Of 9/11 Memorials, Monuments, and the WTC

On the first anniversary of 9/11, in September 2002, the Times Literary Supplement ran a review essay of mine on the meaning of memorials, monuments, and the skyline and landscape of New York City.  It talked about architecture and memorials, about how one memorializes an event like 9/11.  This was before much of anything had happened in the way of agreement to rebuild; it would have seemed strange to me then that so little would have happened in the decade since. (The book that has most helped me think about 9/11 in retrospect across the decade is one published a year ago, Scott Malcomson’s memoir of that period and the years following, Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power After 9/11.) (And thanks, Glenn, for the link.)

However, it seems to me that on this 10th anniversary of 9/11, the passages below from my review essay still stand pretty well.  The book under review is James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, and it is a remarkable photography volume all by itself – not about 9/11, and completed before it, but instead about the way in which the skyline is New York City was represented in film – film frequently done in Hollywood, and drawing upon a massive archive of documentary photos of the New York skyline used to recreate the scenes outside windows of Hollywood sets.  Ironically, one of the greatest repositories of photos of New York from the old days is in Los Angeles.

When this review essay was published, some of my very sophisticated Manhattan friends smiled amusedly at my willingness to bend apparently any topic to my beloved Sierra Nevada.  They were wrong, however; the canyons of Manhattan are the Sierra Nevada of the East Coast, and their amused skepticism was like that of the fancy Europeans who laughed at the rube American painters with their wild landscapes of vertical mountains and gushing rivers and plains where buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day – until they went for themselves and found out it was realism, not romance.  Those who doubt this need to Light Out for the Territory.  And this is much more closely related to the remembrance of 9/11 than one might think; it is the invocation of America, all of it.

May the victims and their families and loved ones find peace.  To those who went to war and continue at war, military and civilian alike, responding to that aggression – thank you for your service.  To those who have been lost in that service, again military and civilian alike, ave atque vale.

Comparing the Twin Towers to the architecture of the pre-war skyscrapers and to arguably the greatest of them, the Empire State Building, Sanders points out that the very shape of the Empire State Building, with its blocky base and sculptural setbacks that progressively narrow the tower as it climbs, visibly converts height into “movement, appearing to thrust upward with visible force”. The Empire State Building is not alone in this, however. Since the early 1920s, New York’s “towers had been consciously shaped as stepped, mountain-like masses . . . a shape generated by the city’s 1916 zoning law”, with the result that the upper office floors could be “by law no larger than one- quarter the area of the overall building site”.

The sense of up-thrusting mountains is not hyperbole. I write this passage not in New York City, but sitting in the shadow of the American landscape that (however odd it might seem) most conjures it up – the dramatic eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, where I was raised, jagged peaks pushing skywards from a blocky base; their energy always soaring upwards, from the floor of Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney. I look out across the Sierra landscape, backlit at dusk, and in a strange way I see the Manhattan skyline as from across the Hudson in New Jersey or as in a Woody Allen movie. Yet for all the elegance and energy, peculiarly reinforcing the most urbane sophistication by deploying a sense of drama seemingly straight from the plein-air school of naive Western American mountain painting – craggy snowy peaks, crashing waterfalls, vivid sunsets – the mountain- peak aesthetic did not last in New York. New York’s pre-war skyscrapers’ height- into- motion designs, uniting kinetic energy with the faintest sense of ineffability, what Sanders calls the “Emerald City of Oz” skyline, were “rejected by the postwar generation of modern architects”.

The problem was, in part, the economics of wasted space in the upper floors, but also a shift in aesthetics. The setback shapes and perchlike peaks of the pre war skyscrapers were deemed romantic, irrational gestures; worse still were the crowded streets created by the wide bases . . . . But the answer was at hand. Smoothing their new buildings into sheer, boxy slabs; giving them flat, sheered-off tops . . . and setting them on broad, plaza-like open spaces would convert the old, thickly carved city into an enlightened landscape.

Hence the Twin Towers. It must be recalled, even at this time of WTC sentimentality, that they were nearly universally regarded as uninspired architecture of their day, the result of an overweening government agency, the Port Authority, that both blighted the skyline and, with their vast, cavernous plazas, ruined civic life at the base. The Trade Center, Sanders observes, had “forgotten why it was the tallest. The whole significance of height, its power to impress in more than an abstract, statistical sense – number of stories, distance from sidewalk to roof – had been lost.”

It is noteworthy that the post-post-war architecture of the 1980s and 90s moved away from this stark modernism to something slightly closer to the pre-war romance of the sky above and pedestrians of the earth below. Yet it is an endearing feature of New York that eventually it conquers even monstrosities and finds some affection for them: a thriving retail village grew up in the subway station beneath the WTC plaza, and time finally made the Towers part of New York. But they were neither beloved nor even a prestigious address – except in the uppermost floors, they were workaday offices, accessible to Wall Street, cheaper than mid-town, a good location for the representative office of a foreign bank or middle-ranking law firm or bond firm more interested in trading than impressing clients. What they offered was a view – not to the city that had to look at them, but to their inhabitants peering out, towering over all else. But that was all they offered. It was years before the food in the top floor restaurant was worthy of the view.

This fact about the WTC cannot be avoided in deciding what to do with the fourteen acres of Ground Zero. The question roils New York City on the first anniversary of September 11. Fourteen acres – I write this now looking down from a commuter jet sweeping up the Hudson alongside Manhattan at night, seeing Ground Zero in the bleak glare of floodlights – is a truly vast space in a city like New York, architecturally, geographically, historically, politically, economically. A video camera sits now at the site, recording an image every five minutes to archive what, in fact, happens here. What the camera cannot record, however, is the intensity of the feelings, arguments, controversies and political battles that doing something with the site entails.

The first controversy pits the needs of a city of commerce against a powerful sentiment to make monuments. The most extreme monument-making position is the demand by some family members of WTC victims that nothing commercial be done with the site, that it be turned into a park or some other strictly non-commercial use. This will certainly not be the outcome; a memorial park or perhaps a memorial museum is likely to be established on a small part of the land, but nothing conceivably resembling fourteen acres.

New York City planners, having absorbed over decades the Jane Jacobs counter-revolution in urban planning, are well aware of the difficulties in establishing a park even just for fun and play in the city, especially in an area which is not filled with people at night. The new or refurbished parks that work best in New York City today are small, easily monitored and controlled, such as Bryant Park behind the Public Library. An immense memorial park, where people, especially in the first years, could not properly go merely to hang out, picnic, take their children to play, rather than going to mourn, is a recipe for urban decay, a place that over time will be avoided emotionally and physically as today’s traumas wear off. In any case, a vast, permanent mausoleum is not the New York way.

The critical task, rather, is to turn most of the space back to commercial use, and indeed to cure the errors of the WTC that Sanders has eloquently pointed out, by re-establishing the conditions of a vibrant city life at ground level, retail shops and restaurants and health clubs and Korean corner grocery stores and all that make New York go. In New York City, at least, streets crowded with pedestrian traffic are a good thing. Yet while it would be a profound mistake to try and duplicate the monument aesthetic of Washington in New York, it would likewise be a profound mistake to imagine that the only question a commercial city should ask of its assets is, “What have you done for me lately?” and think merely of getting on with things by maximizing their rate of return. This is so even if, as some have suggested, this might be the ultimate tribute to the essentially commercial, always forward-looking, “forget sunk costs, they’re sunk”, activities of the Towers themselves. Politics intruded in a horrific way upon commerce – war came to New York City – but purely commercial instincts, at least if they are limited to something resembling, say, the instincts of Brecht’s city Mahagonny, pure Mammon, are peculiarly ill-equipped to respond.

Yet the deeper and more poignant controversy is not how much space should be dedicated to a non-commercial memorial, nor how best to plan the use of the urban space. It is, unsurprisingly, how, who and what to memorialize, and it is inevitably, even unpleasantly, political. Yes, of course, memorialize those who died; those on the planes, the workers who did not make it out of the towers, and the police and firefighters who died trying to rescue them.

This is the model of the empty chair memorial in Oklahoma City, and in the case of purely domestic criminality, the domestic terrorism of a Timothy McVeigh, maybe it is the best way. For the families of the victims, perhaps this model seems enough; a sort of regime of public therapy to acknowledge their loss and their grief. For the rest of us, however – for Americans, at least – this cannot settle matters of what ought to be remembered out of the attack on September 11. It is more than just the specific victims who died that day. After all, in a fundamental sense, that they were the victims was a fortuity; the terrorists did not aim at them as such.

The terrorists would have found pretty much any other set of Americans, or anyone of any nationality living and working in New York City, interchangeable. Memorializing the specific victims and how their lives were cut short is important, but it is not enough to capture what the event was about.

Put another way, if by some means one of the terrorist hijackers had managed to walk away unscathed from the flight and were put on trial, it would be inadequate, morally and politically, merely to charge him with the murders of some 2,000 people, as though what had occurred were merely an especially horrific case of serial murder. The murder of this or that list of people and the destruction of a large amount of property does not capture what the act was about. It was simultaneously an act of war and a crime – but an act of war not against the 2,000 victims as such nor merely a crime against those 2,000 people. It was, rather, war and crime directed in the first place against the United States of America, not just in the corporate sense of the Government and State, but against the collective body politic of America. Any memorial that fails to take this essential political and moral dimension into account may have performed a modest therapeutic function on behalf of the families and loved ones of specific victims, but it will have failed to express the nature of the act and will have badly served the people of the United States.

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