Bjarke Ingels revealed his proposal for 2 World Trade Center in an article for Wired on Tuesday. The final unbuilt plot at the hallowed New York City site — which had for a decade been reserved for a Norman Foster-designed scheme — may now give rise to a dramatically stepped, 1,340-foot glass tower. Perhaps even more remarkably, if the design is approved, the 40-year-old Danish architect will lay claim to three major Manhattan commissions, including the Dryline park planned for the island’s waterfront and the VIA housing complex on West 57th Street.
As expected from Ingels, this new vision for 2 WTC is being publicized as a stroke of pure inspiration, a project that captures the flash-in-the-pan brilliance of its design process in the bold simplicity of its forms. Case in point, a three-minute video and a series of clean, pop-y diagrams seem sufficient to tell the whole story: seven glass boxes are stacked upon each other, diminishing in size and generating a series of verdant terraces as the tower climbs upward. With just a few formal tweaks and permutations, Ingels’s self-proclaimed “solution to an almost unsolvable puzzle” purports to synthesize a host of site-specific needs, histories, and forces. Here, the heritage of low-rise Tribeca lofts and roof gardens will merge with the engineering gusto and commercial aspirations of the downtown skyscraper, creating a “vertical village of singular buildings, each tailored to their individual activities, stacked on top of each other, forming parks and plazas in the sky,” as Ingels expounds in his video. With this reworking of established types and forms, occupants of 2 WTC can expect a harmonious mash-up of interior and exterior, private and public, and work and leisure spaces. Ingels’s scheme also tempers its edgy, stepped façade with a more somber, flushed exterior facing the actual World Trace Center plaza, answering the need for both respectful remembrance and no-holds-barred innovation.
If realized, this addition to Lower Manhattan will give new prominence to Ingels’s already popular design ideology. Since the early 2000s, Ingels and his firm have cultivated an aesthetic of hyperbolically simple designs, often extruding or combining elementary shapes and volumes to create structures that require just enough backstory for a compelling blog post and enough formal nuance to be illustrated with a minimal number of pixels (as seen on the Bjarke Ingels Group website). Through his built and published work, Ingels has pushed the idea that, by precisely identifying and combining the elements you want, you can have it all. That this youthful brand of modernism is attracting serious attention is arguably the most remarkable aspect of the 2 WTC proposal. Ingels’s punchy typological hybrids are now appealing to some of the most influential leaders of the business world, individuals who literally make the news — the building is intended to house the new headquarters of 21st Century Fox and News Corp, whose heir apparent James Murdoch voiced his preference for Ingels over Foster to design the new face of the media company, according to Wired.
One could say Ingels’s simplified aesthetic is well suited for the scale and requirements of the modern skyscraper, which demands a monumental exterior that is unified yet not monotonous. The way Ingels’s design shape-shifts to conceal its zigzagging silhouette behind a more demure façade reveals some thoughtful consideration of the skyscraper type, or at least a welcome sense of restraint to counterbalance his unapologetic formalism. While the adjacent 1 and 7 WTC skyscrapers, designed by David Childs, and Fumihiko Maki’s 4 WTC, manipulate prismatic volumes in more subtle ways, fine-tuning sharp corners, joined planes, and reflective and variegated surfaces to engineer sudden dramatic moments and disappearing acts, Ingels’s design spells the drama out for its viewers. It stacks instead of streamlines; it dresses itself in garden terraces, leisure spaces, and LED tickers. It wears its populist, subversive streak on its sleeve and announces its differences but, in doing so, leaves little to the imagination.
As the gates open for a new architectural vanguard, Ingels’s aggressively rising stock should be viewed with cautious optimism. It remains to be seen how his brashly reductive designs — characterized by seductive, web-ready concepts and promises of positivist utopias — will stand the test of time. One might look to Rafael Viñoly’s soaring 432 Park Avenue tower, a similarly bold project that has already transformed in the eyes of the public from an aspirational, minimalist high-rise to a literal, oversized trash can, an absurd display of elitism and private wealth — all before the building’s completion. While we should welcome the new in the conventionally inert discipline of architecture, now is also the time to reflect on what we really want to see change, and how we want to approach other “unsolvable” architectural puzzles. As we already know, that will likely require a lot more than putting some parks and plazas in the sky.