Freedom Tower’s Twin

After the very public brouhaha over the design of the Freedom Tower, after all the press accounts of the roiling tension and tantrums between the architects David Childs and Daniel Libeskind, wouldn’t it be something if the final design-as unveiled last Dec. 19-resembles not so much the two men’s shared vision as a Catholic church built in Tokyo?

Recently, 93-year-old Marjorie Stolley was going through some slides that she and her husband had taken on a 1968 trip through Asia when, suddenly, a very familiar-looking silhouette appeared. Some quick detective work-i.e., showing the photo to a producer at NHK (Japan Broadcasting Company)-revealed it to be Saint Mary’s Cathedral, built in Tokyo by architect Kenzo Tange in 1964.

The cathedral was designed with significantly less melodrama than the Freedom Tower. Mr. Tange, a grand master of Japanese buildings, created it to resemble a cross from above. The interiors are made of exposed concrete; the exterior is finished in stainless steel, giving the building a glossy sheen. The adjacent bell tower is 200 feet tall, torqued and tapered. A tall spire bearing a cross points gracefully toward the sky; when seen in profile, it looks like a long, narrow spike. Encased in the top third of the bell tower is a row of church bells, eerily similar to the row of energy-generating wind turbines in the Freedom Tower.

The cathedral was inspired by visits to medieval Gothic churches, Mr. Tange told the Pritzker jury, which awarded him the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1987. “After experiencing their heaven-aspiring grandeur and ineffably mystical spaces, I began to imagine new spaces, and wanted to create them by means of modern technology,” he said.

Mr. Tange, who was born in 1913 in Osaka, was an avid follower of Le Corbusier’s modernism. His first major project was the Hiroshima Peace Center–Peace Memorial Museum, completed in the early 1950′s. He taught at the University of Tokyo, and built twin stadiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that resemble overturned seashells. The arc of his career was compared to the modernization of Japan as it emerged from the rubble of World War II. While well-respected in architectural circles, Mr. Tange never achieved superstar status.

It turns out that none other than David Childs is a great admirer of Mr. Tange’s work. He told The Observer that he toured Saint Mary’s on a visit to Tokyo, when he was staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel.

“I went through it and looked at it very carefully about a year and a half ago, and I liked the building very much,” Mr. Childs said. “I think it’s got a wonderful light quality to it that bounces off of it. But I can’t say to you that it had a whole lot to do, at least in my conscious mind, with what we’re proposing at the site at the World Trade Center, which is really a result of the geometry of the grid of the city.

“But you know,” he continued, “there are a lot of things that recur, either in nature or in designs, and so you’re never sure whether you liked it because it was something that reminded you of something before. Tange’s work is wonderful, by the way. He’s a great architect.”

Mr. Childs said he holds Mr. Tange in such high esteem he recommended that developer Larry Silverstein hire one of Mr. Tange’s protégés, Fumihiko Maki, to design one of the office towers on the World Trade Center site.

Less clear is how Daniel and Nina Libeskind feel about Mr. Tange and his work. After being e-mailed a photograph of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, they declined to respond.

-Sheelah Kolhatkar