How the New York City developer is collaborating with leading artists and architects to rebuild the World Trade Center the right way.
BY CHARLES CURKIN
What happened to Building 7? Conspiracy nuts have been asking this question since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 left approximately 2,750 people dead and turned a group of gargantuan office buildings at New York’s World Trade Center—including Building 7—into a pile of toxic dust. The answer is simple: It collapsed. And in 2006, Larry A. Silverstein rebuilt it. He’s rebuilding the entire World Trade Center, in fact, to which he holds the lease, and he’s tapped some of the world’s greatest architectural and artistic minds to make it happen.
It starts with David Childs, chairman emeritus of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), who is responsible for the new 7 WTC, the biggest tenant of which is Moody’s, as well as the recently completed 1 WTC, which is, among many other things, Condé Nast’s new headquarters.
Then there are Pritzker Prize bon vivants like Richard Rogers (3 WTC), Fumihiko Maki (4 WTC), and Norman Foster (2 WTC—or the initial plans for it, at least); Polish-American sentimentalist Daniel Libeskind (WTC master plan); New York classicist Robert A.M. Stern (30 Park Place, a 926-foot luxury residence tower and Four Seasons hotel just up the street from the Trade Center); and Denmark’s star export Bjarke Ingels (2 WTC—after Foster lost the commission). Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, known for her large-scale installations, created a massive piece for 7’s lobby that is a functional sculpture, in that it’s pretty to look at, but doubles as a blast shield against explosions.
Silverstein has also consulted on peripheral projects like the much-debated, long-awaited transit hub by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It’s an impressive stable he’s built for himself, something that seems to have been overshadowed by other details of one of the city’s most highly politicized real estate developments.
For those who have avoided reading business sections since the dot-com bubble—or haven’t received their 9/11 Truther starter pack—Silverstein, 84, is the elegantly besuited, tightly-coifed founder of Silverstein Properties. He has been a fixture in the world of New York real estate since he bought his first building in 1957. His evolution to new-build developer came when the Emery Roth–designed 7 World Trade Center was completed in 1986. He entered the stratum of power player when he signed a historic 99-year lease on the World Trade Center in July 2001 for $3.2 billion. But six weeks later, it was destroyed during an event that changed not only the course of Silverstein’s life, but diverted the course of human history indefinitely.
Daniel Libeskind, master planner, World Trade Center
“Larry is the quintessential New York developer. He’s a tough person, but also a person with a true commitment to doing things—not just to talking and exchanging blah-blahs. There are always challenges working with any developer, bumps along the road, conversations, even some disagreements, but at the end, I came to realize that Larry is the real thing: a believer, somebody who delivers. And most importantly, despite accounts to the contrary, he really is interested in architecture. He’s been one of the foremost collaborators on the [World Trade Center] master plan; there’ve been so many forces pulling it in various directions, but Larry’s great virtue is that, even with the Port Authority, the governor, the mayor, and all these other massive stakeholders, he’s still been able to navigate through this labyrinth. He’s been able to develop exactly what he promised. It’s been an adventure working with him, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve come to see him as a good leader—he understood the virtue of our master plan, and he’s been a great partner.” —As told to Ian Volner
In architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s book Up From Zero (2004), about the herculean trial of rebuilding the Trade Center, he succinctly sums up Silverstein’s legacy prior to his acquisition of the World Trade Center. “His greatest professional pleasure lay in the making of deals,” Goldberger writes, “and like many of his colleagues in the real-estate industry he tended to see buildings less in terms of their architectural design than in terms of their cash flow. It was not surprising, then, that Silverstein was known more for the success of his business than for the specific buildings that he owned.”
The New York Times has an online archive of all stories related to Silverstein dating back to Feb. 1985. Reporter Charles Bagli has written about his various exploits since the lease transfer in 2001, which has made Silverstein into his de facto beat. “He’d bought a bunch of buildings,” Bagli said, referring to Silverstein’s long career before the Trade Center acquisition. “He’d been well-regarded in the real estate industry, but virtually unknown to the public.”
Then who is Larry Silverstein? There isn’t one answer. He’s viewed as a hard-nosed businessman on the rational end of the spectrum, and a Sept. 11 conspirator in cahoots with the Israeli and United States governments on the you-gotta-be-kidding-me, tin-foil-hat end. (There’s a ludicrous 43-second video on YouTube—one of many—called “Larry Silverstein And How Jews Did 9-11.”) “Every time I mention Silverstein in a story, I receive these vile anti-Semitic diatribes,” Bagli says. “Delete!” He’s been analyzed by critics and the public so often, his motives questioned at every turn, and with such sundry findings, he’s as much a builder as a modern day Hedda Gabler, albeit with a better tailor. “He defines tenacious,” Bagli adds. “He has stuck through it.”
Okay, but how does a man who supposedly cares so much about the bottom line, come to assemble such an incredible pantheon of creatives to help build his towers? There’s a story there.
Jenny Holzer, artist
“As I recall, David Childs of SOM set up the introduction, and he did it very well because the [7 World Trade installation] went swimmingly from the start. I went to Larry’s office for that first meeting and everything after that, the whole process behind the project, just went disconcertingly well—I’m used to tussling over projects, but that didn’t happen here. Honestly, I’m not sounding like myself by being so positive, but it’s the truth! I worked with [his wife] Klara afterwards on the content of the piece. She and I had only one disagreement, relative to the text selection—and even that turned out to be extremely interesting and useful, because I tend to go to the dark side of things, and she and Larry were interested in this being a positive message of rebuilding rather than dwelling with the shades, as it were. Ultimately I chose a text about the excitement of coming to New York and starting one’s real life, professionally, romantically, and so on. That body of text is different from a lot of my work, but happily so.” —I.V.
On a balmy New York winter day, I met with Silverstein at his office on the 38th floor of 7 World Trade Center, which he thinks of as a prototype of sorts for every subsequent building that goes up on the 16-acre plot. It was the first building to go up after the attacks because unlike with the twin towers, there was no loss of life when the building came down. State-of-the-art security, built-to-last construction techniques, and stunning vitreous architecture are the three boxes that must be checked before breaking ground on a new project.
His office is a sight to behold. The room is long and voluminous, but because Silverstein sits next to the door, it’s easy to miss it all. He sits at his desk, beyond massive twin doors that open and close at the touch of a button on his desk. Another button raises a hatch beyond his computer screen. When it’s open, a woman pops her head in and Silverstein requests something in his inimitable low, raspy voice.
“You want something to drink?” he asks me, with the lady in the hatch waiting at attention. “Water? Coffee?”
“I’d love a coffee,” I say, as I take a seat at a round conference table next to his desk.
“Ice?” Silverstein asks.
“Iced coffee?” she confirms.
“Yes, please,” I reconfirm.
She disappears and the hatch door lowers. My order arrives a few minutes later, as Silverstein is just starting to go into a seemingly planned soliloquy about how he developed his world-class taste for art and architecture.
Bjarke Ingels, architect, 2 World Trade Center
“Speaking as a Danish immigrant coming to New York: Larry’s almost like this iconic, Walt Disney figure of Manhattan real estate to me. His father borrowed money from their neighbors and built the empire form scratch. And Larry’s so photogenic, with those impeccable big suits he’s always wearing. One of the things that’s been remarkable about our collaboration is that, on the one hand, he’s been in the business for more than half a century, so of course he’s built up certain habits and preferences that he’s very vocal about. But also, whenever you challenge him, he’s incredibly willing to experiment. When we developed the 2 World Trade Center design, he had some doubts about it, but when we shared it with the other architects who had been involved around Ground Zero—Richard Rogers, David Childs—they loved it, and Larry just turned 180 degrees on the spot. To have that kind of agility, from a man doing what he’s been doing as long as he has? That’s almost unheard of.” —I.V.
“I think back to a number of events that shape me,” he begins, “and I think the one that had the greatest impact on me as a developer was building the original 7 World Trade Center"
“I had acquired the site from the Port Authority in 1980. At that point I was 49 years of age. I designed a building the purpose of which was to give the opportunity to produce a large amount of affordable space."
“It was a very large building with 47,000-square-foot floors, which were trapezoidal in shape. The building was about 48 stories in height. Two million square feet of space. And as I built it, I fell in love with Carmen red granite as a facade material. It has this rich reddish quality to it with black elements. It was quarried in Finland and shipped to Italy where it was cut. The conclusion of it all was the building was covered in this stone.”
“It was so beautiful that I decided to use the stone at the entrance, the lobby, the toilets. When the lobby was finished I walked in and said, ‘Oh my god! It’s a mausoleum.’ I called my wife [Klara] to come down and see. She said, ‘It’s a mausoleum!’"
“She suggested finding some contemporary art to lighten it up. Al Held paintings, for instance, have lots of color and context and are quite beautiful. I looked at them and thought they would bring intensity to the space. My wife concurred. So let’s get the biggest one he’s got, I said. I had a very big wall to fill: 20 feet by 15 feet in height. It was perfect."
“Then we bought a [Roy] Lichtenstein entablature that’s 14 feet by 8 feet. We put that up on the wall and it was quite exquisite. Then we went on from there to acquire a diptych by Frank Stella and put that up on the wall. We had lots of walls.”
Robert A.M. Stern, architect, 30 Park Place
“I’ve only worked with Larry once, on the 30 Park Place project, the new Four Seasons downtown. To put it straightforwardly, it’s been a breeze, and that’s because of Larry. It’s a project that dragged on because of the money meltdown in 2007, but Larry’s always been totally supportive of my ideas; our thinking has meshed from the very beginning. Larry is somebody who rose from obscurity to become this very successful figure in real estate—which is a classic New York story—but he’s also wonderfully cultured and has strong views on and a love for opera, ballet, and art. He’s a man of multiple dimensions. Only problem is, he’s always inviting me to go on this boat. I won’t go because as soon as it pulls off—I’m just the last person you want to be on a boat with. Not even the Staten Island ferry! But that’s Larry. Not all my clients are fun, but Larry is. He’s a great citizen of New York.” —I.V.
Silverstein then mentions as an aside sculptures by Louise Nevelson and Alexander Calder, all lent by the Port Authority.
“The paintings made the lobby come to life. It was not a mausoleum anymore. It became a point of excitement,” he says. “Unfortunately, 9/11 brought the building down, and every one of the paintings was destroyed."
“Anything I was going to do in the future had to be completely different from what I’d done at the original 7 WTC.”
He says of the World Trade Center he envisions, “It will be a series of buildings that are first class. Not just from an architectural standpoint, but from [those of] safety and sustainability.” In other words, bomb-proof and beautiful.
It’s a wonder to think that a shade of Finnish marble catalyzed one of the greatest assemblies of architects and artists in history. Another story for the Silverstein legacy files in an already hefty canon. But as Charles Bagli reminds: “There is a tremendous desire to write your own version of history.”