14 March 2004

High Anxiety

High Anxiety:

The New York Times

Published: March 14, 2004

Right now, the designers of the Freedom Tower are struggling to master three colossal forces that are at work in the stark, empty sky above the World Trade Center site: gravity, wind and, perhaps most formidably, fear.

Any architect or engineer who works on a tall structure is morally and professionally obligated to become something of a safety obsessive. The steel and concrete of every Manhattan skyscraper has to resist hurricane-force winds, for example, as well as the downward pull of the Earth. But only the Freedom Tower will rise over a patch of ground that is forever shaken with the terror and paranoia of the worst building catastrophe in the history of the planet. As with the very first generation of skyscrapers, the work will have to be so visibly solid, so secure, that it will convince an anxious public to step into the building. After all, those who enter will not only be haunted by what occurred at the site in the past; they will also be apprehensive about what could happen again.

Last December, the twisting, tapering outlines of the building were unveiled: 70 occupied floors topped by a cable superstructure and a spire reaching 1,776 feet. At the ceremony, David M. Childs, the architect and consulting partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who is leading the design team, said it would 'probably be the safest building in the world.'

In an attempt to live up to that very public promise — to overcome public fear, and reassure prospective tenants — the designers of the tower are carrying out a most unusual exercise that is in equal parts brainstorming, forensic analysis and Götterdämmerung-style what-iffing. They are systematically mapping out a dark spectrum of possible calamities, from major fires to terrorist attacks, and they are attempting to measure, with the greatest precision that technology affords, how well the building would hold up and safeguard the people inside. With that information in hand, the designers are improving the structure and trying to make it safer.

"This is at ground zero," said Daniel Libeskind, the architect who is the master planner for the site. "So I think the site has the responsibility to go way beyond the ordinary safety codes. Everything in the power of engineering, security thinking, safety thinking, architecture, urbanism has to be done to recognize that this is a special site."

The first goal, of course, will be to prevent any future terrorist attacks, and the builders of the Freedom Tower say that a variety of intensive security measures will be put in place. Even so, every prospective tenant is likely to entertain the same thought on his first trip to the top. As John W. McCormick, an engineer and code expert who is a consultant on the project, puts it: "There's a need to recognize that, just very possibly, it might be a target."

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