I’m trying hard not to think about this day, five years ago, in Manhattan. Nor the days immediately following. Those were among the worst experiences of my life, being so close (but very luckily, far away enough) to the events. But the whole thing gets replayed by the media every year, and so it is hard to avoid some aspects of it. Besides the memorials -which are absolutely the right thing to do of course- there are endless discussions of how to combat terrorism, the “War on Terror” (in its current configuration, little to do with the first), and what seems to me to be a growing volume of chatter about the conspiracy theory that the whole world trade center site was demolished by construction engineers working for the government. or other organisation with unscrupulous motives. The latter point, when put to me, is usally along the lines of “you’re a scientist – doesn’t the collapse look suspicious to you?”. My only thought on this matter is “How many 7+ skyscraper complexes have we seen collapse before?”. This is not an argument in itself, but just my way of saying “it’s not that simple”.


world trade center site overviewWhat I really wanted to write about was something about the events, or their aftermath, that had at least of glimmer of something positive about it, and maybe a science connection. I think I found it. You may know that there’s already been a huge amount of work on the reconstruction of the site, starting with a lot of jostling among superpowered architects for the main tower complex and memorial site. (I recall the lovely exhibits of the architects’ proposals near the site. It was open to the public, and there were models and animations showing all the ideas. The public’s opinion was sought – although I’m not sure it was actually listened to in the end. But it was a great exercise. Personally, I think that they should have chosen the design of [Lex Luthor] Norman Foster, for its mathematical beauty and (apparent) structural integrity, but I understand that there were other issues. In any event, with the new tweaks to the overall scheme, I think that the new plan is rather good now, and there’s a lovely Norman Foster design (tower 2), a Richard Rogers (tower 3) design, and a Fumihiko Maki (tower 4), all featuring prominently. Uh.. the Lex Luthor reference is to Foster’s outfit at the time of his presentation… all in black with 60s supervillain black turtleneck, and shaven head.)

The work has gone well beyond choosing architechts and the like. Actual construction has happened. The new “7 World Trade Center” has already been completed, and I noticed that among the new tenants will be the New York Academy of Sciences. I’m very happy about this, and I don’t quite know why. Among the contributing factors are, I expect, the fact that I used to spend my summers in New York back then making good use of some of the wonderful academic institutions that there are in the city. This includes the excellent libraries at Columbia University, especially the lovely Butler library, but also includes some truly majestic spaces such as the Rose reading room at the New York Public Library. I wrote some of my book there.

I just love the fact that there are so many great institutions of that kind in New York, and so it almost brings tears to my eyes to read that among the first tenants in this newly reborn part of the city will be the New York Academy of Sciences. (They signed the first lease, but they will move in second.) They will have quite a lovely setting, I hear. The building itself, (designed by the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, lead architect David Childs) has been meticulously well thought out in the light of the lessons learned from the previous tower and surrounding ones. There’s been a great deal of effort to integrate the latest ideas in design of urban city-scapes (e.g., the flow of Greenwich street has been restored), and there’s been a remarkable amount of use of modern science and technology to make it integrate with the environment, both in terms of energy use, and for aestheic purposes. I should just point you to this article I found, although I’ll quote a bit. The base of the building will hide the primary electricity substation for the area, which is an ugly behemoth, and so it is covered with a wall. They wanted to do something with this wall:

Childs sought out Carpenter, a sculptor and architect whose designs have summoned effects from the characteristics of light.

The substation problem came down to one question for Carpenter: “How do you turn an absorptive concrete block,” he asked, “into a reflective, emotive surface?”

Carpenter’s solution was to design asculptural installation for the base of the building, “a stainless-steel scrim that is animated with light,” he said, visually shifting naturally by day with the changing light conditions, and artificially at night with programmed illumination sequences using light-emitting diodes (LEDs). At the same time, the wall could also second as a porous ventilator for the hidden vaults of the three-story transformers, dissipating their heat.

And so, the wall is built of elegantly polished and machined 15-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide panels—each weighing 1500 pounds—of precisely crafted, high-precision triangular steel prism bars set in innerand outer rows.

During the day, these 130,000 prisms reflect ambient light and make the wall anactive surface, capturing the sky in different directions, since the prism sections are set off by 15 degrees from each other. “The wall creates a moiré effect that moves by you, as if you are walking past stretched silk,” Childs said.

At night, on the north and south walls, 220,000 blue and white LEDs illuminate the wall of prisms from within, subtly reflecting off the steel and into the street. The diodes are easy to maintain, and give off little heat. At night, 12 motion-sensing cameras are programmed to follow passers-by, marking their passage in columns of multistory blue light on a white ground.

That sounds simply lovely, I have to say. There’s a lot more to be read in the article. Let’s turn to the Academy’s space. They’ll be on the 40th floor. The space was designed by Hugh Hardy’s firm H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. (Hardy was, incidentally, the designer who’s firm (not this one) had renovated the Windows on the World restaurant in Tower One, some years before it fell.) From an article in The New York Observer Real Estate , I learned:

The new offices provide state-of-the-art office and conferencing facilities for groups as small as 30 and as big as 300. Design flourishes include custom-designed red carpet woven with a representation of the DNA double helix and photographic panels that contain enlarged images of the natural environment as seen through an electron microscope.

new york academy of sciences floor shotnew york academy interiorThere are several other features that I heard about and I’m trying to find more web links. On the right is a photo of some the space (I got it from the article mentioned immediately above – click for larger), and you can see the carpet, and what might be a painting of Newton or some other grandly bewigged fellow. Click on the thumbnail on the left for an interior I borrowed from the design firm’s site.


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3 Responses to Seven

  1. a cornellian says:

    Finally, a post on this topic that does not make my stomach hurt…

    may I ask why you were in the city?

  2. Clifford says:


    New York was my Summer base of operations over the course of several years. Being a theorist, it was easy to relocate my work to there for several months…. especially made easy by there being great librarcy spaces and cafes to work in.


  3. Fred Ross says:

    I would be dejected that the NYAS is moving farther away from me (I’m at Rockefeller, so it’s only a few blocks away right now), but I’m moving to Switzerland before then. Ah well.

    Are there actually conspiracy theories about the collapse of the buildings? My father, who’s a structural engineer (his idea of a good time is simulating hydrodynamics of boat hulls or calculating strains in bridges and roofs) got intrigued and spent a few hours going over the collapse right after it happened. His verdict was that the towers behaved exactly as they were supposed to: the outer curtain was trashed, but the inner core which contained the emergency stairs actually held reasonably well. So as far as the state of engineering for designing such tall buildings goes, they were a success.

    Your point about how many buildings this tall we’ve seen collapse is relevant though: the codes weren’t set down by omniscient beings, just a bunch of engineers scratching their heads and trying to set some common sense limits.