Author finds One World Trade Center a witness to nation's spirit

IMAGE: CNS photo/Joe Woolhead

By Beth Griffin

MAMARONECK, N.Y. (CNS) — Fifteen years after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks decimated the twin towers
in lower Manhattan, the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center rises out of the
ground, a palpable symbol of triumph and optimism. The tallest skyscraper in
the Western Hemisphere is the soaring, storied, centerpiece of a 16-acre complex
that includes eight other major structures.

“It’s a secular site encoded
with multiple symbols of faith, hope and love,” said Judith Dupre, author of the
recently published “One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building.” The
volume is a detailed, illustrated exploration of the political, structural and
aesthetic forces that clashed, combined and coalesced before the building opened
in October 2014.

Dupre, a Catholic raised in
Rhode Island and an architectural historian and best-selling author of lushly
illustrated works of narrative non-fiction, spoke to Catholic News Service Aug.
30 at her home in Mamaroneck, a suburb north of New York. She said she was the
only writer given unfettered access by the Port Authority of New York and New
Jersey to its site and archives. The Port Authority is principal owner of One
World Trade Center.

The nine-building complex is
primarily a commercial site, but includes the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Liberty
Park and the not-yet-completed St.
Nicholas National Shrine of the Orthodox Church.

“It’s impossible to be on those
16 acres and not remember what transpired there,” Dupre said. “We all
hold the falling towers in vivid imagination. The new structures are part of a
continuum that began on 9/11 and embody a message of faith in the future.”

The 104-story One World Trade Center required
nimble solutions to complex technical, political and security considerations,
Dupre explained. She described its structure as “a hybrid system consisting of
a concrete core wrapped in a muscular steel perimeter frame that was designed
to redistribute gravity loads in the event of an explosion or natural

In addition to the challenges of
engineering the strongest, safest building possible, developers and the public demanded
an attractive, symbolic skyscraper. What they got, Dupre said, is a massive
reflective tower that manages to stand both tall and humble. “It had to stand
for everything that was lost on 9/11 and reclaimed in the years that followed,”
she added.

Dupre described One World Trade
Center as deceptively simple-looking.

“The 13,000 glass windows are
nearly all unique, but from a distance they look like a single piece of glass. It’s
not a tower that reveals itself quickly. It demands patience and engagement.
The design is subtle and richly experiential. The more you look at it, the more
you see,” she said.

“In many ways, building One
World Trade was comparable to building a medieval cathedral,” Dupre continued.
“Cathedrals were always the most prominent element on the skyline and marked
the heart of a city or town. There’s a sense that great height is a way to
express great devotion.”

The building is not meant to be
a secular cathedral, Dupre cautioned, but the effort dedicated to its
construction makes it a cathedral to the spirit of the nation, she said. And
the 50-foot high marble-clad lobby adds to the effect.

While researching the book, Dupre
interviewed some of the 26,000 people who worked on One World Trade Center.

“Without being asked, each
person first shared their personal story of 9/11 and described what compelled
them to rebuild. It was a deeply moving ritual and gave me the sense that they
were doing the work for something greater than themselves,” she said.

Dupre was particularly impressed
with an ironworker who described his daily routine during a snowy month. “He
carried a shovel to his post on a 10-inch-wide steel beam 1,000 feet above the ground,
shoveled snow off the beam into a dumpster and then used a blow torch to melt
any lingering ice before he started the day’s work,” she said.

The entire project was built
over existing below-grade infrastructure and curving rail lines that remained
operational throughout construction.

“The below-ground site is eight
stories deep and has commercial square footage equivalent to ten mid-sized
cities,” Dupre said. “Underground is a Rubik’s cube of interdependent
structures that share walls and ceilings. I found the image of elements sharing
and leaning on one another down there a hopeful contrast to the turf feuds that
went on above ground during the planning process,” she said.

Myriad delays throughout the project
reflected political compromises and the enormous amount of money devoted to the
redevelopment, Dupre said. Nonetheless, the process was determinedly democratic
and some of the delays could be attributed to the time-consuming effort of
listening because “so many people cared so much,” she said.

Dupre holds a master of divinity
degree from Yale University. Among her earlier works are “Skyscrapers,”
“Churches” and “Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life.”

She considers her writing a form
of lay ministry. Through compassionate listening, extensive research and
faithful rendering of the building’s development, she tried to capture the
tremendous kindness and goodwill present at the site. It’s a way to bring the
good word to people who yearn for meaning, yet do not consider themselves
religious, she said.

“I understand that rebuilding is
a way to heal,” she said. “One World Trade Center will never bring
back loved ones and what was lost, but it stands as a symbol of hope,
resilience and faith in the future.”

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Note: “One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building” by Judith Dupre is
published by Little Brown and Co.

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