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One World Trade Center: Super-skyscraper and place of quiet -contemplation and -retreat

In a city of more than 750 skyscrapers, One World Trade Center is a singular building. It is not only a skyscraper, but a supertall skyscraper, one of just eight that are more than 1,000 feet in height in New York City, according to real estate data provider Emporis. It is also not only the tallest building in the city, ascending to 1,776 feet – symbolizing the year of America’s independence – but the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.

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While it is one of the more recent additions – having opened four years ago this month (November) – One World Trade Center’s presence on the New York City skyline is unmistakable: a striking eight-sided glass tower composed of a series of elongated isosceles triangles and crowned by a 408-foot spire.

And in a chaotic metropolis of more than 8 million people who are always in hurry-up mode, it is also a public place where one can seek refuge. 

There is no escape from the hustle and bustle of New York City – without actually leaving it – quite like standing atop a skyscraper, surveying the city from above the clouds. One World Trade Center is one of only three skyscrapers in New York City with observatories open to the public – 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the Empire State Building, both in midtown Manhattan, being the other two.

But One World Trade Center’s location in Lower Manhattan is a welcome change from the midtown’s concrete jungle, where the majority of New York City’s skyscrapers are concentrated. Down here, the streets are less densely packed, with fewer people and fewer tall buildings, so there is more open space to take a breath, slow one’s pace and be alone with one’s thoughts. 

This sense of peacefulness is further accentuated by the water that surrounds the southern tip of the island – the East River to the east, the Hudson River to the west. For a visitor staring down from the observatory on the 100th-102nd floors of One World Trade Center, the water is a soothing, calming presence. Indeed, speaking feels unnecessary, or even distracting, as one takes in the panoramic views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey, and as well as live video views of the streets below, via a 14-foot-wide circular disc known as the Sky Portal. 

Looking down, it is impossible to ignore the memorial plaza, with its footprints of the original Twin Towers that were destroyed during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, along more than 2,600 lives. Even if a visitor were to have no personal connection to that darkest of days, the gravity of the deadliest terrorist incident in history would be scarcely lost.

For those that were in New York City or lost a loved one on 9/11, visiting One World Trade Center can be much more emotional and personal. I am part of the first group, and for me, coming here triggers a blur of haunting images: both towers on fire against an eerily vivid blue sky; the terrifying rumble of the ground in Tribeca as the south tower collapsed; sirens blaring; people crying; and later, the massive pile of rubble that continued to smoke for weeks; the missing persons’ flyers that blanketed the city and every train station in the metropolitan area for months.

One World Trade Center undeniably pays tribute to the original World Trade Center, matching the size of its footprint to that of each of the Twin Towers, and the height of its observation deck to that of the former north tower. It is only from up above that one can see the full scale of the Twin Towers’ footprints, each about an acre in size, and fully grasp the enormity of loss.  

Yet the memorial, called “Reflecting Absence,” is meant to be seen up close. The powerful presence of water is all-encompassing as the visitor stands before two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools set within the footprints. More than 400 swamp white oak trees – and a single Callery pear tree that survived the 9/11 attacks, known as the “Survivor Tree” – surround the reflecting pools, providing a buffer from the outside world. As designers Michael Arad and Peter Walker, explained in their statement on the memorial: “Descending into the memorial, visitors are removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness. As they proceed, the sound of water falling grows louder, and more daylight filters in from below.” 

Indeed, the pools allow visitors to pause and reflect, literally and figuratively; as they walk along the pools, they will see the names of 9/11 victims inscribed into the bronze parapets surrounding the pools. Some bear a single flower or mini American flag, inserted into the grooves of the etched letters – reminders that many of the victims’ bodies were never found. These pools, in effect, are the only places for their friends and family to grieve and pay their respects.

Of the many thoughts that can cross a person’s mind when visiting One World Trade Center, the sentiment that prevails is that while one can’t replace what has been lost, one can rebuild. The skyscraper and its predecessor towers are forever and inextricably linked, representing both pain and resilience, destruction and rebirth, despair and hope. They are integral parts of a whole, the past, present and future, one and the same.

EVELYN LEE was born in New York City but grew up in New Jersey. Some of her earliest childhood memories of New York City are of the original Twin Towers, which also served as a commuter hub for people like her mother, whom she would sometimes accompany to work during summer breaks. Evelyn is news editor at PERE, which covers the private equity real estate industry globally. 

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