Q:

Hi Danny.

Danny:

How are you?

Q:

I’ll start off by asking where were you on 9/11 and what were your memories of that day?

Danny:

I was downtown in Manhattan that day and my memories are fairly horrible. I watched the buildings come down, I was running northbound for my life, like a lot of other people. My home was attacked, my sense of what is New York or what is my home was irrevocably transformed that day and in the subsequent weeks to follow. It was an incredibly traumatic time.

Q:

Obviously when something traumatic happens to a city it does leave a scar both metaphorically and physically. There are a lot of cultural and emotional considerations of developing the site and as you say, it was a very hard thing to have done and took a long time to come to fruition. What do you think the main difficulties were with the actual site itself, from an engineering point of view and an architect’s point of view?

Danny:

I think you can look at it a couple of different ways. I think just in terms of the sheer engineering complexity, you have one on the largest construction sites in New York City in one of the most complex areas. You have an incredibly complicated programme, from transportation to city infrastructure, so retail, commercial, as well as multiple different subway and path trains. And there’s also the added complexity of cultural beliefs being added, memorial buildings, recreational, so it’s just a very complicated project. And that’s saying nothing of course of the real challenge, which is the symbolism. The emotional content.

I mean when you have real estate developers and you have widows and politicians and bureaucrats and architects told to come together to find a single solution and do it in the wake of a horrific, traumatic event, that’s very difficult. People often complain about how long things have taken and I think there are two sides to the coin. I think number one, it’s really big and it’s really hard and it’s really complicated and also it’s really hidden. It’s underground. For the better part of a decade the work they were doing was 100 feet below Manhattan at bedrock.

People generally think buildings rise from the sidewalk, but they don’t. So much was going on well below the surface and well behind the fence that no one could see; there was the sense that nothing was happening when in fact there was. And on the other side this is not the kind of project that you rush to a single solution and you just start building.

Q:

I was trying to think about it in terms of what the build had to deliver: something beautiful and something functional, while including the memorial and the history that’s behind it. In terms of the design of the buildings – in light of all the sensitivities and the potential future threats, what do you think the most innovative feature that’s come out of the buildings that you can think of?

Danny:

Well I think innovation doesn’t have to only be technological. I mean for sure there are things being done in Tower One that have never been done to a tower before, for obvious reasons. You know it must learn from its tragic past, right? So certainly the fact that the building is lofted 200 feet in the air and on top of a podium that is wrapped in concrete is a very atypical solution for a building. But what comes with that is the challenge of not making paranoid architecture, not living in bunkers.

David Childs, the architect of Tower One, most eloquently said that in the wake of 9/11 the initial response was to move our embassies to the suburbs and build them out of steel and concrete, and begin living a somewhat paranoid, frightened life. But I don’t think that’s who we are as Americans. The spirit of how we rebuild is a very literal, concrete example of I think our ambitions as a country. So yes, we must protect the building and put it up in the air, but at the same time it has to be transparent, it has to be open, it has to represent the democratic ideals that this site is hopefully going to proffer. So you have this amazing glass on the building that is of course shatterproof and very, very strong, but it’s also incredibly transparent.

When you look at this building at night you’re going to see through it and see everything, which is very different if you remember from the original towers which had this perimeter structure that in many ways felt like an obelisk, it felt like a closed off fortress. So there’s innovation in that regard. There are also more subtle innovations and more symbolic innovations where when you look at Tower One, from some angles it has the exact silhouette of the original towers and then from other angles it resembles the Washington Monument. So the way the geometry tapers makes it both a more efficient office building, but also gives it this amazing kind of perceptual phenomenological power to transform before your eyes and have a kind of an eternal relationship to its past, right. It’s never forgetting the previous towers, but also trying to improve upon them. So it’s a pretty fascinating building and, all the while on top of doing all these amazing symbolic and engineering gymnastics, it also has to become a singular icon for our city. You’re building the tallest building in American history. You know without question that’s going become kind of that icon.

Q:

Absolutely, the buildings are full of superlatives in terms of it is the highest building in American history, the amount of concrete poured and the amount of steel being used. But I often think that with architecture it’s some of the little details that really bring them to life. Are there any of the smaller things that you’ve kind of noticed or were aware of in the plans that translate the buildings into a more human scale?

Danny:

Sure. When you look at a skyscraper I think there’s always two ways you have to analyse it. You have to think about it on the urban scale, how it meets the sky. And you have to think about it at the pedestrian scale, how does the building meet the ground? Tower One has a unique challenge and I think a unique opportunity. Because it is wrapped in three foot six amazing concrete walls to make it protective at ground level you are now forced to have a building where its lobby has no windows, which is a fairly problematic situation. Because we think of all famous glass skyscrapers, of course in London you have so many amazing ones and they all tend to have the beautiful glass bases where you can bring people in and let light in.

Well they have a challenge here. So the solution to maintain their sense of openness is to wrap this podium in amazing glass that will have a sense of the building’s geometry worked into it that as you move around the building, because of the way the glass turns, the building will kick off sort of prismatic light and change colour.

The idea is as you move around the building the building’s responding to you, almost like a specific experience. There’s a sense of engagement at ground level that I think will make for a kind of an amazing small public space at the base of the building, which you don’t often have. With New York City skyscrapers, you don’t tend to hang out in front of a skyscraper. But this one will have this amazing park in front of it, which is an interesting detail designed to make the buildings feel welcoming and I think it will be a kind of a great place to be.

Q:

I know architects over here, if you had the chance to design maybe one of the buildings different or do something different with the site, what would it have been?

Danny:

I have to demure on that question because frankly as a designer, but also as someone whose career is based on a kind of architectural documentary film making, it’s very easy to show films about that which could have been built, or that which would have been built. But I think it’s a lot more challenging to actually deal with: this is what they’re building, that’s already been decided, how can we extract the most meaning from it?

I think so often architecture is just there, you’ll kind of walk past it and don’t pay attention to it. So I’d almost rather say that in this case what they built is good, there is a lot of good stuff happening with it and there’s a lot more you can learn about it by digging into it. I’m sorry to avoid the question but I do really think that, whether we like it or not, they chose the design and I think it’s a really, really good design and I think the best thing that I can do, in terms of my role in all of this, is to bring as much attention to the details of that which is being built.

Q:

You know it’s a really wonderful film. And I know that the access of Port Authorities allowed you to have to be able to film things that we wouldn’t normally have been able to film, is that right?

Danny:

I worked for nine months lobbying them before we were able to agree on doing this. And yeah, actually we’re one of three film crews who have ever really been let inside and so yeah, most of the stuff in the show no one’s ever seen before.

Q:

Tell me a little about the people who are actually in the film?

Danny:

You know the people in the film are very interesting. I think what you’re going to see in the film is that there are a dedicated group of people who, for the better part of ten years, have really put their entire lives on hold in order to work on this site. I hope people will see this because many folks don’t know this but there are people who come to ground zero, become involved in ground zero and they never leave. It’s a beautiful thing. I mean you’re going to meet someone who came down to the site on 9/11, on that Tuesday, to look for his brother and he stayed there for nine months looking for his brother and he never found him. There’s a plumber, working on the fountains to bring the water to the memorial pools and he’s building his mother’s memorial because his mother was in the tower that day. You’ll also find people whose fathers worked on the original World Trade Centre and now they as young iron workers, young construction workers, are building back that tower. So there’s incredible history that I think people don’t know about, tied to this place.

Q:

How was Steven Spielberg involved in the project as executive producer?
Danny:

He’s obviously one the greatest filmmakers of our generation and when you think about his films, at least when I think about his films, I think the humanity of the characters, the way in which the individual characters can be the driving force in his story telling. And I think he was very influential with us in helping us find those human stories and this is a story about construction, about rising skyscrapers, but I hope it’s seen through the lens of people, through their humanity, through their stories. And I think that would be, for me at least, the kind of the individual vision that he brought to this.

Q:

Thanks Danny.

Danny:

Thanks.



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Find out more about Danny Forster on his official website.