Spring 2003

The Clean Room / Giants, Neither Green Nor Jolly

Ecology, technology, and sustainable skyscraper design

David Serlin

“The Clean Room” is a column by David Serlin on science and technology.

On Christmas Day 2002, as snow blanketed the streets of New York City and insulated its denizens from the peals of church bells and the moans of unimpressed retailers, New York State Governor George Pataki issued a cheering holiday message to the nation. In a press conference timed both to capitalize on the symbolism of the day and to seep surreptitiously into the boozy dreams of late morning slumberers, Pataki announced that the US Navy had requested that scrap steel recovered from the World Trade Center site would be used in the construction of an amphibious assault ship—baptized, vaingloriously, the USS New York—to be put into service for the War Against Evil.[1]­

Under the Navy’s plan, the enormous metal beams, which some observers believed to be part of the south tower’s structural vertebrae, will be melted down and molded into the bow of the vessel. Pataki also announced that the contract for building the USS New York had been awarded to the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, a distinction that was not lost on those who previously identified the city of Pascagoula with the newsworthy exploits of ex-Senate Leader Trent Lott, the city’s most famous resident racist. Unlike Richard Serra’s controversial steel sculpture Tilted Arc, which was removed in 1989 from its public site not far from the World Trade Center, the USS New York will be a permanent art installation designed, as Pataki proclaimed, to symbolize the goals of “defending freedom and combating terrorism around the globe, while also ensuring that the world never forgets the evil attacks of September 11 and the courage and strength New Yorkers showed in response to terror.”

In the intervening months since Pataki’s Christmas Day message, a vocal minority of survivors of those who perished in the World Trade Center attacks has criticized the Navy’s appropriation of the steel for military purposes. But is the use of scrap metal exhumed from the World Trade Center site in and of itself a profane act? Those protesting the Navy’s decision may be blissfully unaware that much of the steel excavated from Ground Zero and transported to the Fresh Kills landfill has already been sold off as scrap, to be melted down and incorporated into the designs of myriad construction projects far less controversial than that of the USS New York. Unfortunately, while using the remains of the World Trade Center may be offensive to some, it is also true that the use of those remains is perhaps the only environmentally sound policy ever to be associated with the World Trade Center.

Despite the tragic circumstances that continue to surround its demise, the World Trade Center was never an especially distinguished building from an ecological perspective. From its inception in the 1960s, the World Trade Center was designed as a so-called smart building: a fully automated fortress of steel and glass that privileged fluorescent lights and climate-controlled comfort over natural lighting and ventilation. But in reality, there was nothing “smart” about the World Trade Center except for the ambitions of its engineers. In the mid-1970s, when New York City endured the austerity of an energy crisis exacerbated by its brush with bankruptcy, citizens instructed to limit their energy use could observe the World Trade Center running 24 hours a day as beacons of excess without self-consciousness or interruption, and rumored in popular mythology to use as much energy as the entire city of Schenectady.[2] Readapting the steel used in its original construction may be the only aspect of the World Trade Center’s history that, in retrospect, addresses our contemporary need for architecture that is creatively designed to be flexible in order to be sustainable for future generations.

To be fair, the World Trade Center was not the only failed “smart” building of its generation. Its design predated the growing environmental consciousness of the 1960s, which began to transform the vocabularies of urban planners and architectural firms within the decade. Sustainability, as configured in skyscraper design, emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as an architectural solution to the environmental problems in both the West as well as in developing nations whose embrace of, or oppression by, technology had created environmental hazards. The Independent Commission on International Development Issues’ important 1980 study, North-South—A Programme for Survival (also known as the Brandt Report for one of its champions, German Social Democrat Willy Brandt), inaugurated the concept of “appropriate technology” in political discourse to planners and architects working with developing economies in the early 1980s.

The appropriate technology movement was an attempt to bring the technologies of modernity to non-Western economies without exploiting local resources, sacrificing environmental standards, or erasing community histories. As James Heartfield has argued, “Like sustainable development, appropriate technology is a hybrid concept. It appeals both to the demand for better technology on the part of the people of the less developed world, and at the same time calls into question the generalization of ‘Western’ technology.”[3] Such social concerns would have been anathema to the leaders of many Western corporate entities— such as the Port Authority of New York, which owns the land on which the World Trade Center stood—for whom sustainability was an irritant rather than a moral imperative.

In the current debates about how exactly to strike a balance between the ethical demands for a memorial to the victims of 9/11 and the commercial demands of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the call for sustainable skyscrapers has been ignored, much to the peril of the project and to the citizens of New York City in general. Designs by the firm of Petersen Littenberg, for example, which garnered much attention from the media last December, incorporated green spaces into the layout of the Ground Zero site and included a prominent urban garden, one of the largest open public spaces in downtown Manhattan. Yet there was no mention of the building’s commitment to green design, the shade of innumerable memorial dogwoods notwithstanding.

Foster & Partners, the architectural firm whose design for the “kissing towers” was among the most favored proposals unveiled last December, is also responsible for creating a visionary skyscraper for Swiss Re’s London headquarters, regarded by many as one of the most radical and advanced sustainable skyscrapers in the world. The 41-story tower presides over the London’s financial skyline in much the same way that World Trade Center highlighted downtown Manhattan. Built on the site of the Baltic Exchange Building, which was destroyed in an attack by the Irish Republican Army in 1992, the new Swiss Re headquarters will be a constant reminder that rebuilding on the site of terrorist attacks confers on the property in question a political primacy that cannot be ignored simply by the seemingly neutral discourse of reconstruction. Following the ecological mandates of sustainable design, Foster’s building uses natural stone, stainless steel, and aluminum, materials that are not only energy efficient but that can be easily recycled and readapted for other purposes. The building, a good deal of which is open to the sky, is self-consciously designed to use sunlight and natural ventilation so that artificial climate systems can be eliminated six months out of the year. The Swiss Re building also benefits from an aerodynamic form first proposed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1970s but now made finally possible by way of three-dimensional computer software that generates mathematical formulas that constantly recalibrate themselves, creating a kind of mathematical organicism that can be translated into architecture. Because of this modeling, it has an unmistakably phallic shape, receiving high marks from British critics even as it has earned the names “erotic gherkin” and the “towering innuendo.”

Foster & Partners did not win the commission to build a new skyscraper on the site of the World Trade Center. That honor will go to the Berlin-based Studio Daniel Liebskind. Sustainable skyscraper design, still considered a luxurious expense or an unnecessary bid to political correctness by many architectural firms, will probably take a back seat to a design that, in addition to memorializing those who perished in the attacks, will have to prove its commercial viability. Despite all efforts to make sustainable design an ecological as well as moral imperative, the final designs will probably have to give priority to commerce and possibly forfeit what, under different circumstances, could have been a breakthrough in environmental commitment by and for the city, as well as by and for the entire world.

Cynics may believe that emphasis on the commercial development of the World Trade Center site over its environmental function is inevitable. It seems as if tall structures that flaunt their verticality are always destined to be the one architectural form that is rooted historically in the human need to assert power. Outside of the Tower of Babel, a cautionary tale against the hubris involved in architecture and ambition, the earliest skyscrapers were castle towers poking from the depths of forests and along the craggy edges of coastal towns. These were lookout points that warned against the arrival of marauding hordes, as well as symbols of solidity and strength for the citizens who took comfort in their stony shadows. Such towers reflect humans’ lofty and often self-aggrandizing desires for control in much the same ways that church steeples and minarets, their metaphysical cousins, reflect the disjunctions of scale that exist between human beings and the religious beliefs that inspired their construction.[4] In her meditative book On Longing, Susan Stewart observes that pre-industrial cultures understood their place in relation to the environment, where “the vastness of the natural world mirrored the vastness of the individual perceiving consciousness.”[5] By contrast, in the 19th century, the tallest towers in New York, Chicago, and London were meant to symbolize the solidity and strength of Gilded Age mercantile capitalism.

Should we be surprised, then, that if a hundred years later, in our zeal to memorialize the physical and psychic trauma that occurred after 9/11, we act even more defiantly, parade even more extravagantly, and design buildings that are even bigger and more wasteful than the World Trade Center itself ever was? If before September 2001 the World Trade Center­ was seen, both by its assailants as well as by many Westerners, as a “sick” symbol of the wasteful misuse of the world’s resources, one may wonder whether it would not be in our best interests to rebuild on that hallowed ground something that reflects our humility as well as our ecological sensitivity. What if environmental sustainability was our starting point, rather than being merely a hazy afterthought to developing commercial property or building memorials to the dead?

Thomas Nast’s vision of lower Manhattan’s future, Harper’s Weekly, 1881.
  1. Joel Stashenko, “World Trade Center Scrap to Be Used in USS New York,” The Boston Globe, 25 December 2002.
  2. For more about the World Trade Center’s wasteful reputation in the early 1970s, see Andrew Ross, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society (New York: Verso, 1994), pp. 106–112.
  3. James Heartfield, “The Economics of Sustainable Development,” in Ian Abley and James Heartfield, eds., Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age (Chichester, England: Wiley-Academic, 2001), p. 96.
  4. For further exploration of these themes, see Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen, The Skyward Trend of Thought: The Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986).
  5. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 79–80.

David Serlin is an editor and columnist for Cabinet. He is the co-editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (NYU Press, 2002).

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