Childs, FAIA, of SOM produced an even more corporation-friendly design for the tallest tower. It might have been elegant, but a combination of value engineering and paranoia about terrorism attacks that reached absurd levels, even for such a wrought site, leached just about anything elegant out of the structure.

There was still the more than four-hundred-foot-tall spire designed by sculptor Kenneth Snelson, and, at the base, the Santiago Calatrava–designed transit stop as well as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The latter, which was the most beautiful element of the whole complex, lost most of its essential features and turned into a theme park ride. The station has become obscenely expensive while also losing much of its punch. And, to top it all off, here we are twelve years later and neither One World Trade Center nor the station are open.

The National 9/11 Memorial in June.
deejayqueue/Flickr via Creative Commons The National 9/11 Memorial in June.

Our patriotic rhetoric holds that we rise out of adversity stronger and more able to rule the world. Yet we have made a mess out of two wars and added tens of thousands more lives to those lost on 9/11. Commemorating our would-be strength, facing the welcoming Statue of Liberty, and housing financial behemoths that once raked in the world’s riches, we are now building a forgettable collection of structures that even a provincial Chinese city might think unworthy of its ambitions.

That spire gave me a little hope. It was elegant, and its geometry made you aware of the one trick still left to the tower: the fact that it rises from its now heavily fortified and isolated square base, via an octagon, to a rotated tube. The spire's triangular elements, interlocking and warping as they moved up, celebrated that move. Now even that is gone.

Maybe we should not worry. The memorial's park is still the area's best part, and the last decade has given us magnificent new public spaces such as the renovated Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the High Line.

The fact that New York is incapable of producing skyscrapers that are at all interesting, or public works that are worthy of our attention, might not matter. And yet I still hear Louis Sullivan's 1896 words, echoing across the prairies and the generations:

"What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line,—that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions."

Memorial photo used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Flickr user deejayqueue.

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.