Coulter, Gerry: Tadeo Ando, One World Trade Centre and “The Ground Zero Project”, 25.06.2014

I. Introduction

The recently opened One World Trade Centre (One WTC or “The Freedom Tower” as some insist on calling it) in New York City is a curious edifice. The building is the center piece of an ongoing effort to respond to the events of September 11, 2001. It is a remarkably unexceptional modern tower of glass and steel (104 stories) reaching a symbolic 1776 symbolic feet (541m) at the top of its 408 foot (104m) high tower. I am among those who did not think that anything would make us miss the architecture of the twin towers as much as this building does. America felt it had to respond to 9/11 with a big building and that is what it has done. Now that we have One WTC I wonder if anyone wonders what we might have had in place of this monstrous ode to architectural mediocrity and petty local politics.

In this essay I will examine One WTC in contrast with the project proposed for the site by the Pritzker Prize Laureate Tadeo Ando. Ando wanted to use the space to help Americans reflect upon their place in the world. In an odd way, One WTC also accomplishes this goal but not in the way Ando intended.

II. ‘One World’ Trade Centre

“We came back and we rebuilt it and we should feel good about it” (One WTC architect David Childs cited in Rabb, 2013).

The original Twin Towers were not especially interesting works of architecture in comparison to what they represented – they were a symbol. In a world which was entering into increasing levels of hyper-realism, the original towers stood as a fictional center of digitalized integrated globalizing capitalism – architecture serving as the fiction of how society was being taught to imagine itself by its financial elites. As clones of each other the Twin Towers also represented a kind of lapse of architectural reason (See Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2000: 4 ff). Today the symbolism is more brutal: “One World” Trade Centre is more than an address – it is a commentary on Western globalization from one of its principal nodes. “One World” is the only way capitalism can now view the future – one world united under Westernization. Many Americans, and some others, can only understand globalization as “Americanization”, and One WTC is a monument to this ideology. As such it makes an adequate symbolic replacement for the Twin Towers expressed in New York City’s prevailing language of verticality.

On September 11, 2001 America experienced not only a symbolic defeat – there were real economic consequences. While an invasion of Afghanistan was probable no one could have foreseen the invasion of Iraq and the devastating toll this war has taken on an already bankrupt (several times over by 2001) American economy. According to my own computation from various U. S. Congressional and White House reports, it appears the cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are approaching one trillion dollars since 2003 or about $8.7 M (€5.8 M) per day.

Similarly One WTC has delivered a hard economic blow to New York City whose commuters have experienced skyrocketing tolls to use the commuter systems to and from the island of Manhattan for several years. Cost estimates for the tower (the world’s most expensive building) were originally set at $2 billion (€ 1.33 B) and by the time of completion will reach at least $3.8 B (€ 2.53B). Its 3 million square feet of office space (replacing the 10 million square feet of the twin towers) will need to rent at 100 per cent occupancy at a rate of $125 (€ 83) per square foot for the building to break even. Over the past three years the average rent for office space in lower Manhattan is $62.50 (€ 41.6) per square foot as One WTC opens into a glutted market. When the building finally began in 2006 rents were falling in New York and a good deal of the “trimming” done to Daniel Libeskind’s original plans by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s David Childs was a direct effort to cut costs. Still, in 2014 the anchor tenant Conde Naste is paying less than $60 (€ 45) per square foot. According to the Wall Street Journal today only 55 per cent of the building is leased and no new tenant has signed on in three years. The rent for non-anchor tenants has been dropped from $75 per square foot to $69 (€50 to €46). (

Further, cost overruns to its yet to be completed train station are currently in excess of $1B (€6.66 M). The Durst Corporation which manages One WTC values the $3.8 B tower at only $2B (€ 1.33 B). Through their constantly increasing commuter tolls workers in One WTC are subsidizing the rent of their employers.

One WTC is an incredible example of an edifice which makes no commercial sense and very little architectural sense. At the tenth anniversary memorial for 9/11 former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was overheard speaking with former New Jersey Governor George Pataki: “This is the biggest waste of money anybody’s ever seen. Who would have ever spent this money. If we knew what this was going to be like, nobody would have ever done this” (cited in Rabb, 2013).

Even among its architectural neighbors One WTC lacks architectural interest. It is a building in which many find neither grace nor charm. One of its harsher critics (the London-based graffiti artist Banksy), said that the building shows that New York “has lost its nerve” and the building represents that “New York’s glory days are over”.

III. One of the Potential Alternatives

“…nature is being destroyed by humans. There should be a harmony between the artificial world, the natural environment, and human beings” (Ando, 2009).

For a global economic and military power to be so successfully attacked as America was on September 11, 2001, by a relatively powerless group of individuals, is a humiliation. One World Trade Centre is a response to this act of humiliation. There was widespread demand for the Twin Towers to be rebuilt or be surpassed by another very large edifice – it had to be big. Very few called for anything but another architectural monster to reply to the monstrous attack. What we have in the end is another unexciting architectural monster in Manhattan to replace the Twin monstrosities which towered over their skyline like alien objects from an unmade Kubrick film.

One architect did offer the Americans an opportunity to avoid the creation of yet another architectural monstrosity for this site – Tadeo Ando (b. Japan, 1941). In Ando’s architecture Western Modernist architecture meets Eastern thought concerning balance, the human need for contemplation and edifices which deeply respect their environment. As he has said: “You cannot simply put something new into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land, and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see” (Ando, 2002b).

Ando, a self-taught architect, has worked within this philosophy for five decades and has won world architecture’s highest award: The Pritzker Prize (the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for architecture). Anyone unfamiliar with his work can, even after a few minutes of looking at several of his works on the internet, understand Ando’s gift (see especially his: Museum of Wood, (Hyogo, Japan [1994]; Chikatsu-Asuka Historical Museum (Osaka, Japan [1994]); Nariwa Museum (Okayama [1994], Oyamazaki Villa Museum (Kyoto [1995]; Awaji-Yumebutai Complex and Gardens (Hyogo [1999]); Studio Karl Lagerfeld (Biarritz [2001]; 4 x 4 House (2003); Row House, Azuma (1976); and Koshino House (1986)] . Ando has long been acutely aware of the need of humanity for buildings which compliment nature and the human need for peaceful contemplation. Often light [Church of the Light (1989); Atelier in Oyodo (1991)] and water [Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art (2002); Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum (1992) and his Hompuku-ji Water Temple, Hyogo (1991)] are used to compliment his overall philosophy of architecture.

Like many architects around the world Ando was profoundly affected by the events of September 11, 2001 – especially the fall of the twin towers and the deaths of nearly 3000 people on that day. When a competition was announced for both a memorial and a structure to replace the Twin Towers Ando offered perhaps his most thoughtful design – his Project for Ground Zero (2003). While it was never seriously considered by the adjudication panel (who had already been affected by the fever to respond with a huge vertical edifice), Ando’s proposal is more than an old model gathering dust in an architect’s storeroom. [Images of Ando’s proposal may be found by entering: “Tadeo Ando proposal for ground zero” into most search engines].

Among Ando’s recent gifts to architecture, theory and philosophy have been his unique solution to the question of what to do with “Ground Zero” in New York. Ando offered New York and America an opportunity to use the symbolic space of Ground Zero as a public place of contemplation on America’s place in the world. Ando said about his proposal: “It is important for architecture to touch the human spirit” (Ando and Rose, 2004). Against the terrorist action and the military response to it Ando proposed that a small section of a massive [imaginary] subterranean globe occupy on the site. This project, which will never be built, would also have spoken softly against the wild and callous architecture of downtown Manhattan – precisely the kind which now stand on this spot. The surface of the imaginary sphere would be a grass covered mound (a park for quiet contemplation and reflection) not unlike ancient Japanese burial mounds.

Ando proposed a singularity – a park in the shape of the imaginary globe slightly exposed above the surface. The result would have been a grass covered mound 650 feet [165m] in diameter which reached a height of 100 feet [32m] in the center. The mound would serve as the symbolic exposed surface of the imaginary underground sphere which would, in total, represent 1/30,000th of the surface of the earth. People walking across the mound would gain the impression of walking along the surface of a large sphere. Ando saw this project as an opportunity for people to think about how we are going to live together in the future on our shared celestial home. I think Ando knew full well that his project would never win the competition and it seems clear that he simply wanted to use it as a philosophical gift to Americans in the form of an unfinished design. He also understood that simply erecting another building on the site would do nothing to respond to the need for spaces in which to contemplate how we are going to live together as diverse peoples in the age of terrorism. Along with this project he offered the Americans advice: “I think that what we need now is the courage to construct nothing more on this site” (Ando, 2002a).

As has long been the case with Ando his solution to the problem of architecture at ground zero has been unique. He seems to have never believed in universal principles being applicable to all situations given his respect for the environment, light and those who will use his buildings. Against those who sought a military response to the events of September 11, 2001 Ando wanted to provide a park, which the exposed part of his globe was to be, to remind people that New York and America are part of the world. “I want the surface to disappear and become a space – a space that stimulates thinking. If the surface does not speak too loudly, then the people will begin to think about themselves. They bring the meaning to the space” (Ando in Auping, 2002).

In an age given over to architectural unreason (city after city dominated by office towers) Ando has so far not designed a monster. Perhaps it is because Ando is an autodidact that he was able to abandon so much of architectural history (save some key insights from the best of Modernism) and to offer up such a consistent and strong series of works. The most important thing he incorporates into his architecture has been his own intellectual sensitivities to place and space. He seldom, if ever, did this any better than in his proposal for the Ground Zero site in New York.

“As an architect this is all I can do – to create a dialogue among diverse cultures, histories, and values. We can learn so much from each other and our past” (Ando in Auping, 2002).

What Ando proposed was a philosophical and psychologically necessary park for meditation. What New York got was another glass, concrete and steel tower: an architectural act of [along with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq] in response to terrorism. One World Trade Centre stands to lose a lot of money for the foreseeable future. It seems an extraordinary expense for what is to be gained from it – this the tower shares with America’s War in Iraq.

A question remains: After the Twin Towers fell the terrorists and their supporters claimed a significant victory in the global war that is globalization and resistance to it (terrorism being the most extreme and distasteful form of resistance). It seems to me that Ando’s project clearly denied the terrorists (or anyone) a claim to victory. I wish I could say the same for One, World Trade Centre.

 Dr. Gerry Coulter

Full Professor and Past Chairperson, Department of Sociology, Bishop’s University, 2600 College Street, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.  J1M 0C8


Biography: Gerry Coulter has published over 150 scholarly and par-scholarly articles, reviews, and book chapters [many on art and architecture] over the past twenty years. He has presented his work at over 50 conferences around the world including two key-note addresses. He is the author of two books: Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert – The Poetics of Radicality (Intertheory Press, USA, 2012) and Art After The Avant-Garde: Baudrillard’s Challenge (Intertheory, 2014). He is the founding and managing editor of The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (IJBS now in its 11th year): His major reference work (456 pages): The Baudrillard Index may be accessed from the cover page of the IJBS website. Dr. Coulter’s teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions including Bishop’s University’s highest award for teaching – the William and Nancy Turner Prize. He serves on the editorial board of several North American and European Journals.

References (and other important documents concerning Ando)

Tadeo Ando (1995). “Acceptance Speech for the Pritzker Prize”:

Tadeo Ando (2002a). “Architect’s Statement Concerning His Proposal For Ground Zero”. www.ando.groundzero/architect/ando/statement/240702

Tadeo Ando (2002b). “Interview with Architectural Record” (May):

Tadeo Ando with Charlie Rose (2004). Interview, Charlie Rose Show (January 22):

Tadeo Ando (2009). Interview With CNN’s “Talk Asia” (aired: October 30, 2009).

Michael Auping (2002). Seven Interviews With Tadeo Ando. Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Publication.

Jean Baudrillard and jean Nouvel ([2000] 2002). The Singular Objects of Architecture. University of Minnesota Press. Translated by Robert Bononno.

Gerry Coulter (2008). “Louis I. Kahn The timeless Art of Light and Form”. Euro Art (On-line) Magazine (Summer):

William Curtis (2000). “A Conversation with Tadeo Ando”. El Croquis, No. 44+58.

Kenneth Frampton (1995). “Thoughts on Tadeo Ando” [An essay on Ando winning the Pritzker Prize]:

Alessandra Latour. (Editor). Louis I. Kahn, Writings, Lectures, Interviews, New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

Scott Rabb (2013). (“The Truth About The WTC”, Esquire Online Magazine: April 29):

Ruth Peltason and Grace Ong-Yan (2010). Architect: The Work of Pritzker Prize Laureates in Their Own Words. New York. Black Dog Press.

Pritzker Prize Committee (1995).  Biography accompanying Pritzker Prize Acceptance Speech: