New urbanist firm involved in WTC rebuilding

Alexander Cooper of Cooper Robertson & Partners, a New York firm that has designed many new urbanist (NU) communities, was hired by the World Trade Center leaseholder to plan reconstruction of the site.

Cooper was hired along with David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, perhaps New York’s most prominent skyscraper architect. Developer Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder from the Port Authority since July, 2001, says he hopes to begin construction in 18 months.

The pairing of architects, neither of whom are modernists, indicates that the site will likely not be rebuilt in its original form, and may follow NU design principles.

The World Trade Center was the biggest, and one of the last, major International style skyscraper projects — consisting of sleek and stark towers on a superblock with little connection to the street, and poorly defined urban plazas. “The reason why the World Trade Center towers were universally disliked prior to the event, or if they were liked, they were liked from a distance, is that their urbanism was miserable,” says planner and architect Andres Duany.

The Charter of the New Urbanism, the document which lays out the guiding principles of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), has much to say that relates to the rebuilding. The charter, for example, calls for an interconnected network of streets. The towers were built on a 14-acre superblock, an amalgam of many small blocks where hundreds of historic buildings were torn down and streets closed. An NU plan would likely break the current site into smaller blocks and reconnect the new streets to surrounding thoroughfares.

The charter also calls for defining the streets and public spaces with buildings to create human-scale environments. Any new urbanist plan would therefore include well-defined, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes with an appropriate portion of street-level retail.

Perhaps most importantly, the charter calls for contextual design. The best streets and avenues of Manhattan — as well as projects such as Rockefeller Center — should be the model for the reconstruction, according to CNU chair Stefanos Polyzoides. The new buildings should reflect “the relentless business orientation of New York,” he says, as well as “maximize the quality of life and the quantity of prosperity generated at the site.”

Manhattan is a city full of high-rise buildings that perform magnificently at street level, Duany notes, adding that these are excellent models. “The fact is that we are not against high-rises,” he says, “we are for Manhattan-style high-rises, we are against the (Le Corbusier model of the) tower in the park.”

Although new urbanists have designed a number of projects that include buildings 20 to 30 stories high, they have done nothing at the intensity of the World Trade Center.

Silverstein is advocating building four skyscrapers, each 50 to 55 stories high and about 2.5 million square feet in floor area.

Also related to September 11 events, author James Kunstler and urban theorist Nikos Salingeros forecast in an article that the attacks will bring about the end of the skyscraper era, and that modest building heights will be good for cities. “Who will ever again feel safe and comfortable working 110 stories above the ground? Or sixty stories? Or even twenty-seven?,” the authors ask.