Timothy Johnson is six feet, two inches tall. One Monday last November, he stood before a cluster of microphones at his architecture firm on the twenty-fifth floor of 2 Rector Street, New York, and affirmed that by the standards of the international organization he chairs, The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a nearby building, now known as 1 World Trade Center, is 1776 feet tall. When asked later what would have happened if he hadn’t been able to confirm that height, Johnson allowed that “it would have been gut-wrenching.” For much of the year 2013, a passionate but punctilious sliver of the world, at the intersection of architecture and public affairs, was preoccupied by the year 1776.
That association of height and year had its origins sixty-eight feet below where Johnson stood, down on the nineteenth floor of the same building, where Daniel Libeskind has his studio. In February 2003, The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, along with Governor George Pataki, selected Libeskind’s design for the masterplan of the sixteen-acre former site of the World Trade Center. A masterplan typically indicates general guidelines and locations for a project, while the character of individual buildings and landscapes is left to subsequent architects. Libeskind’s masterplan depended for its vivid—and, to some, cloying—appeal on an unusually specific assortment of evocatively illustrated architectural details: sunken meadows, sky gardens, willfully choreographed shafts of light and shadow. Everywhere there were the seeming fractures and recursive zigzags characteristic of Libeskind’s “deconstructivist” style, and above all an attenuated office tower that looked vaguely like the Statue of Liberty. The construction of all this would have required that Libeskind not merely be the masterplanner, but the author of every inch.
In the commercial and political transactions that assimilated the site’s development back into the business-as-usual of the city, most of those particulars faded away. What remained was a consensus that there would be five very big new buildings around the site’s perimeter, stepping up in height toward an especially tall building at the northwest corner. And that the height in feet of that building, in commemoration of the year of the Declaration of Independence, would be 1776. Until it seemed that, like the evanescent smile of a Cheshire Cat, even that number itself might disappear. The number lasted because as a figure, not a feature, it could be authored by anyone and achieved at a wide range of budgets—until, when something was eventually designed to that specification, the nature of that design called the nature of that number into question.
Libeskind and Johnson are friendly but don’t see each other much in the building they share: Johnson, who grew up in the farming town of Waseca, Minnesota, and Libeskind, who grew up in the Bronx, keep different hours. “I come in pretty early, before 8,” Johnson said. “He comes in later, around 10, and stays way into the night.” Johnson estimates the height of 2 Rector at 280 feet; it’s an arcaded twenty-six-story structure, pre-war Romanesque, that fills the block where Rector slopes gently down from Trinity Place to Greenwich Street. Arches that are hip-height at Trinity are head-high at Greenwich, as the ground below them falls away. “I have some great old photos in my office showing the building up in the skyline when it used to stand out, but now it’s really one of those background buildings,” Johnson said. The title of highest building in Johnson’s Minnesota hometown, “was probably a tie,” he said, “between the steeple of our Roman Catholic Church and the local grain elevator, both likely around 120 feet tall.”
Giving a symbolic numerical dimension to a monument or memorial is surprisingly rare in the history of architecture, ancient and modern—perhaps because until recently measurement systems were far from universal, or were even proprietary to designers and builders. (In pre-metric France, different endeavors had different systems of measurements, with the quasi-yard of the weaver closely approximating but distinct from the quasi-yard of the carpenter.) More common is a tendency to resolve dimensions to round numbers, as with the tidy 300 meters to the top of the Eiffel Tower’s observation decks, or to select whole multiples of standard building materials. Those who go for the idea of measurement as an aspect of a structure’s meaning are generally more drawn to the voodoo of relative proportions—like that of the Divine Ratio, roughly 8:5, to be found everywhere from the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame de Paris to the form of Lady Liberty herself. The Washington Monument, whose obelisk form the final design for One World Trade is said to resemble, has an official height of 555 feet, 5 1/8th inches, although a lively subculture is invested in determining that dimension to be a more diabolical 666 feet, or a euphoniously demoniacal 6,666 inches. Perhaps the greatest modern architectural essay in actual proportion and notional dimension is Edward Lutyens’ memorial to the World War I dead in London. Lutyens’ “Cenotaph” is a slender boxy structure that, though it measures only thirty-five feet in height, has its vertical lines infinitesimally tilted inward toward a point of convergence some 1,000 feet overhead, and its horizontal lines infinitesimally curved to suggest a sphere with its center buried equally far underground—a built allegory of ascent and descent.
There are, according to the Council on Tall Buildings, three different kinds of height. There’s Highest Occupied Floor, “measured from the level of the lowest significant open-air pedestrian entrance to the finished floor level of the highest . . . conditioned space which is designed to be safely and legally occupied by residents, workers, or other building users on a consistent basis.” There’s Height To Tip, which measures up to, “the highest point of the building, irrespective of material or function of the highest element . . . including antennae, flagpoles, signage, and other functional-technical equipment.” (That number in feet for One World Trade is 1,792, which with the collapse of the French Revolution’s General Assembly and the advent of the Terror is not such a great year in the global history of democracy.) And then there’s the number that counts, used by the Council for its annual rankings of the world’s highest buildings: Height To Architectural Top, measured up to the highest feature that isn’t a sign, a flagpole, or a piece of technical equipment like an antenna. Spires, like the stylish needle atop the Chrysler Building, count. But cellphone and broadcast towers, like those that extended The Empire State Building in the 1970s, don’t. Of course, some spires are also antennas, but not all antennas are spires, and it is into this dilemma that the number 1776 was cast.
The design of One World Trade was assigned in 2005 to architect David Childs of the firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, who eventually produced a tower with a massive squarish base, a steeply tapered and faceted octagonal shaft topping out at 1,368 feet (the height of the original World Trade Center’s North Tower), and a Brancusi-esque hoop-and-needle superstructure that brought the total height, notionally, up to 1,776 feet. Developed with sculptor Kenneth Snelson, the forty-story superstructure was a “radome” featuring a brilliant white skin of interlocking fiberglass triangles that would deflect wind, protect maintenance workers and telecommunications equipment housed inside, and create a visually striking element on Manhattan’s busy skyline.
The new building bore little resemblance to Libeskind’s masterplan illustration, much less to the Statue of Liberty that it had evoked. But it kept that height. Until it almost didn’t. In 2010, management of the property passed to the Durst Organization, which cut tens of millions of dollars from the estimated $3 billion budget. Perhaps the most significant element of Childs’s original design was cutaway chamfers at the four corners of the tower’s heavy base, which recalled similarly angled corners on the original Trade Center towers. As in Lutyens’ war memorial, the angles of those cutaways suggested an inverted and buried version of the tower’s obelisk-like taper above—that there was a point of deep convergence as far within the earth as the building reached into the heavens. Although these cutaways had already been incorporated into the building’s structural steel, the final facade straightened out those corners, making for a cheaper and more conventional profile.
Up top, the radome skin was eliminated, leaving its internal steel framework to play the role of spire on its own. This complicated framework of trusses and cables looked like, well, an antenna. A typical reaction was that of Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, where the Willis Tower was about to be surpassed as America’s tallest skyscraper by a 1,776-foot One World Trade: “At the Willis Tower, you have a panoramic view that is unmatched,” Emanuel told theNew York Times. “You can’t get a view like that from an antenna.” He added: “If it looks like an antenna, acts like an antenna, then it is an antenna.” And if it is an antenna, then One World Trade, like its predecessor, would be certified as only 1,348 feet high. Impressive, but barely top-ten in an ever-taller urbanized world.
In early November, the CTBUH convened its Height Committee to address the issue. Twenty-five architects, engineers, contractors, and consultants from thirteen different countries met for five hours in Chicago. They reviewed their general height criteria, and studied the blueprints of One World Trade. Childs gave a brief presentation in which he affirmed that the steel framework, even without its sculptural surface, was integral to his architectural design. The Height Committee determined that the steel framework, as yet, included no broadcast equipment and emitted no signal. They voted, unanimously, to affirm the 1,776-foot height, (which will put One World Trade third in the world, behind the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the 1,972-foot Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia). At the subsequent press conference, Johnson was asked what would happen if, as seems likely, the steel framework were eventually employed as a broadcast tower. “No comment,” he said.
Later, Johnson explained that the longstanding issue with antennas is not so much whether they’re utilitarian equipment or whether they’re actively broadcasting signals, but that as technological devices, they’re subject to rapid and unpredictable change—demolitions and modifications and replacements that regularly transform the total dimensions of any structure. (The Height Committee considers the masts atop the Willis Tower, which have been repeatedly modified by technical upgrades since the 1970s, to be antennas.) “We don’t want to change the height of buildings as they change their equipment,” he said, “if we accepted antennas we’d have to go around the world and change every evaluation every year. The word that we keep coming back to in our deliberations is permanence. We are looking for something that is not going to change.”