- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Ground Zero is still without the soaring building promised for the site. Politics have trumped architecture, reminding us that New York and Washington aren’t so different after all. So it’s hardly surprising that a corporate architect used to navigating the corridors of power in both cities should emerge as the winner in the battle over the rebuilding.

David Childs of the New York firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who began his career in Washington and still serves on the District’s Commission of Fine Arts, is now in control of Ground Zero’s most prominent architectural design, the Freedom Tower.

“The tower will play an iconic role as the climax of the buildings that will be built around it,” said Mr. Childs by telephone. “Being the tallest building in the city, it needs to be a symbol like the Washington Monument.”

Mr. Childs secured the coveted commission through a combination of political skill and willingness to compromise — rare qualities in the ego-driven field of architecture. He came to the project having already been hired by developer Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center, to look at ways of revitalizing the Twin Towers complex before September 11.

By 2003, Mr. Childs was working on the 1,776-foot-tall centerpiece of Ground Zero with Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind, who had won the competition for the site’s master plan. The collaboration, by all accounts, was not a happy one, and Mr. Childs eventually edged out Mr. Libeskind to make the design his own.

Mr. Childs got his chance to reshape Freedom Tower completely when the New York Police Department decided that the first version of the skyscraper was vulnerable to attack by car or truck bomb. In May, Gov. George E. Pataki, New York Republican, responded by sending the architect back to the drawing board.

Unfazed by the forced compromise over security issues, Mr. Childs quickly reconfigured the asymmetrical tower into a glassy obelisk, chamfered at the corners, that he set atop an impenetrable, 200-foot-high base. While the revised design’s resemblance to the Washington Monument may be appropriate given its partly commemorative purpose, it is far from being the exciting piece of architecture that was hoped for.

The Freedom Tower is now a conventional building that defers to the city, much in the way that buildings in Washington obey the Pierre L’Enfant plan. Its 200-foot-square footprint respects the Manhattan grid. Its simple, symmetrical shape, topped by a spire, fits into the skyscraper tradition of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.

All well and good for an ordinary office building, but this tower was meant to be special. Its biggest problem is its fortified, largely windowless lower stories, which appear completely divorced from the glassy shaft above them. With this bunker base, the building appears to represent fear rather than freedom. It certainly doesn’t inspire awe.

Mr. Childs says that he didn’t seek to create a startling vision. “I would like to have people feel that it’s an appropriate symbol for the memorial [at Ground Zero],” he says. “I don’t want to see the building as the event, but as the marker for the open space around it. In a way, it’s like the Washington Monument on the Mall.”

The comparison is a revealing clue to our city’s strong influence on the 64-year-old New York architect. Mr. Childs began his career in the late 1960s as the design director of the fledgling Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission, working closely with the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then an urban affairs adviser to President Nixon.

“Pat felt strongly about the civic aspects of architecture,” recalls Mr. Childs. “It was then I began thinking not just about individual buildings, but collections of buildings and their relationship to the street and the city.”

Another mentor was Nath-aniel Owings, a founding partner of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who hired Mr. Childs to join the firm’s Washington office in 1971. Four years later, President Ford appointed the young architect as chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, where he served until 1981.

In Washington, Mr. Childs came to understand the public scrutiny required of building major projects, including his own design of Constitution Gardens on the Mall. Working within L’Enfant’s late 18th-century plan for the city, in turn, shaped his philosophy of architecture respectful of its urban context.

“Washington is different than any other city in the country in the sense that it has a very special plan, which is more important than any single building,” he says. “So many architects have come to Washington and don’t understand it.”

Washington also instilled a reverence for history and tradition that Mr. Childs still possesses. In defending his newly fortified Freedom Tower, he cites precedents such as the Strozzi Palace in Florence and Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square.

In 1984, Mr. Childs left Washington to take over Skidmore’s New York office, but he has continued to maintain a regular presence here. In 2002, President Bush appointed him to the Commission of Fine Arts, where he replaced the late J. Carter Brown as chairman until stepping down from that position in May.

Mr. Childs says that while at the commission, he has seen the quality of architecture improve in Washington. But he is concerned about all the security barriers being erected — “all these things that make the city look like it’s under siege” — despite his own fortification of the Freedom Tower.

As an architect, Mr. Childs has no signature style. He prefers a site-specific approach to architecture, strengthening and improving what’s already been built, rather than challenging the status quo. This contextual approach works well in Washington, but not for the type of spectacular, stand-out building called for at Ground Zero.

That’s why Mr. Childs is an excellent choice for designing what may turn out to be his best building, the conversion of the old beaux-arts post office opposite Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan into a new Amtrak station. The project, yet to start construction, has personal meaning for the architect, as well. It will be named after Mr. Moynihan.

Mr. Child’s most visible legacy, however, will be the Freedom Tower, due to break ground early next year. He and his team are now refining the initial design, detailing the base in light-reflective metal panels so it will appear less like a bunker.

Once the building is completed in 2010, Mr. Childs hopes the experience of entering the fortified lobby with its high windows “will be like going into a church with that same sense of mysterious light.”

As for the remaining office buildings at Ground Zero, Mr. Childs says he wants other architects to shape them. “My partners are floored that I’d give up these projects,” he says. “But it would be too much to have them designed by one hand. They should become part of the symphony of the city.”

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