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Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center

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BIG’s design for Two World Trade Centre came online June 9 on WIRED, cascading onto YIMBY, Dezeen etc. Comments were mostly negative, clustering around the “universally reviled” end of the scale. I’m unsure why. At least it’s not a humungous numeral 2.

Those BIG people certainly keep the stories coming, don’t they?! I wondered what it would be this time. Vernacular 3.0? Hedonistic Placemaking? Turns out there’s no great idea, just a whole chocolate box of narratives that fail to synergise into an air of inevitable appropriateness.

The first thing that strikes me as odd is the huge disparity between the density of the various narratives and the sheer volume of them. Something’s being overstretched. Never in the history of architecture has there been a building with a different narrative for each corner and surface of its shape. The elephant in the room of course is volume that that shape defines, but let’s start with the corners and work our way around.


The south-west corner of the building is presented as a major design feature. It’s not much to hang a building off of, especially when it’s being called upon to represent an appropriate dignity, solemnity and respect at the same time. It’s simply too much to expect a mere corner of a building to do all this.   

BIG are masters at generating reasons that, though not lies, are red herrings. This corner is presented as the z-axis that generates an angled setback at ground level,  that setback angle being determined by its vertex and, since sunlight is involved, that vertex happens to determine a vertical line all the way up.   


The performance condition of (symbolically laden) light penetration is thus responsible for the vertical line and not the result of it. What’s happening is that a mandatory performance criteria is being presented as clever aesthetic decision.

That single vertical links between vertical buildings on one side of the site and stepped ones on the other, “stitching two different neighbourhoods together.” Below, the image on the left is a collaged composite illustrating an assumed diversity. We’re led to believe different tenants occupy different buildings. The middle image illustrates the return-on-investment performance we associate with “boring” corporate buildings. The two good things of 1) an organically-occurring diversity and 2) efficient enclosure of space have been reduced to aesthetic choices before being stitched together and reduced to an architectural proposition in the image on the right.


There’s some additional slight-of-media at work in these following quotes from the video release.

“The completion of the World Trade Center will finally restore the majestic skyline of Manhattan and unite the streetscapes of Tribeca with the towers downtown,” said Ingels in a video explaining the project.

This will create a visual link between the old and new districts where “the heritage city blocks of Tribeca meet the vertical towers of the World Trade Center,” Ingels added.


I don’t know who’s actually wanting the streetscapes of Tribeca united with the towers downtown, or a visual link between old and new districts. I’m wary of this sudden importance of Tribeca. My gut feeling is we’re being made to look the other way while something shifty happens elsewhere.

“From Tribeca, it will appear like a vertical village of singular buildings each tailored to their individual activities stacked on top of each other, forming parks and plazas in the sky.”


I’m also not comfortable with having to place so much trust in that vision – especially since the vision of a vertical village of singular buildings each tailored to their individual “activities” is a fiction we’re being led to believe. Two World Trade Center is not going to be let “box” by “box”.


The southeast corner is the stepped one on the right in the image below.

It's strong here,

We’re told this stepped outline is generated by the volumes allocated to the seven different volumes that allow for different types of tenant.


I’m not buying this either. Even if there were seven tenants for seven boxes, would they really have different length-to-breadth preferences for their office space floor plates? Can seven different tenants for premium Manhattan office space at this particular location even be regarded as diverse? Again, a false performance criteria is being claimed as the justification for the decision to step the building on the east side and overhang it on the north. A diversity dubious to begin with, is being replaced with the representation of a diversity.  

The project’s redesign was warranted since financial firms had since migrated away from the Financial District, making leasing out the new buildings a struggle and further prolonging the World Trade Center’s redevelopment.

The fiction of the diversity narrative is proved in this quote from Curbed NY.

ny curbed

Half the 80-storey building (40 stories or at least three differently-sized usage blocks) is to be allocated to a single tenant.

And so we come to the south-east corner. 

“Two World Trade is almost like a vertical village of bespoke buildings within the building, that also can be seen as a single tower. It actually has an inclination towards One World Trade Center, so the two towers — even though they’re not twinning — by having a mutual relationship, the space between them is parallel, although at an incline.”[WIRED]

Parallel lines are contained in parallel planes and the only parallel plane of One World Trade Center is the isosceles triangle of the east façade. The parallel line is its southern edge. It’s shown correctly here.


The “mutual relationship” magicked by this effect will be apparent from anywhere those two lines can be seen simultaneously, but preferably against the sky. This means a maximum view angle of 225° determined by the facade angles in plan of One World Trade Center. From this, we must subtract those 90° which the “diagonal” of 2WTC can’t be seen, as well as the angle for which 2WTC obscures 1WTC. I think too much is being made of an effect that at best can only be seen from 125° out of 360°.

It ought to be strongest between the two buildings but it’s hard to tell. The right edge of the reflected triangle in the image below is the important one but if the effect is underwhelming in a publicity image then it doesn’t bode well for the reality. Perhaps we’re just being trained to see it. After all, we have to imagine this fantastic diagonal anyway.

023_2 WTC HeroShot_Image by BIG-thumb

When done right, The Parallel Diagonal Effect is strong and compelling. The only other instance I know of is the 2009 Sama Tower in Dubai. Its west facade is a partial isosceles triangle and its east facade an inverted one – making diagonally opposite corners parallel. Seen against the sky and especially from a distance, we perceive those corners more strongly than those not seen against the sky.

Sama Tower

Sama Tower works this effect across a mass but Two World Trade Centre sets it up with One World Trade Centre across a void. Whether there’s any poetry to be found in this I don’t know. What I do know is that to take One World Trade Center and appropriate it into a new visual composition involving a notion of “twinning” is a highly intrusive thing to do. But why even bother to draw our attention to an effect so weak and partial? I’d appreciate it more as a happy coincidence.

We’re reassured the footprint is the maximum permissible. Whew! In the diagram below, the red rectangle at the top is what’s left after various vertical setbacks are applied to the extruded footprint. It doesn’t tell us much other than that an infinite number of volumetric arrangements are possible. Why this one?


I’ll update this when I have more information on setbacks. An environmental impact assessment hasn’t yet been filed with the New York City Department of City Planning.

For now, the setbacks and overhangs are new surfaces created by this stepping of blocks and they too can’t be left unjustified. 

Trees are good. There’s nothing to say except “Why?”, “Why not?”, “Why now?”


There’s also some newly created undersides in need of a story. “Hey, anybody got a story for those undersides yet?” “Høld it – I’ve just had an idea! Let’s have News Corp headlines tickering over them!” News Corp headlines eh? Have you already imagined it? I have.


BIG’s team seem to have kept the same viz. people for the money shot but someone may have insisted upon this to continue the deception it’s all about looks.


The angle and foreshortening, by the way, are legit if you’re an X50 telephoto lens positioned midway along Port Jersey Boulevard. 

port jersey boulevard

As of 23/06/2015, the Two World Trade Centre Wikipedia page stated as follows:

200 Greenwich Street (Foster+Partners): The total floor space of was anticipated to include 2,400,000 square feet (220,000 sq.m) of office space and another 130,000 sq.ft (12,000 sq.m) for retail shops and access areas to the underground World Trade Centre station. That’s a total of 2,530,000 sq.ft (235,000 sq.m).

2 world trade center

Two World Trade Centre (BIG): The first three floors of the 2,800,000 sq.ft (260,000 sq.m) office building, including the ground level, will feature about 100,000 sq.ft (9,300 sq.m) of retail space. That’s a total of 2,900,000 sq.ft (270,000 sq.m).

That’s a 35,000 sq.ft (3,251 sq.m) difference or, to put it in terms a property developer can understand, the BIG proposal provides 14% more leasable space!

F+P’s website claims an area of 290,000 sq.m but gives no breakdown. On the other hand, it must be mentioned that Two World Trade Centre’s Wikipedia page has been revised five times a day since 19:38, 9 June 2015‎ (talk)‎ . . (22,748 bytes) (+480)‎ . .  (WIRED Magazine reported on 6/9/2015 at 9am, the new designs for Two WTC. The article details the exclusive first look at the designs as well as a video and interviews of all relevant parties associated with the change) (undo)”.  A few more revisions might be in order.

sky lobby one
sky lobby

Here, Ingels speculates that the sky lobby in the F+P design “may have contributed to the old design not getting built”. Wikipedia presents this speculation as fact.

Financial firms were the intended occupants for Foster and Partners’ 2 World Trade Center, and the original proposal’s sky lobby design was not attractive to media tenants, who have been the leading tenants of the new WTC towers and are now expected to occupy BIG’s redesigned building.

Changing elevators is a bore for anyone, regardless of what type of company they work in. Not having a sky lobby would make the upper half of the building more attractive to any office tenant. Large and regularly shaped floor plates would also be attractive to any office tenant.


Instead of being seen as a design feature people were already attuned to by the masterplan,


the diamond-shaped features of the Foster+Partners design are now being presented as cramping floor plate performance. What a difference 15 years makes! Property development is like Nature in abhorring a vacuum, relentlessly working to fill empty spaces.

It must be said, F+P do have a history of highly contrived and inefficient floor plates.

We’re told the client wanted a bank-like building when it looked like one would attract a bank tenant, but changed their mind when they saw nearby buildings filling up with media types. It’s true that F+P designed 200 Greenwich as a bank building. There’s a mammoth trading floor that gives it away.

The mystery is why no-one went back to F+P to redesign it in line with the changing market. In this story, it’s wrong to see UK tax-exile architect Baron Foster of Thames Bank as some sort of victim. It was a battle of business development departments.

But Two World Trade Centre is much more than a redesign because construction of 200 Greenwich had already begun! This gives us another obstacle and consequently another comic-hero narrative of ultimate triumph.

Many structural elements of the skyscraper came predetermined by the intricate underground architecture of the property, which was set in place by Port Authority and Libeskind’s master plan. Mechanical equipment, like air vents for Calatrava’s station, are positioned on the existing foundations and had to be incorporated into Ingels’ building. [WIRED]

two world trade center

BIG used the same engineers as F+P. I’d insist on this if I were the client-side project manager or property development manager. Continuity of structural teams is good, especially when there’s suddenly an asymmetrical loading creating a rotational moment usually countered by an extra thick and heavy core. The fun of Twister is to resolve your rotational moment before it reaches your hands.


I’m no engineer but I think this means a big block of concrete resting on the foundations of another building. We’re told this is “expressive architecture” rather than something useful that stops the building twisting itself off its foundations.

The engineering is of course possible but it’s not cheap. The 14% MORE must come at an acceptable price. The WIRED article covers points ignored by other articles – namely the apparent instability thing.

Silverstein was initially skeptical of the architect’s stack-of-blocks concept. From some vantage points, such as North Brooklyn, the structure will look a little off-kilter—almost as if it is leaning. At the World Trade Center, the force of gravity is the last thing that an experienced developer like Silverstein wanted to bring to mind. 

“Rupert Murdoch, still the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to his companies’ business, initially shared the developer’s concerns. “Once it was fully explained to him how the building works so well, so efficiently—brilliantly, I would say—then he got very comfortable,” Silverstein says. “As a result, quite honestly, I became comfortable too.”

• • •

Through the eyes of a Manhattan property developer, unexploited permissible envelope must appear like translucent green boxes in the sky. The F+P site layout no doubt provided the maximum possible footprint but only as determined within the constraints of multiple symmetries based on the edge of the wedge. This fixation with symmetry created two mini-wedges of light on the south-west and north-west corners. Nobody asked for those.


Silverstein may well have approached F+P for a re-think and F+P, sensing a PR disaster, may have refused. It’s a terrible thing to be accused of failing to have predicted the future. Enter BIG. Their design occupies these mini-wedges. The south-west one becomes that sombre vertical and the north-west one is filled with boxes tracing the imaginary diagonal.

F+P’s design was resolutely vertical apart from its large trading floors where the BIG design now begins its climb. This is where most of that 14% added bigness comes from. As it rises, the building contracts in one direction but extends in another, thus maintaining that gain for longer. The overhang is a logical consequence of maximising leasable area. It’s no aesthetic decision.


Even if the achieved areas were the same, it would still make more sense to overhang the building towards the top and achieve more premium-office space, rather than step it back from the bottom and more sub-premium office space with yet more gardens.

“My first reaction, my second reaction, and my third reaction were: ‘Will this work?’” Silverstein says. “Will it be respectful of the other buildings? Will it be respectful of the memorial below?” 

Here, Silverstein is referring to the PR aspect of the problem, not its aesthetic one and certainly not any functional one. Like Nature filling a vacuum, the building designs itself and engineers itself to fit. What’s really needed is experience in winning over public opinion.

BIG step up to the plate.

Bjarke Ingels

Much skill must have gone into redesigning this building to monetise every cubic foot of permissible envelope and then engineer it so it stands on foundations constructed for a different building. This is nothing to be ashamed of yet we’re told none of it. In the new architectural dysfunctionalism, performance is completely detached from architecture even when it’s generating it.

The media star architect is a new form of architectural ornament. Their function is to invent and present decorative yet empty narratives. The actual building is conceived of and made possible by others. The only time the media architect is of use is to divert our attention away from the sordid political and economic machinations responsible for the building in the first place.

  • Talk about shape rather than volume is a classic example of how a dysfunctional architecture disguises real performance criteria as an aesthetic decision
  • Talk about vital engineering solutions as “expressive architecture” is another example
  • Representing diversity rather than encouraging it in any real sense, is merely architecture in motion. It’s the same process by which space and light were turned into aesthetic commodities.
  • It’s now possible to identify what exactly it is architects do to sustain this situation
  • Because of this, it’s now possible to explain the mechanism by which architectural fame is created. It’s a reward, basically. This explains not only the actual function of starchitects, but why they exist. The more an architect can get away with not justifying their buildings in terms of any aspect of real performance, the more value they have to a certain type of client. This is the source of many diseases presently plaguing architecture.
  • It now makes sense why media fuss and controversy of aesthetic appropriateness and symbolism is welcomed and encouraged by media, architects and clients alike. Everyone works overtime to confine the “debate” to aesthetics.
            “it’s none of my business” (Zaha Hadid)
            “the Building of The Year Award is about architecture not politics” (Deyan Sudjic)
    The more intense the debate about how a building looks, the more attention is diverted from how buildings are used for economic gain and political prestige. Architecture of this kind is The Shock Doctrine applied to economic and political exploitation.

In his presentations, Ingels spends a disproportionate amount of time and energy talking about Tribeca. There must be translucent green boxes hovering all over it.

1. Convince people the diversity of Tribeca can be represented in a high-rise building.
2. Replace Tribeca with representations of Tribeca.



  • in the commercial developer world of nyc, I cannot image any developer leaving 14% of floor area on the table.
    I smell a rat, more likely that the floor area is the result of the “design”.
    interesting to note that the scheme has not yet got through the planning boards, but if the positive opinion of the public seems to be pushing it through, maybe that becomes rubber stamp…….

  • says:

    in portugal there’s a saying – what is born twisted will never or too late get right.

    foster deserved to win the 1st wtc competition.
    at that time his design was the best one considering what was at the table – a proud statement that n.y. was not afraid.
    2 buildings as before only bigger, seemed to me a very honest proposal and a good reason to choose him.

    other “factors” came up and twisted the birth of this process.
    not a formal trendy skyscraper twist (that wouldn’t be so serious) but a real on: confusion, incompetence, hidden agendas, lies – the full monty…

    will it ever get right?
    i doubt it.

    in this second attampt foster goes for the easier minecraft look (used in europe since the middle ages) and that’s nice (just as long as you are the 1st one to do it).
    but why the miiror facades? why?
    isn’t there another way to solve them?
    is every building so body-conscious that needs to reflect its surroundings instead of showing himself?

  • Yeah. “Why not?” is the question, instead of “Why…?”.
    Yes is more (money in the bank).