Commemorating 9/11 USA

Comment: In the shadow of no architecture

The attacks on the twin towers have lent a kind of retrospective aura to a complex which, before it was destroyed, was less than popular

Negative introspection: the fallen towers are commemorated every year by twin beacons

The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 sent shivers across the entire planet. In New York itself, one unprecedented horror followed another. First came the lethal, physical impact of the planes on Minoru Yamasaki’s building, then the cataclysmic collapse of the towers, followed by the effects of the disaster on the morale of the city’s population.

This blow to the narcissism of New York, which since the 19th century has always been seen as a place of economic, architectural and cultural superlatives, led to a kind of negative introspection. It was as though the city that epitomised America and world capitalism was in some way being “punished”, precisely because of the high visibility of the skyscrapers that were themselves a symbol of the whole mechanism of the metropolis.

The aftermath of the attack on the two skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan, a neighbourhood which, together with the Chicago Loop, was one of the two sites on which the earliest prototypes of modern-age architecture were developed, has shed light on their constructional and aesthetic characteristics.

It has been a painstaking autopsy on the “dead” towers, to borrow from the title of the French translation of Art Spiegelman’s comic book In the Shadow of No Towers (À l’ombre des tours mortes). The attacks have lent a kind of retrospective aura to a complex which, before it was destroyed, was less than popular, particularly because of the indifferent quality of its public spaces at ground level.

You might have expected that the rebuilding of the neighbourhood would be up to the political and architectural challenges posed by the situation. Sadly, this is only true to a very limited extent. New York has seen an astonishing revival of its architectural scene since the beginning of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first term in 2002. Cutting-edge designers have been recruited from around the world. There has been a radical rethink of urban planning practices. Even so, now that the redevelopment of vast areas of industrial and Port Authority land has begun, Ground Zero is by no means the most experimental construction site.

The negotiations between the partners who have had to decide how to remodel the former scene of devastation—the Port Authority, the states of New York and New Jersey, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the city council and the leaseholder, Larry Silverstein—resulted in a somewhat sterile solution and a series of projects which have been progressively pared down, like a piece of wood gradually shaved by a carpenter’s plane.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill stopped work on Daniel Libeskind’s lyrically elegant Freedom Tower with its echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of a mile-high skyscraper, leaving only the heavy concrete base in place. And although Santiago Calatrava’s transport hub has suffered no cutbacks, its spatial complexity has been kept in check. Work on Frank Gehry’s performing arts centre cannot begin until the hub is finished.

Meanwhile, progress on the Freedom Tower’s three “maids of honour”—the “secondary” towers designed by Norman Foster, Fumihiko Maki and Richard Rogers respectively—is proceeding only cautiously. Ultimately, the overall state of the rebuilding programme demonstrates the effect of the forces of capitalism on the power of the imagination while falling far short of the many hopes engendered following 9/11.

The writer is the professor of the history of architecture at NYU

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