Skip to content
Carol Ross Barney knows something about rebuilding after a tragedy.
Her firm, Ross Barney + Jankowski won the competition to replace the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after it was destroyed by a bomb in 1995 that killed 168 people.
As the City of New York takes its first halting steps to rebuild the destroyed World Trade Center - Larry Silverstein, chairman of Silverstein Properties, which holds the lease on the Trade Center site, has hired architects David Childs of the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) and Alexander Cooper of Cooper Robertson Architects to coordinate redevelopment plans - Barney and other prominent Chicago architects are offering their thoughts on the planned reconstruction.
They suggest a vision for the massive 16-acre site in lower Manhattan that would be dramatically different from what stood there until the terrorist attack last month that destroyed all six buildings on the property, including the iconic 110-story twin towers.
Cooper is known for his work on the master plan for New York's Battery Park City, which was developed on urban principles very different from those underlying the World Trade Center. Where the World Trade Center was massive, aloof from the city and made up entirely of office and commercial construction that left it empty at night, Battery Park City was designed to be integrated into the city.
In Battery Park, office buildings stand near low-rise residential structures, stores are scattered throughout and there are parks and landscaped walks.
Ralph Johnson, design principal at Chicago's Perkins & Will, advocates an approach more in keeping with the Battery Park model when the World Trade site is redeveloped.
"Of course the whole area needs to be looked at," he says, "but it would be better to spread everything out more evenly over the site."
Rather than leave the site of the towers vacant or build a memorial there, Johnson says, "it is better to create a living memorial. The building itself should become the memorial."
It may come as little surprise that architects want to rebuild, but none of the Chicago architects consulted would agree with former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has advocated replicating the twin towers almost exactly.
Bruce Graham, a retired partner from the Chicago office of SOM who was architect for two of Chicago's tallest skyscrapers, the John Hancock Building and the Sears Tower, says rebuilding the towers would be "like building the Parthenon on a Chicago beach. It doesn't make sense and it isn't proper."
Graham says it is not necessary to build tall again at the World Trade site. "There should be beautiful buildings there that can be new symbols for New York," Graham suggest.
He would like to see the "creation of more open space, which New York needs" and some sort of "dignified monument" to those lost in the attack. "The model a new architect should strive after is Park Avenue," Graham says.
Barney contends that the density of New York City, and the scale of the death toll there -- estimated at 5,500 lives -- make it a quantitatively different problem from that of Oklahoma City.
But, speaking of her Oklahoma City experience -- and the needs of those traumatized by that assault -- Barney says the emphasis should not be on re-creating the past.
"Clients and tenants all said they didn't want to work in a bunker," Barney says. "They did not want the building to be a memorial. They said the new building was about the future."
In Oklahoma City, the former Murrah Building site became a memorial and the new building went up on an adjoining site. Barney's building, to be completed next year, was subject to new safety rules devised for government buildings as a result of the Oklahoma bombing. Among other things, the new building is lower than its predecessor and is fortified with features like safety glass that can withstand a bomb blast without shards becoming projectiles.
Barney's experience suggests concerns that might emerge in the aftermath of the twin towers attack. She believes, for example, that requirements for emergency exiting may be revised for office buildings because of the attack.
Also, structural standards for progressive collapse -- the pancaking effect seen as the towers fell -- will be re-evaluated, she believes.
For her part, Barney would rebuild directly on the twin towers site, she says. "The industriousness of the people of New York needs to heal the hole left there."
"Whatever goes there," she says, "will react to the tragedy one way or another."
But what the building or buildings would look like is an open question. Could it be another office tower? Unlikely, according to Adrian Smith, a Design Partner at SOM Chicago, who also argues against Barney's idea to build right on Ground Zero.
Says Smith, "It is difficult to imagine an appropriate combination of memorial and commercial."
Rather, he says, "some sort of memorial should be created" where the towers stood. "I can't imagine anyone would rebuild exactly on that site. People have to be able to go there and feel the loss. We can't pretend this didn't happen."
Buildings, Smith suggests, could surround the memorial.
Smith will attend a special meeting of the international Council on Tall Buildings, called this month because of the disaster. The topic will be the impact on architectural safety standards.
All agree the attacks will have implications for the way towers are constructed. At the very least, architects expect changes in zoning laws governing standards for exiting buildings. As it is, exiting standards assume emergency conditions requiring escape from a fire confined to one or two floors. Construction standards require support columns capable of withstanding fire for a minimum of four hours. Flooring materials are required to withstand two hours' exposure to fire. The idea behind rating building components such as these is not to save the building but to buy time for evacuation.
The attack on the World Trade Center exposes these rating systems to new scrutiny.
"I don't know if any building can ever be expected to withstand being hit by a plane, but I do think some requirements will be tightened as a result of this attack," Smith says.
Because of the unprecedented heat of the fire, propelled by jet fuel, the twin towers did not stand for the minimum two hours that fire ratings promise and many perished trying to escape.
Effects of extreme heat
Elements binding the structural frame to the outer skin of the building apparently failed in the extreme heat, as did the structural columns. Whether any material could withstand such conditions and be economically installed throughout a building is unknown. But, Smith says, standards for elements connecting skin and frame are tougher in England than they are in the United States and he suggests that adopting those standards at least bears examination.
Of the New York site, Barney says, "We have to consider what people will accept. We have to make buildings that people will go back to."
Plainly the fear of occupying a high-rise target for terrorists is infecting the development community. Such concerns will surely have an impact on building decisions for some time to come.
More broadly however, in the wake of the attack on the Trade Center, architects are reconsidering the skyscraper as a species. It is possible that the days of over-scaled towers are numbered.
The newest world's tallest towers in Kuala Lumpur, designed by Cesar Pelli, have been greeted as an unconvincing bid for world recognition by a growing but still marginal economic power.
Critically, the Kuala Lumpur towers have fared little better.
Once a sign of prestige, is the skyscraper becoming an empty and irrelevant symbol?
"The notion of the skyscraper is being redefined," Johnson says. With more work being done electronically and from remote sites, the office, Johnson says, is becoming a place for people to gather only occasionally -- "because people still need face-to-face time."
A plea for time
What is certain is lower Manhattan will never be the same again. The architects consulted for this article plead for time, not for themselves but for everyone, they say.
Donna Robertson, dean of the Architecture School at Illinois Institute of Technology, is calling for an international competition of ideas, which she describes as "a search for unexpected architectural ideas for a new century."
What is built -- or not built -- will be one measure of this event's meaning to the nation. At this moment, while the country is struggling to absorb awful loss, reaction is what we have.
With time, something more meaningful can be distilled. In the meantime, the conventional and necessary assessments of property, conditions, infrastructure and building needs can be evaluated and measured. Then, architects can do what they do; imagine a new city and get it built.