Tallest building council decision pushed back to next week

By Blair Kamin Cityscapes

For months now, skyscraper buffs have awaited a ruling from a little-known Chicago-based group that will settle whether New York’s One World Trade Center or Chicago’s Willis Tower has bragging rights as the nation’s tallest building.

They’re going to have to wait a little longer.

The height committee of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat was expected to announce a decision Friday on the arcane technical question of whether One World Trade Center’s mast should be considered a spire or a broadcast antenna. That will determine if the skyscraper’s official height is 1,776 feet, about 325 feet taller than Willis.

But while the committee still plans to meet Friday afternoon and will hear from speakers including David Childs, One World Trade Center’s architect, the organization has postponed an announcement of its sure-to-be-controversial decision until next week.

“We want to get the communication of that (discussion) and the decision of the committee correct,” the executive director, Antony Wood, said Monday. He declined to specify a day when the ruling, which will be made behind closed doors, will be revealed.

The council’s decision will be closely watched, especially in New York, where many observers consider it unlikely — and unthinkable — that an obscure, Chicago-based organization of architects, engineers, developers and building owners would disrupt a politically charged feature of architect Daniel Libeskind’s master plan to replace the destroyed twin towers.

Libeskind called for a 1,776-foot skyscraper, symbolizing the year the Declaration of Independence was adopted and an expression of American resolve in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet controversy flared over One World Trade Center’s height after the Durst Organization, which is co-developing the tower with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, eliminated an ornamental, fiberglass and steel covering for the skyscraper’s 408-foot mast.

The move raised eyebrows at the council, which has offices at the Illinois Institute of Technology and is the widely recognized arbiter of official height rulings. The council counts ornamental spires as part of a building’s height on the grounds that they are integral to a building’s design. But flagpoles and broadcast antennas are considered superfluous add-ons. They don’t count.

If the mast atop One World Trade Center were to be deemed a broadcast antenna, the building’s official height would drop to 1,368 feet, or roughly 83 feet shorter than Willis. That would allow Willis to keep promoting itself as the tallest building in the nation and the Western Hemisphere — a boon for attracting tourists to its observation deck.

Underscoring what’s at stake, Port Authority representatives will join architect Childs, a designer at the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to make their case Friday to the height committee, which has about 25 members from around the world.

The New Yorkers are expected to argue that One World Trade Center’s mast has been an integral part of the tower’s design from the beginning and that it remains a spire, despite the decision to eliminate its cladding.

In addition to considering those arguments, the height committee is likely to debate whether the council’s standards for measuring height remain valid and how that affects its stand in the One World Trade Center controversy.

Dissatisfaction with the current criteria surfaced in September when the group spotlighted a new trend in skyscraper design: Towers whose height rankings are padded by unoccupied spires that consume an ever-rising share of a skyscraper’s overall height. The spire of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is about 800 feet, the council said, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the building’s height.

The council labeled the trend “vanity height,” a move some observers have interpreted as a pretext for deeming One World Trade Center’s mast a mere broadcast antenna. At this point, though, the mast might more properly be deemed an “antenna-in-waiting.” The Durst Organization is said to be having ongoing conversations with broadcasters but has not reached any deals.

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