Omni on the World Trade Center

Thee Maximalists
by S.J.Russell

1. I Led The Blind  October 2001
2. Historic Heatwaves  November 2001
3. Chicks with Bricks  December 2001
4. Two Become None  December 2001


Chicks with Bricks

A bit less than a thousand years ago Lady Godiva and her husband helped to establish a church of St. Mary's which is the first predecessor of what we now call Coventry Cathedral in England. She was a benefactor of the neighbouring Worcester Cathedral as well. By 1660, at the Restoration of the monarchy, Coventry (then paired with Lichfield) appears to have been penalized for supporting the Crown's victory less than its neighbour had, and Lichfield became nominally preferred by the administration. In the 1800s Coventry was absorbed altogether into the Diocese of Worcester and any Cathedral function was transferred there. Need for a new Diocese of Coventry was seen early in the Twentieth Century and in 1918 a massive and ancient church, Saint Michael's Coventry was dedicated as the Diocesan Cathedral. Saint Michael's Cathedral --Coventry Cathedral-- was bombed to a shell one night during the next world war 22 years later.
                    Four terrible years passed and it was D-Day +2. The British force was moving on German positions in French villages when the advance was blocked by snipers in local belfries. The pragmatic Brits blasted into the roosts with tankfire. A witness and participant was a certain young British soldier, an architect, named Spence, who recoiled from the damage inflicted by his army even in very desperate fighting. The idea that these old Norman churches might deserve some sort of care on a battlefield might not occur to most of us had we been there. In war, even in peace, we may have seen more senseless destruction. The eventual Sir Basil Spence went on to build the new Coventry Cathedral, replacing the original, destroyed by the Germans. His account of the battlefield events opens his memoir of the building process: 'Phoenix at Coventry' (London, 1962). Sir Spence's critical reaction to his army's shelling of old churches would have gone unnoticed even unrecorded if not for his spectacular professional commission and success.
                    And his observations amount to a prime piece of the scant evidence we have that architects are ever morally uncomfortable with the destruction of buildings, a destruction they are often complicit in. Cities are built as waves of new sweep away the old. Buildings compete for favour, and simply fall if they fail. The city and civilization must contend with this balance of being a work in progress, a magnificent legacy, and a finished product. This process has always fed the city, pumped newness and energy into the machine or body or economy, whatever you will, by attracting and moving money like a lifeblood. So advantage to the city throughout history, in most things economic. But there's a cost. People define themselves by their homes, streets, stores and favourite places. As these disappear small tokens, signifiers and rituals are also lost. Is this impoverishing? Not always and not absolutely but often enough and clearly enough that cities often feel like they are are in decline to their residents. It can be harder for visitors to detect the subtleties, though sometimes the decline is shockingly self-evident.
                    Jane Jacobs pointed out some standards by which we can judge improvement to or deterioration of the workaday fabric of the city at large. But ever since her 1960s revelations, there's been a shift --bringing the city under all the same strains but for reasons less transparent, with rewards more uncertain. Jacobs' omnivorous praise for the totality of the city body was a laissez-faire proposition --a city is able to find its own even keel without intervention. But that's changed as much as the reality of the stock markets (prime "city builders" of old as she notes) have changed. Presently the economic bottom-lines to which we all must answer are largely global, far, far removed from the governance of the city. And connected mightily as a global body of self-interest, the companies usurp the city as the currency of civilization. The city as both a community of the people and buildings too, is under siege by economic forces it finds very very hard to answer. But we must.
                    Also since the 1960s, on the positive side of the ledger: Rachel Carson-style environmental awareness has made capital R recycling a habit of citizens. The practical and moral problems of disposability are raised in many ways, in fields within Spence's immediate scope, in history, architecture, design, planning, and environmental sciences, and elsewhere, everywhere, rolling off into all professions and all undertakings, across every discipline. Spence dared to ask a terribly unreasonable question. In a fight against Hitler he wanted to know about a few buildings. Yet he took a giant step that eventually may be consolidated in many tiny ways as we all learn to re-use the obsolete, including buildings. Look at the embracing of "urbanism" in public debate at the expense of the out-of-date "renewal".
                    By living example Spence connects our human dignity with the dignity that we accord our surroundings, our projects, our legacies and --it's inescapable-- our buildings. What then have architects made of the World Trade Center question? I'd expect architects above all to "make something" of this gigantic nothing. On the whole I've been morbidly disappointed with the answers. On this most colossal urb-architectonic event, cut deep with tragedy and wrapped in political barbed wire, the architecture crowd weighed in with a tawdry, mechanical, and let's face it, ghoulish shopping list of dos and don'ts regarding the replacement 'thing' for the World Trade precinct.
                    You know what: it's 1,2,3,11,12,13 months after and I still don't care what replaces the Center. Why should I? Of course it's moot while the excavation goes on, and it's moot because I'll never be consulted. But listen: I'm not saying it's impossible, but so far nobody has been able to advance a plan without a taint of self-aggrandizement and opportunism which can only be considered callous given the circumstance. And the plans themselves have been thin, with a samey-sameness that is perhaps an inevitable result of the master plan process in effect. Nobody's had the sense to say "look I'll design one block of 10 or 20 on this site". A quilt, a real fabric could be built. Why not fill the quilt randomly from the cathartic outpouring of bizarre reconstruction ideas from artists, students, unknowns and everyday people? Could any executed idea along these lines be worse than the "twins" were? Simply: no. And there's redemption in learning from the past --not "mistakes of the past"-- simply say "past". Still architecture and democracy haven't been so closely linked in ages. If a "way of life" is under attack, as the media likes to portray, suddenly it becomes possible to see the WTC towers as a "way of life" --our way of life. It's a corruption, a misdirection to do so, or to do so exclusively. They were amazing. Let us please admit that they may have been amazing mistakes. If you want a tribute to democracy why not harness the most democratic outpouring of ideas in architectural history --the thousands of rebuilding schemes from around the world? No? Aha. Perhaps that's enough democracy for today.
                    There is a great liberating spirit roaring from all those sketches by all those people. As if even the paper itself, if nothing else, should be part of the site plan. But architects have the coveted place in this debate. Where then are they? Architects capable of being guides and teachers --famous, infamous or unknown-- have been missed. Perhaps they will never recover their voices.
                    Well what could you say 1, 2, 3 days after the towers fell? You have my personal answers here, but I've strategically waited months to report to you. But I also had to come from from behind --I'm neither a writer really nor an architect. I had no running start as it were. I saw and I started. I made my own fun.
                    The first week or so nothing --no glimmer from the architects proper that was noteworthy. A bunch of bigwigs made their theoretical replacement pitches which were singularly sour, but to be fair, they were prompted or cajoled by the media to do so. Thank God for the engineers, clinical yet reassuring in a chief surgeon busy-hospital bedside-manner way. They understood the wail of "How Could This Happen?" not as a rhetorical question but as an actual query at a symposium --and they answered as best they could and their answers revealed a lot more than expected, including at nearly every turn: humility. It fell to Calatrava to take the mightiest swing in early October at an address or interview (public? I'm not sure) in Milwaukee.
"That the terrorists chose a prominent landmark shows how representative architecture can be... When you take away architecture in a violent way, you discover what a big void that creates. Evil people understand that. But shall we change our mind about the kind of buildings we build? No, the opposite. We have to defend the values of our culture - liberty, the vitality of cities- and the values of our heritage. Architecture embodies all of that."
                    He deflected questions about what should go up on the site of the trade center; it's too early to know what's appropriate, he said. "The world is no more the same. But it's like the Yellowstone fires: The rain comes and soon you see small flowers grow up out of the ash."

Reported by Whitney Gould, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 15, 2001
                    Reading this several things struck me. First was how eloquently he extemporizes, how simple and refined the arguments sentence by sentence are. The resultant rational raft of ideas covers everything. He comes out swinging, unwilling to yield art, culture and identity in the destruction of a building. Yet at the end he's very unequivocal that a change already has been made for us and it's up to us to adapt. He speaks with passion: the passion of one who builds --that he builds buildings seems secondary-- and then directs those passions into an introspective mode. It's not perfect. It demands quibbling with (some may quibble that "liberty" sounds reflexive rather than passionate), but never mind: let him talk. He deals with the void rather than the romanced version of "the twins" and he allows that the terrorists were indeed people. Then "Evil people understand that" -angely, I'm certain by uncanny accident, I glimpse my inner evil because I too understand that. In tackling the problem of evil he doesn't say the obvious, futile thing, he doesn't close doors, he opens them.
                    And again I agree. We're all "evil" -- even by our own standards. We're evil by any reputable measure you care to name -- New Testament, Old Testament, Brothers Grimm, Kipling, Conrad, Baden Powell, Stan Lee -- we never fully recover from evil. We're born into it. We can oppose it -- it's the great struggle of life. The nineteen hijackers failed that struggle -- violently opposing evil yet succumbing, stumbling fatally on their own unjudged inner-workings and inflicting death on themselves prematurely, before they were able to discover a true purpose. A spectacular failure. A spectacular feedback loop of evil capitalizing on evil. A failure of belief, a surrender, a delusion, a capitulation to death in any and every form over life in any and every form. Truly no "maker", no God could be well pleased with this unmaking. Religions overwhelmingly contend that God is in each of us. We are so good at trying to twist out of that obligation, but before we judge the other guy we've got to judge ourselves.
                    Calatrava goes on to throw in the Jacobsian vitality-of-cities angle (which would include economic vitality of course, foremost on everyone's mind in Fall 2001). Most of all he lets the ground rest and and provides a natural illustration for his argument. When I read it, as short as it is, I tell you I felt rejuvenation was more than possible: it was inevitable.

What if I were to ask the impossible question? What should replace the World Trade Center?
                    We must deal with it as a murder site, a graveyard, a war zone but to balance that, it is a place that could heal very quickly given that any sort of denial of the trauma, or the need for healing, is simply impossible. Other sites of horrible deeds and/or disasters pop into mind. What happened to Dahmer's Apt. 213? Mai Lai? They bulldozed a functional bungalow in St. Catherines Ontario because it was the site of the murders by Homolka and Bernardo. It had ceased in essence to be functional, as a house or home, as anything more than an accomplice of sorts. As both the lair of the villain and the site of the crimes it was unbearably repugnant (the lair part is worse). In Toronto the Anglican Cathedral of Saint James has designs on an old graveyard under a parking lot where they desire a condo tower (As above so below). But since the site was intended to be a graveyard it is therefore contrary to civic interest to attempt to city-fy it. Original use sites are important in a crowded urban fabric (I see sublime shades of Saint Paul's New York here). Small memorials for Triangle, medium for L'École Polytechnique in Montréal, large for Murrah, extra-large for World War 2 on the mall. As for the human toll at the Trade Center: there is no way that architecture can ever properly address what is the ultimate disaster of itself. But it should try, shouldn't it?
                    And what about war zones? Well they change because they're just too big not to. That certainly applies here. It is in fact the overriding factor. Take Spence's war: London rebuilt as quickly as Berlin did slowly. London is endearingly grey, plain and civil. Berlin's exploding with what we'd call big ticket architecture. For a decade or more both cities have been revered as models of urban vitality over all others, with one serious exception: New York City, and several also-rans that come and go on various lists: Sydney, Melbourne, Buenos Aries, Miami, Seattle, Barcelona, Prague, Toronto and even Paris (of all places). But the point is that London and Berlin took wildly divergent routes, they used different tools and yet here they are both at the top of their game. It says a lot about the possibilities out there. It's also an immense boost to the spirit of New York City that such things can be accomplished and may even be preordained if the core of the city's life is as strong as New York's assuredly is.
                    A postscript should mention that immediately after most of the good city of Coventry was flattened in 1940, the Provost of the Cathedral Richard Howard became active in looking for ways to reconcile the citizens of Coventry with their German attackers. During the war this was a one-sided exercise: forgiveness was hard but possible, however dialogue was not possible. Nevertheless some citizens learned German and after the war a British-German friendship society (the first in postwar England) was started in Coventry. The spirit continues today with the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Coventry University (which is secular and unaffiliated with the Cathedral). In this spirit another postscript should remind about the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on the Upper West side of Manhattan. Still, after decades, being for a large part hand built by locals, with international help. On-track to be the largest Cathedral in the world. Same denomination as Coventry, hit by serious but not mortal fire in the Fall of 2001.
                    I keep coming back and thinking about the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, about Lady Godiva, about bombs. As in Buñuel, which it may all resemble, there are no easy answers in the lobby. How do we spin all these ideas and get to something primordial we can build with? Let's begin with nerves-of-steel modesty evidenced in Lady Godiva's legendary ride. Let's find a muse to be her equal, the truly preternatural spirit of New York --which nobody yet, villan or otherwise, has denied-- fills this role. Let's not strain to build a replica. Like Spence did, let's build something old for the first time. It's not a plan. It's just a possible recipe for one.
Two Become None  December 2001

 

 

 

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