Creating Communities in the Sky

Creating Communities in the Sky

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that destroyed New York’s Twin Towers, architects and urban designers began to ask a question that had seemed unthinkable in the new millennium. Had the era of the skyscraper – that singular feat of human engineering and cultural symbol of the modern city – come to an end?

More than a decade later, just the opposite is true: The destruction of the towers actually ushered in a new chapter of innovative tall building design and led to a resurgence of interest in high-rise structures around the world. No project exemplifies that new energy more powerfully thanOne World Trade Center – an eight-year, 3.5-million-sf project led by architectural project managerKenneth Lewis BArch 83, a director at the New York offices of Skidmore, Owings& Merrill LLP.

This spring, as the tower at the center of the new World Trade Center complex surpassed the height of the Empire State Building (1250’) and became the tallest building in New York City, Lewis was spending part of each week at RISD, working with fellow alumnusJack Ryan BArch 00 to co-teach anArchitecture studio on a subject he literally knows from foundation to spire.

Model by Alex Diaz MArch 13

The Tall Building Studio challenged students to explore the possibilities and limitations inherent in high-rise structures and to design a site-specific tall building – one that would respond to its surrounding streetscape and operate as an upward extension of the city rather than an isolated object unto itself. The site Lewis and Ryan proposed is directly adjacent to and part ofTrinity Church, a historic Episcopal church that dates back to 1697 and sits one block south of the World Trade Center complex.

“The studio focuses on a portion of Lower Manhattan that has remarkable characteristics,” Lewis explains. “It’s a very narrow site, it sits at the edge of two different worlds and it includes many different constituencies that change over time – a nursery school, a concert program, offices, outreach programs that do work in places all around the world, along with the usual elements of a major international church and its communal areas.

The site presented a complex design challenge all its own, not just because of Trinity’s historic significance and its proximity to the World Trade Center, but because of its place in a larger financial district that remains in flux. “What’s compelling about this site and this studio,” Lewis says, “is that the students find themselves at a historical moment when Lower Manhattan is going through a transition from being a 9-to-5 environment to one that’s a 24-hour environment.”

One of the questions students confronted in the studio is one that heavily informs Lewis’ own practice: “Can there be a community in the sky when you don’t know the other occupants of the building and you don’t see them?” Lewis says. “That’s not a sociological exercise. That’s a design exercise.”

If the One World Trade Center tower is a structure that memorializes the past while signaling the future, Lewis has also found himself suspended between the past and the future in returning to RISD. “Ironically, I find myself teaching in a studio that is directly adjacent to the visiting critics studio I had as a junior,” he says. “It was taught byEduardo Leston and also involved a challenging cultural project that linked two districts. Somehow the ghosts of my past have returned and I feel a great responsibility to the students to bring that knowledge and that particular way of looking and making to this studio. It’s so much a part of what I took from RISD, and what I carry with me still.”

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