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How Tall is Your Tall? One World Trade's 'Tallest' Claim

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Be not afeared: Defenestrated is Curbed's new architecture column, from the minds of Thomas de Monchaux and/or Philip Nobel. Send thoughts and leads to Here now, Philip Nobel on One World Trade Center.

Let's talk numbers. Not square footage. Not mortgage rates. Not rent (yours or others). The time is past ripe to take a look at the foremost of all measures that describe our buildings, the one that defines them, the one by which we principally rank them, the one that, for better or worse, we use to mark their progress, their greatness, their affect on the soul, the ultimate metric of a developer's hubris, a contractor's joy, sometimes a neighborhood's consternation, always a city's self-esteem: height, raw and pure.

Or so we imagine it. How tall is a building? This one should be simple?lay a scale on the architect's drawings, add up a known measure floor-to-floor, read your altimeter, dust off your trigonometry?but it is not so. Begin at the ground, a wavering, unreliable surface prone to dips and peaks. The hillside site of the Empire State Building, for instance, is a good deal higher than the spot maybe a dozen feet above the high tide Hudson from which One World Trade Center (formerly Freedom Tower) gets its start. So if, as reported, a new column installed Monday at Freedom Tower (old habit) has reached 1,271 feet, a tall, multi-story column, necessarily, since it is said to have beat out the Empire State by a whopping 21 feet, that new structure is now higher than the old only if the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street lacks that much in elevation above sea level relative to Ground Zero. As that Midtown site in fact rides at 49 feet above the waves, there's more work to be done downtown.

Small potatoes you say, and I agree. And the builders have been building since. But there are other problems in sight. Towers competing for "tallest" laurels are rarely built on readily-comparable flat planes. Sometimes they even burrow into hills or confuse their bases with elevated plazas and multiple points of access on different levels. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the outfit in Chicago that has established itself as the international arbiter of tall, has figured this one out. "Height," they tell us, "is measured from the level of the lowest, significant, open-air, pedestrian entrance," with footnotes on "level," "significant," "open-air" and "pedestrian" defining the terms with a lawyerly fuss that must please the engineers who run the show there ("Open-air: the entrance must be located directly off of an external space at that level that is open to air"; the discussion of the meaning of "significant" carries on for five lines and seventy-five words).

Things get no more clear in the sky, where over the years the Council has introduced no fewer than three categories, any one of which may be called upon with various degrees of candor to make a claim that a structure is the tallest in the land (or a given geographical sub-unit thereof). The first is known by a lovely term, Height to Architectural Top, or HAT. This is the designed (it must be intended at the beginning of construction) and built height of the last bit of stuff atop a given building, not including whatever "antennae, signage, flag poles or other functional-technical equipment" (see footnote five) are appended after the nominal completion to make the thing more festive, or more useful, or of course, because there's big money in transmission sites, to make it pay. That seems a satisfying line to draw. But also in use is the measure to Highest Occupied Floor, a sober, humanistic grade, acknowledging that height experienced is height appreciated, and not only by the guy who changes the utmost bulb. Here there is a great deal of room to wiggle. In a strange omission, the Council does not specify whether the measure is to the floor of the Highest Floor or its ceiling (feel the anxiety dwelling there between the dropped acoustic panels and the fireproofing sprayed on the slab above) or perhaps even to the height of an average occupant (whether eyes or head or up-do we can then debate at our leisure). A third height, Height to Tip ("irrespective of material or function of the highest element"), is more satisfyingly absolute, even a touch poetic. It might be an end-all, if it weren't for the other two. Thus we have the strange dance of Taipei 101, long deposed as tallest of the tall, holding on at No. 2 in Architectural Top, but falling to No. 4 in Occupied Floor (behind rivals in Shanghai and Hong Kong) before settling in at No. 3 next to Sears (now Willis) Tower when considered by Height to Tip.

This same confusion over topmost tops has bedeviled New York's tallest for decades. Though it was erected soon after completion of the building below, the iconic spire on the World Trade Center's North Tower, reaching to 1,728 feet, was not part of the original architectural conception and was thus determined to be "other functional-technical equipment" by the mandarins at the Council in Chicago. We won't indulge in conspiracy theories, but it was that call and that strange call alone that allowed Sears, with a HAT of only 1,451 and an occupied height lower than both Twins, to claim its status as tallest in the nation and indeed the world, bringing untold riches to that great city at the ass end of Lake Michigan. Adding insult to injury, the twin transmission towers atop Sears--street legal from the get-go--originally topped out at only 1,707 feet; it wasn't until 2000 that one of them (one!) was extended to a peevish 1,729, burying the controversy forever in the annals of no one cares.

And we shouldn't. Numbers, after all, are not experienced. Our eyes don't count. They do much more. Use them at your next convenience to take a close look at Freedom Tower. Does it appear very tall? To my eyes it doesn't. Because, despite its tapering, it is fat. Because its battered sides give it a dowdy profile. Because whatever effect of forced perspective the shape may provide can only be seen from right below (and we can't get right below yet). Freedom Tower is esthetically doomed. Though like all very tall things it will look terrific at dusk, it may never appear to be as tall as it should. It doesn't now, even seen from far away, where another structure--different design, same height--might already look really, really tall. For some time now, technically, Freedom Tower has been "supertall," a designation given by the Council to all buildings over 300 meters (or 984 feet 3 1/32 inches). The horizontal emphasis of the facades?the same girth-giving effect we know from striped clothes?is one culprit. Context is the other. The Fumihiko Maki building at Ground Zero, formally Four World Trade, is already robbing its neighbor of the apparent height it might have elsewhere (and of course that design, so anodyne, could be elsewhere). The situation will only get worse when boxy Four tops out at 1,240 feet (perceptually identical to where One stands today). Worse yet, when Foster's Two World Trade is completed adjacent, it will have both architectural and to-tip heights of 1,348 feet. That is, incidentally or by design, exactly the occupied height of the original Tower Two at the site?a more natural memorial than Daniel Libeskind's vapid, sinister 1,776, the remnant of which, it should be noted by freedom-loving patriots everywhere, will only mark that building's HAT. One World Trade's height to tip, a better measure for sure, will be 1,782 when it is completed sometime on or about 2014.

A last quibble of the Council on Tall Buildings puts this week's celebration of height into teapot tempest perspective. In their record-keeping, the Council distinguishes quite carefully between buildings and other very tall things that are built. This raises the essential, nearly existential question of what makes a building a building in the first place. At 1,815 feet the CN Tower in Toronto was for thirty-plus years the tallest freestanding built thing anywhere in the world, has always been and for a long time will remain so for North America, but no one cares. Why? Because it doesn't have water coolers and filing cabinets? At 2,080 feet, something called the Tokyo Sky Tree opens next month after having gone up with little notice (probably because, though built, though occupied, it is also somehow not really a building). It is now the second tallest manmade point on the planet after the Burj Khalifa, formerly the Burj Dubai. That building (indisputably a building, with hallways and bathrooms and such) so beggars belief with a to-tip height of 83 feet over half a mile that we will consider it no more, drop the matter entirely, for fear of calling down the wrath of jealous gods.
?Philip Nobel