The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) did not exist when the rebuilding of the World Trade Center began over a decade ago. But now, the firm, which has grown to 260 people, is poised to complete the 16-acre site with a provocative 88-story office tower that steps skyward. It is a remarkable turn of events that speaks to BIG’s dramatic rise in the world of architecture, and the exceptionally slow rate of progress at the World Trade Center site.
Earlier this week, it was confirmed that Foster + Partners’ design for a diamond-topped Two World Trade Center was history, and that Bjarke Ingels (an architect half Foster’s age) would be taking over. The Silverstein-developed building will be used as the joint headquarters for News Corporation and 21st Century Fox; the tower’s uppermost floors will be leased to other tenants. Just days after BIG’s design was unveiled, it was reported that Rupert Murdoch would be stepping down as CEO of 21st Century Fox to be succeeded by his son James, who reportedly led the charge against Foster’s original design. (You can read AN’s coverage of the building here.)
Shortly after BIG’s design debuted to mixed reactions, AN’s Henry Melcher sat down with Bjarke Ingels in his firm’s sprawling penthouse offices, just south of the World Trade Center, to talk about the new tower, the rebirth of Lower Manhattan, and if there is any bad blood between him and Norman Foster.
Henry Melcher / AN
Henry Melcher: Where were you on September 11, 2001?
Bjarke Ingels: I started my first architecture company, PLOT, in 2001 and we won our first competition in August so we got our first office space in September. We were painting the office ourselves because we had to refurbish the place and were strapped for cash. We had an intern who was working on our first website and he suddenly called us and said, “come, some idiot flew his airplane into the World Trade Center.” At no point did it cross my mind that the buildings could actually collapse. There was a sort of permanence of the New York skyline that you took for granted.
Not only was it an attack that cost 3,000 people their lives, it also had a devastating impact on Downtown Manhattan. A lot of the financial companies moved away, but right now I am sensing somewhat of a renaissance. We moved here on April first—we were attracted to the affordable rents and the skyscraper history that you can see out the window. There is so much diversity in this neighborhood; the newest buildings and the oldest buildings in the same place. And there is the fact that you have this influx of media and creative companies moving here.
What is your impression of the new World Trade Center site?
This idea of having an 8-acre oasis in one of the densest parts of one of the densest cities in the world is really striking. The effort to preserve such a large urban space as a sanctuary for what happened is incredibly successful.
There is also something about the skyscraper as a typology; when you think about Downtown Manhattan, it is more the sheer quantity of substance rather than the individual design of each building that creates the impact. I think you have this rather majestic frame around the memorial that has been created by the towers.
What we have tried to bring to this is a level of innovation or evolution at a typological level. We have tried to create a building that does create a striking silhouette that combines the identity of Tribeca with the identity of the Financial District.
But what triggered the design is actually a careful reflection of the performance and the inner-workings and that will contribute to the thousands of people that are going to come to work here. There is this idea that even if you are working 600 feet up in the air, you can stroll out on a giant terrace and enjoy the sun during your lunch.
Take me back to day one of this project. How did you begin to conceive of the tower’s design?
Last summer, Fox and News Corp. were doing a search for architects and they ended up choosing to work with us. They brought us onboard to help them qualify their selection of a site so we sketched on their needs. We looked at a horizontal kind of skyscraper along the West Side Highway, we looked at a more classic location in Midtown, and then suddenly, as part of the search committee, our eyes fell on the site of Two World Trade Center.
As the World Trade Center site was getting more and more complete—the memorial was open, the Hub was starting to show—you could sense that this could actually be a great place to be. We helped them analyze a lot of different sites and this one just started to shine.
In dialogue with Silverstein and Fox and News Corp. we got going on the design. At that point, we had already been sketching for their program requirements, developing their ideas for big and open floor plates, exposed ceilings, they wanted to create a certain raw openness. They did not want to cement their current situation into a fixed form; they wanted to retain as much freedom as possible within the parameters of a very big skyscraper.
What did you think of the previous design for the building? Did you talk to Foster’s team at all during this process?
We are actually collaborating with Foster on the Battersea Power Station in London; we are doing the public realm, which basically adjoins one of their buildings. And we have a great collaboration with them, I have only respect for Foster and their team.
In this case, it was purely the fact that the design had been made for an era that had somehow—the Financial District has somehow moved to Midtown and it is a new kind of neighborhood and also a new kind of World Trade Center.
Tell me about the new tower’s design.
The previous design for the site was really tailored to become a financial institution. Its floor plates were more like the upper parts of this building, so we started to see if we could achieve one of the wishes for more contemporary workspace within the parameters of the site. One of the things that became quite interesting was that we had two clients—Silverstein who has roughly half the building and a specific set of requirements, and Fox and News Corp., which had even more specific requirements. And then we had columns and cores that had already been cast into the ground, and the Libeskind master plan.
In the beginning, I was a little bit anxious because this would clearly be the most important site we had ever designed a building for. When we stumbled upon this idea that it is the respect for the memorial that adjusts and unites the diversity of the different buildings within the building, then suddenly everything clicked.
It has a silhouette that is probably as striking as One World Trade. From the North and South, it is like a ziggurat. From the East and West it has an expanding silhouette toward the top. When you see it from the memorial, it almost appears to lean. As you move around it, it will be a radically different building.
BIG has built a reputation with a playful and graphic body of work, but this seems more buttoned-up or corporate. Did you feel that you had to strike a different tone with this tower given its location?
As skyscrapers come, there is quite a lot of life in this building. You are going to have cascading atria that span 13 floors, which means you can throw a paper plane to one of your colleagues four floors down. You have inside-outside continuity with huge outdoor spaces and you have a high-rise that does have a rather different face depending on where you see it from.
It is true at the same time that we did not want to make arbitrary gestures—but I think we never do in general. This is an extremely tall tower so there are certain things like gravity to take into account. I would say that my favorite skyscrapers, I wouldn’t call them buttoned-down, but the ones where there is a direct relationship with how they perform and how they appear. I think we have tried to achieve something similar.
Where does the design process go from here?
The overall logic of the vertical village, of buildings within the building forming a single tower toward the memorial, is what the project is going to be. We are starting schematic design now. There is a lot of detail that will be added, but my hope is that this is a good idea of what we will build.