Like Philippe Petit’s breathtaking high-wire walk between the newly-opened Twin Towers in 1974, brilliantly documented in James Marsh’s Man On Wire, the task of conceiving a visual identity for the new World Trade Center in Manhattan looks like a hazardous balancing act.
The dizzying challenge of reconciling the views and competing interests of a legion of stakeholders – the landlords and building owners, public authorities, 9/11 victims’ family groups – is just the start of it. Also to be accommodated are conflicting ideas of what the WTC site is and what it should be, and the need to look forward to a prosperous, peaceful future while acknowledging a past that will haunt these 16 acres forever. The World Trade Center (WTC) identity that was quietly unveiled in August was bound to get a buffeting from public opinion. But it seems to have pulled off the high-wire act and remained intact.
It’s worth saying, the WTC needed a symbol. Its identity was shared by the city: the Twin Towered skyline lives on in the popular consciousness and like a ghost on the shopfronts of many New York businesses (and is preserved by Ji Lee at the WTC Logo Project wtclogo.com). A new, less iconic skyline will replace it, but the new WTC logo offers another kind of symbol to occupy some of the space of the old icon, one whose importance goes beyond the badging of signs, entrances, kiosks, uniforms and marketing bumph.
It’s part of the process of making sense of things; the desire to restore meaning to a place where rationality was shattered. It’s worth considering the zeal with which the US press seized the logo upon its discovery on hoardings at the WTC site, and hungrily deconstructed it for a host of possible significances. With Landor Associates apparently gagged by its client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it’s unsure which of these are actually intended. First off, most observers agreed, it’s a ‘W’: standing for both World Trade Center and the Westfield shopping centre due to open there in 2015. The five main columns, journalists speculated, signify the five new buildings on the site, although the two lower oblongs may also denote the pools of the September 11 Memorial.
For some observers, the two columns of negative space in the upper half represent the twin beams of the annual Tribute in Light – or the absence of the towers that fell. Some saw in the design a trident – a signature architectural motif from the Twin Towers’ facades. Meanwhile, the angle of slope of the upper bars was measured at 17.76 degrees (count those hundredths of a degree), reflecting the 1776 ft height of the highest tower, One World Trade Center, and of course the date of American independence.
However much of this we choose to read into it, the mark brings to mind both great presence and great absence, somewhere rising, undaunted, and a sense of the site’s past and future. Its combination of positive and negative recalls an Escher-esque logo designed for the WTC by Herb Lubalin’s studio in the early 70s, apparently never used – maybe because it suggests the absence of a tower alongside its presence. Although it holds meaning, nothing in the Landor mark is overt or obvious; we’re not told how to feel. It treads a fine line with considerable finesse.
It’s the latest in a series of identities for different WTC entities that tell their own story of mourning, recovery and anticipation. Five years ago, Landor was responsible for the equally economical and eloquent mark for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, whose twin bars of sky blue have found a positive reflection in the columns of the WTC logo. Absence was also the sole theme of the mark by Arnell Group and Lance Wyman for the 9/11 Tribute Center: two solid squares, or Ground Zero’s tower footprints (whose position relative to each other later had to be adjusted, following complaints, to accurately reflect that of the Twin Towers).
Today, identities for the new commercial office buildings on the site are equally single-minded. London-based Wordsearch controversially won the job of branding One WTC, the 104-storey centrepiece of the site. “From the outset we were very clear that our task was to assist with the leasing of 3 million sq ft of office space, and not to memorialise 9/11,” says Matt Flynn of Wordsearch.
“Context is of course an enormous challenge with this project. But while remaining sensitive to history, we must not be relentlessly overshadowed by it. Our strategy therefore was to focus on the importance of the building as a piece of real estate.”
Even here, time moves on.