One of the few distinguished buildings to have emerged from the real estate boom of the 1980s, the World Trade Center bears the unmistakable modernist imprint of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the internationally renowned architectural firm.
Bruce Graham of SOM's Chicago office was the chief architect for the World Trade Center, and his restrained design looks to the future while acknowledging the past, all without lapsing into postmodern kitsch. From the waterfront, the aluminum facade of the nine-story building curves along the arc created by Waterside Drive, its tinted ribbon windows protected by brise-soleil. A handsome sculptural effect is created by the insertion of setbacks at the building's north end; from Main Street each level appears to be stacked and curved like a deck of cards. The design is somewhat reminiscent of Kohn Pedersen Fox's 333 West Wacker Drive in Chicago (1983), one of the most acclaimed skyscrapers of the early 1980s and, significantly, the occupant of a curved site on that city's riverfront. A more important precedent for the World Trade Center, however, was Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz, Germany (1928–1929), whose curving facade was viewed as heretical by the early historians of modernism. In the context of Norfolk in the 1980s, its adaptation was a welcome antidote to the surrounding corporate postmodernism.
The entrance to the World Trade Center is behind a landscaped entrance court off West Main Street, the centerpiece of which is Bernar Venet's Undetermined Line, a large and controversial public sculpture. Constructed of painted steel that forms an irregular spiral, it harmonizes with the curving building behind it. A nine-story addition by an Atlanta firm extends the original design to the west, its upper levels boldly cantilevered in the direction of the customhouse.