The spire of the newly built Freedom Tower is being tested today. At 1,776 feet, if accepted, would not only represent the tallest building in the US but would be an important symbol of the recovery of the country. Although a very beautiful building, it is only one. In the third most populous and first richest country by GDP it is startling to me that we’ve seemed to have lost our drive to be the one offering the best and most bold ideas in architecture. Looking at the new skyscrapers springing up in the last few years, the Freedom Tower is one of only four in the last two years to be opened that were classified as skyscrapers. And the Freedom Tower as well as Four World Trade Center were replacements from the 9/11 attacks on New York. And in the top 25 list according to height, the US only has 4, one of them being the Empire State Building built in 1931. Much of the construction is in emerging economies and certainly is driven by the high demand for office space. China is a spectacular example where one sees hundreds of cranes throughout its tier one cities erecting spectacular buildings. A couple of years ago, I took the elevator to the observation deck at Shanghai’s World Financial Center. At an impressive 1,614 feet, one could look down at other impressive skyscrapers. This year, the Shanghai Tower is going up which will dwarf it at 2,073 feet. And the tallest building at 2,717 feet, the Burj Khalifa is in Dubai. Now I understand that the demand for office space in the mature markets isn’t as booming. However, there still is construction under way in US cities, just at a more modest scale. There certainly is competition in the world in terms of architectural boldness. We just don’t seem to want to compete in this arena. It certainly isn’t for lack of talented engineers and architects as we can still pull off feats such as the Freedom Tower. While someone out there will certainly find some analytical conclusion as to why it isn’t feasible in the US economy, I think it is more than an economic reality. I fear that collectively we are losing our spirit to dream big. But that certainly isn’t a trajectory that we need to follow as we know that there are individuals and groups out there that thrive on risk taking. We still have companies and individuals leading the way in the form of Tesla, SpaceX, Apple, Google and others. I’d like to see this same spirit follow through to grand architectural feats.
In my frequent international travel, I’ve had the opportunity to visit airports of all types. On each trip, I drag my travel weary body back through my home airport and experience what many first time visitors experience when coming to our country. What has struck me is that many of the countries I visit have roomy, clean airports with breathtaking architectural designs and welcoming staff. In particular, the best I’ve seen are in developing countries. What struck me is how we’ve missed opportunities in America to create an awe-inspiring arrival for our soon to be new friends visiting from around the world. Now I understand that during the several years of recession and after effects, there is little appetite to fund grand expansions in our international airports. But perhaps this lack of imagination and the need to compete in this space is one of the facets of why we’re in this temporary position in the first place. Other countries of much lesser means seem to get it though and find their way to fund these projects to promote much needed growth. Are we so arrogant as to think we don’t have to be as hungry as these other countries? And not only are first visual impressions important, the treatment of the visitors is another significant factor. As I shuffle off the plane through immigration and on to the baggage claim, I’ve tried to look through the eyes of a first time visitor. In a misguided attempt to keep us safe, our immigration officials and other airport staff have taken it upon themselves to be at best case discourteous and in worst case, rude and confrontational. Now I get it, we need to keep people moving. But I’ve seen this done in a much more pleasant welcoming way. And yes, immigration needs to check documentation and challenge inconsistencies. But well over 99% of the visitors are here for legitimate reasons. I don’t believe there is a need to treat everyone as if they are harboring ill will. I feel that we should rethink our strategy of airport austerity. We should replace it with a strategy where we are creating welcoming, less frightening space for our new friends. And we all as Americans, whether airport staff or not, should treat our visitors as welcome guests and try to dilute the tired negative stereotypes of how Americans behave. Now there are glimmers of hope in regard to airports. I’ve recently entered the country through the newly renovated Bradley terminal at LAX. It certainly is a major improvement. And there is more room to establish the welcoming space for visitors. But we’ll need to follow through with a comprehensive look at all our international airports and how we process our guests through.