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Meet the Superstar Architect Transforming NYC’s Skyline

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The foremost constraint involved Foster, or rather the remnants of his design. As the result of a political compromise between Silverstein and the Port Authority, Foster’s foundation had already been constructed to allow the completion of a $4 billion underground transportation hub. The rest of the tower was to be built once Silverstein secured a major anchor tenant. But James didn’t think Foster’s stodgy skyscraper suited a media company’s needs. Ingels was similarly dismissive, calling the design “a generic extrusion with a flashy hat.” Piggybacking a new skyscraper onto Foster’s foundation, however, created tricky structural problems, especially in the lobby and the lower floors, which would have to be engineered to shift the tower’s weight onto the preexisting supports. Whatever Ingels wanted to create high in the air would have to connect to what was already set deep in the ground. So, after winning over the developer and his anchor tenant, Ingels would have to convince yet another skeptical audience: Silverstein’s engineers. Ten days after Ingels’ meeting with Murdoch, I return to BIG’s offices, where everything is chaotic and half boxed; in a few days the firm is moving to a larger space. Ingels is in his usual state of chic dishevelment, his hair mussed, his face lightly browned with stubble. He digs up a marker and begins drawing on a whiteboard. “A lot of towers, as they get over a certain height, they tend toward a square footprint,” Ingels explains. This generic form is dictated by cost, marketing—uniform floor plates are easier to lease—and engineering. A skyscraper must withstand huge forces of gravity and wind. But Ingels thinks he has figured out how to shape his skyscraper differently. “We just redistributed the calories,” he says.

Ingels looks up from his board to see Ute Rinnebach, his project manager for Two World Trade Center, hurtle into the office. She is just back from meeting with the engineers.

“How did it go?” Ingels asks.

“Really bad,” Rinnebach says. “I’ve got some horrible news for you.”

Ingels’ idea for retrofitting the foundation involved shoring up walls and columns underground, in the Port Authority’s domain, which turns out to be verboten. Like a Jenga block, taking away that crucial bit of reinforcement could potentially cause the whole structural scheme to fall apart. Ingels darts across the office to consult computer models with his design team. As they start working out solutions, he goes into a meeting with a facade consultant, who delivers yet another crushing bit of news.

Ingels has some complicated ideas about how to vary the alignment of the tower’s glass panes, along with the metal mullions that separate them. To bring down the price of the facade, which consultants said was running $60 million more than Foster’s, Ingels thought that he could use a thinner product for parts of the building. But the consultant informs him that New York Police Department security standards require all facades at the World Trade Center to be laminated safety glass, which makes them heavier. “I was like, fuck!” Ingels tells me later. “Because that’s a piece of information that hadn’t reached me. I just thought I had an ace up my sleeve, which I didn’t, because the building has to be safe from explosions.”

Silverstein and Murdoch have reached a tense juncture in their bargaining, and anything departing from rote formula is being assigned a premium in construction-cost estimates. “Right now,” Ingels says, “the architecture is essentially held hostage.”

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For a few weeks, the fate of the project is very much in doubt. “It’s trying to resolve all these issues without totally bastardizing the design,” Ingels tells me one day in May. Walking briskly toward his Tribeca apartment, where he has to pack for a trip to Cannes, he says he recently received an impromptu visit from Silverstein. “He said, ‘You know, this is a historical moment, we can make this happen. We need to make this deal happen, and to do that, we need to make the design happen. There are these outstanding issues, and you, my friend, are the one who can solve them.’” The engineers were still fixated on the massing—the shape and size of the building. “At some point, everybody gets a little nervous about the whole thing,” Ingels says, “and drastic solutions go on the table.”