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Masters Research Students Study Skyscraper “Genes” and Visit the WTC Memorial Site

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By Robert Cabo, M.Arch 2014

When I signed up for the “Tall Office Towers” studio section for my graduate research class, taught by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) Design Partner Gary Haney and Design Director Aybars Asci, I knew I would be in for a learning experience unlike any other.  The academic goal of this research studio, led by one of the world’s leading architectural firms, was to create a system of what we are calling “genes” – metrics for quantitatively studying tall office buildings – that would provide a better understanding, and perhaps challenge existing preconceptions, of this building type.  These “genes” are used to measure certain efficiencies within tall office towers and we subdivided them into three categories: Spatial, Environmental, and Structural.  Further research will look at dependencies between these efficiencies through the lenses of time, performance, and adaptability.

Being taught by members of SOM aside, I did not fully appreciate how truly incredible this semester’s experience was going to be until the morning of October 31st when my fellow grad students and I were invited to New York to visit SOM’s Manhattan office, followed up by a tour of the World Trade Center construction site.  The visit to the firm began with a lecture on the intricacies of curtain wall design and manufacturing by SOM architect and specialist Benjamin Reich.  Understanding precisely what goes into the process of using a curtain wall on a building from inception to execution was something not many of us fully considered prior to Benjamin’s comprehensive presentation. Following the lecture, SOM Design Director Aybars Asci walked us through the firm’s office, located in Manhattan’s financial district, and briefly explained several of the current projects on which the firm has been working.
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After the firm tour, SOM employee Marta Nowak took us to meet Ken Lewis, a managing director at SOM, who lead us on a private tour of the World Trade Center (WTC) construction site.  After sharing a few anecdotes about the history of the site after its conception, Ken led us underground into the zone of construction that will eventually become the new WTC Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) Transportation Hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava.  Walking through this $3.2 billion project in the making, we began to understand the intricacies that are going into its construction – the massive custom-made steel structural members, the unbelievable underground span they create and the many different aspects of the project being completed simultaneously.

From the Transportation Hub, we made our way into the base of the tower that is 1WTC.  Ascending the tower via the fastest service elevator in the country was an incredible experience, and I am confident that most of the group were grateful that we weren’t going up almost 1,300 feet by way of the open air construction elevator temporarily attached to the side of the tower.  After reaching the 100th floor, we were able to breach the building’s unfinished envelope and stand on the platform above the construction elevator, where fear took a back seat to complete awe.

At this height, the surrounding skyscrapers were completely dwarfed and the entire island of Manhattan and it surroundings were visible.  Previous visitors to the tower signed their names to a wall on the egress core and we were invited to do the same. It was a special moment, leaving our mark on this monumental and historic structure.

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The final leg of the tour consisted of a slow, contemplative walk through the construction zone underneath the WTC Memorial site, which will end up being a museum dedicated to the original towers.  Being able to walk along the original foundation slab aside original foundation walls, seeing pieces of structure and even vehicles destroyed on September 11th, 2001 was a somber, yet powerful experience.  A quote by Virgil was posted on one the lobby walls reading “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” – It was fairly clear to see what an incredible space this is going to be in the future for friends and family of victims, along with Americans in general, to be able to pay homage to those who lost their lives on that harrowing day.  While meandering through the space, something my classmate, Veronika Ortega, said really resonated with me: “It’s really incredible to know that something this amazing could have come from something so tragic.”

Overall, the amount of the construction site we were given access to exceeded all of our expectations.  Being given the opportunity to see the progress of this project, and understanding all too well the significance of the site was an experience that I will treasure on both a personal and professional level.