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Raise High the Roof Beam, Donald

You don't have to like Donald Trump to know that he's right about the World Trade Center.

By 5.20.05

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NEW YORK -- "If the Statue of Liberty was destroyed, you wouldn't replace it with the Eiffel Tower," Donald Trump said at a Wednesday morning press conference in New York. You certainly wouldn't replace it with the Freedom Tower.

Trump is proposing an 11th-hour scrapping of the plans for the World Trade Center site, specifically the much-maligned Freedom Tower, in favor of what he calls Twin Towers II. His idea is just what it sounds like -- a rebuilding of the original towers, a bit higher for good measure, with enhanced safety features. His timing is terribly late and his motives unclear, but his aim is true. Who would have thought that nearly four years after the attacks of September 11, Donald Trump would represent New York's last chance for a dignified redevelopment of Ground Zero?

Trump says that he wants to build "a taller, stronger, more beautiful version of the Twin Towers." He also says, more memorably, that the Freedom Tower is "the worst pile of crap architecture I've ever seen in my life." Given that Trump is an authority on crap, his assessment carries weight, but more importantly his view of the Freedom Tower is widely shared. Beyond its creator, the German architect Daniel Libeskind, few are in love with the monstrosity that is the Freedom Tower. Trump describes it aptly as a "skeleton," and it does have the appearance of a starved-out, postmodern pastiche of a skyscraper, or a sort of nightmare architectural vision of America conquered by the European Union. For those who point out that the original Twin Towers themselves were hardly an aesthetic ideal, the Freedom Tower reminds us of how much worse things can get.

Trump's plan was completed nearly two years ago, but most people are hearing about it now for the first time. The idea itself dates back to the day the towers were destroyed. Almost immediately, there were voices urging that they be rebuilt. But just as many, or more, saw an opportunity to build something new on the site, and still others argued that replacing the towers would constitute disrespect to the dead, one of those non sequiturs that becomes accepted if repeated often enough. The "put 'em back up" caucus never had much of a chance. Now, just at the moment when the design for the Freedom Tower has been sent back for adjustments due to security concerns voiced by the NYPD, Trump has stepped into the breach. Being Trump, he arouses speculation about his motives.

Some allege that Trump's press conference was nothing more than a promotional stunt to hype the series finale of his TV show, The Apprentice, which aired last night, and on the set of which Trump displayed a model of Twin Towers II. If he were really serious about redevelopment, they say, he would have made a major public push for Twin Towers II a long time ago. It is odd that Trump, who has become a television star in no small part due to his reputation (however stylized) as a can-do entrepreneur, would choose to advocate a proposal that has virtually no chance of adoption. It would take many more problems with the Freedom Tower and a massive demonstration of public sentiment to reverse the course of the planning now.

My own guess is that, vanity aside, Trump detests and is offended by the Freedom Tower. As the moment for its construction approaches, he has tossed out one last alternative. The city would have benefited if he had become disgusted sooner. He is a vivid example of how a man can be egomaniacal, tacky, vain, self-seeking, manipulative...and correct.

At this late stage of the redevelopment process, trying to divine Trump's motives is beside the point. Whatever minuscule hope exists for ditching the Freedom Tower design resides with his proposal. If by some miracle Trump's bluff is called, he would surely answer. And he would have a good deal of public support in proceeding.

Earlier this year, New York was afflicted with Christo's The Gates, which for two weeks made Central Park look like nothing so much as a construction site. The Gates were ugly, garish, and intimidating, but temporary. Barring some extraordinary developments, the Freedom Tower will soon become a fixture of the Manhattan skyline, a reminder of the success of terrorism in permanently altering our living space -- as if 3,000 dead isn't permanent alteration enough. That has always seemed like too much to concede, but even if one felt differently, the Freedom Tower is not the building to make the concession with.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump's proposal is New York's last chance to fire Daniel Libeskind.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.