Get to the Point: If Anyone Can Save 1 WTC’s Symbolic Spire, It Is the Dursts—They Snuck Onto the Skyline Before

The fate of the World Trade Center, having been debated and arbitrated by every constituency in town, now rests with

Spire showdown. (dbox/SOM, Durst Organization)
Antenna or architecture?

The fate of the World Trade Center, having been debated and arbitrated by every constituency in town, now rests with a panel of architects and engineers in Chicago. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat is the international arbiter of skyscrapers the world over. All skyscrapers are not created equal, and it is up to the Council to decide exactly how tall they all are.

The problem at 1 World Trade Center, as has been raging across front pages all week, is that the Durst Organization, the august real estate family and minority partner in the city’s newly christened tallest structure, has convinced the Port Authority to forgo a radome, a white fiberglass sheath that was to have encased the 408-foot mast atop the 1,368-foot tower. The mast takes the tower from the symbolic height of the original towers to the perhaps too symbolic height of 1,776 feet, first envisioned by Daniel Libeskind a decade ago.

The problem is that the council does not recognize antennae, flagpoles, signage or other superfluous structures as contributing to the height of the building. That is why the Willis Tower, 1,451 feet, ranks eighth tallest in the world, even though two broadcasting arrays bring its total height to 1,729 feet, the second tallest in the world behind the Burj Khalifa.

This seems absolutely backwards—why encourage “spires,” useless poles with a glimmer of design intent, while forgoing actual, functional structures like antenna and signage. Whatever happened to form follows function?

“It’s a practical concern,” Kevin Brass, public affairs manager for the council, said. “What is to stop someone from just adding on a taller and taller antenna?”

Indeed, the council was created in 1969 to settle such disputes. They have been raging since skyscrapers were rising, when 40 Wall Street, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State all tussled for pride of place on the skyline. Indeed, the Empire State is the 10th tallest building in the world if it’s 204-foot antenna is included. Staring out at the city from across either river, visually, this is the height one registers, not the 1,250 feet where the original structure tops out.

“Is it part of the design, or is it a pole on top of the building? That is the question, and we don’t know the answer to it yet,” , Mr. Brass said of 1 World Trade Center. It is a question, then, of architectural intent. And the problem is that the architect of 1 World Trade Center, David Childs, is none too happy about the decision.

“Eliminating this integral part of the building’s design and leaving an exposed antenna and equipment is unfortunate,” he said in a widely disseminated statement. “We stand ready to work with the Port on an alternate design.”

The Port, and the Dursts, are less eager to do so. A spokesman for the developer, Jordan Barowitz, said that fabrication of the spire—they insist it is a spire, an architecturally integral piece of the design, and one that was indeed designed by Mr. Childs’ firm, SOM, albeit no longer clad in its fancy suit—is already underway, imperiling any additional design tweaks.

“It’s not really at risk for us, we’re building the building, we have to build it, whether the council says so, that’s the council’s business,” a World Trade Center source said.

SOM is holding out hope that the Port might persuade the developer, who took a management stake in the building in 2010 for $100 million, to add some sort of design flourish. It has had to compromise on the base of the tower, after all, after serious fabrication issues. (It bears noting that that was seen as a diminishment, as well.) But the mast must be installed this summer to keep the building on schedule, which does not leave much time for a solution to be designed, fabricated and installed.

Port Authority chief Pat Foye does not seem eager to implement a change, either. “What was designed was impractical, unworkable and quite frankly dangerous to workers who would have to be called in to maintain it, and that’s not something we nor Durst could abide,” he told reporters after a conference on Friday.

The Dursts insist it was not the $20 million cost of the radome that killed it but the maintenance scheme, which was complex, expensive and possibly even dangerous, involving the hoisting of one-ton replacement pieces into place. SOM was given eight months to come up with a more satisfactory scheme but could not.

Still, if anyone could convince the council the tower is indeed as tall as the developers say it is, it is the Dursts. For years they were toiling away on the impressive if not especially tall One Bryant Park, standing a hail 945 feet. Atop it stood what could only be described as a white toothpick, pushing the height of the building to 1,200-feet, and supplanting the Chrysler Building as New York’s second tallest.

It was a move as brash as the one undertaken by Walter Chrysler to surpass 40 Wall Street, when he deployed a hidden 60-foot spire within the dome of the Art Deco dandy, during the original skyscraper race. No matter—it was surpassed within a year by the Empire State Building. Just as 1 World Trade Center someday will be.

Get to the Point: If Anyone Can Save 1 WTC’s Symbolic Spire, It Is the Dursts—They Snuck Onto the Skyline Before