Omni on the World Trade Center
Total Destruction and then Transcendence September 2001
The Transcendence Continues November 2001
The Transcendence Explodes I March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes II March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes III March 2002
Appendix To The Transcendence: "Bin Laden On The Keyboards, Bin Laden" July 2002
Post-Transcendence: Surfin' USA November 2002
Five Years After The Transcendence January 2007
Total Destruction and then Transcendence
by Adam Sobolak
of September 11, 2001, New York got more Delirious. Unless
it's no longer proper to speak in such terms.
I'm in a strange position re September 11 and its aftermath. It didn't stop my work day, even after the news broke. I was nearly continuously engaged to the running events and never pretended otherwise, but couldn't bring myself to stop working; and frankly, I henceforth felt heroically unflappable, like an "emergency worker". Almost by way of coping. And I could only, as per usual yet in an eerie new sense, behold like Baudelaire. Listen; watch; witness others. Mostly listening, in order to save the primary visuals for later. Matter-of-factly, quietly accepting that we may all be space dust by day's end. I felt flat, void, yet forever fixated. Unlike many, I couldn't bring myself to weep or utter "horror" or "evil", at least not openly; it was staggering, too staggering, beyond, beyond, beyond beyond. And fascinating. I could only work and work and follow along. And follow. And follow. And get home, click on the TV, click on the computer, and keep following, sleep, awaken, keep following. It wasn't mourning; it was induced pornographic fixation.
Of all things, it had to happen at the doorstep of the Omnitectural Forum launch, so much of it centric about New York, including my rapturous Laura Nyro visceral vision of the city as religion and the AIA Guide To New York City as the Bible ...therefore how could I not have such an unhaltingly gynecological engagement to what was happening "down there" at and around Ground Zero? The tableau overwhelmed its victims and its villains. It was dangerous outer limit of aesthetic, it was art --art that canceled out all aesthetic. Sublimity had imploded, together with the Twin Towers.
The World Trade Center wasn't all that happened that day, but the Pentagon disaster couldn't transfix. It was too gruffly banal --a plane plowing like a fist into one side of a huge rock-solid low-rise pentagonal building, that's it. Nothing collateral. In itself, this Apollonian event could have been akin to Pearl Harbor; but it was also the washroom-break cue in the televised proceedings. The Pentagon could be understood at a glimpse, one glimpse, that's it, a buncha plane passengers and military staff gone, and all the rest was that boring political bafflegab. But what happened at New York was super-Dionysian, and with everything collateral besides. Its scope was unreally democratic, universal. We had to glimpse the WTC disaster and its aftermath from all angles, over and over and over again, we couldn't ever, ever, ever stop. It was beyond Pearl Harbor; the only thing that might've compared in the utter immediacy of its horrifyingly inhumanly rapturously sexily evil aestheticism was the unfolding reality of Nazi concentration camps, the Holocaust, Hitler's aestheticized dream of rule from which nobody --not even ourselves who're witness to the reported facts-- escapes. And it may have surpassed that, for while the Holocaust was mainly hidden from view during its tenure --a perverse private fantasy only revealed posthumously-- the WTC happened before our eyes. And our eyes are wide, our jaw is dropped, we're in shellshocked paralysis at the horrific magnificence. It's snuff art, the Ultimate Splatter, and humanity and the physical environment and we, the beholders, are the medium. Moreover, it was outsider snuff art, or at least not "art" in the traditional Western sense that the aesthete Hitler would have understood. How are we to respond? Art dies, at least in the "constructive" sense; it appears to be an inadequately insipid response to the occasion, it's almost as if we have to, in quasi-Dada frenzy, counter-snuff amongst ourselves. I spent a lot of the balance of Sep 11th really wondering what the net popular aesthetic response would be, whether this may (especially given the New Yorkness of it all) signify some facsimile of avant-garde rapture being wrenched from the doldrums, burying forever the kitschy yellow ribbons and "From A Distances" of yore. Move aside, Britney & Justin --make way for Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson. Speaking of Lou Reed, I thought of nicknaming the WTC towers "European Son" and "Sister Ray" --the raw ugly-beauty cataclysmic effect was so akin to high Velvets ...if not the harsher sounds of Steve Reich electronics, Knitting Factory sonics, and so on so forth...
...and yet, self-consciously affirmed art's no match for the shellshockingly lurid... I'm left thinking, instead, of the 1969 Lotti Golden album "Motor-Cycle" which, in the name of some kind of perverse Midnight Cowboy-era Piaf-of-Gotham schtick, takes Laura Nyro a step or two further than really necessary, and then sends her hurtling pointblank into the Velvet Underground, exploding in one huge fireball --a musical Ground Zero if ever there was one...
...or, in the annals of lurid snuff in New York, the bizarre story of East Village drug dealer/pidgin-Satanist eccentric Daniel Rakowitz who, in 1989, killed his girlfriend, 26-year-old Swiss dance student/sometime stripper Monika Beerle, dismembered her and allegedly cannibalized and/or boiled her into soup for the Tompkins Square homeless --it is said that at one point her head was found in a pot on the stove, the rest of her bloody remains in the bathtub-- before storing her bones in a bucket which he kept in a locker at Port Authority Bus Terminal before being caught ...it sounds like another sub-Dahmer cheap-thrill "bizarre crime story", and so it would be...to those not witness to the startling photographic image --really, an avant-garde female Jesus icon-- of she who was victim of this bizarrerie, whereupon it ascends to a different plane, that of the ur-violation, the perverse snuff fantasy that snuffs out all perverse snuff fantasy, a real-life case that in dangerously all-consuming extra-aesthetic monumentality is to "American Psycho" what the WTC disaster is to "Independence Day" (and Rakowitz's raw "Satanism" is as irrelevant as the WTC hijackers' religious fanaticism)...
...and that's how one must grasp how obscenely transfixing the entire Ground Zero psychic assault, the apotheosis of the abject, the Ultimate Splatter, is. It's awakened our own darkest inner urban snuff reflex. Forget Robert Delford Brown; this is the true Great Building Crack-Up. If Duchamp were alive, rumour would surely spread that he orchestrated it...
But as such, it also winds up being unexpected affirmation, not obliteration, of what Omnitectural Forum is intended to represent --it has inadvertently wrenched the Pevsner-to-Jacobs-to-White'n'Willensky worm's-eye across the rubicon and into the spotlight, and challenged us, all of us, even non-New Yorkers and non-urbanites, to broaden our scope of raw, physical urban experience as something that encompasses far, far more than itself --even unforeseen disaster. It flung the urbanscape of the WTC environs into the Middle American spotlight, the vulgar media realm of chads and thongs and white Broncos --it turned it into a part of all of us, it wrenched the maligned and misunderstood liberal/capitalist arrogance of NYC back into the USofA and, in its turn, the conservative capitalist arrogance of the USofA wrenched others into unity and sympathy for its plight. And the lives sacrificed, the lives affected, the actions taken, feed the rapturous intensity of the unity --love made in the ruins, and transported all around. It was a loss of innocence --a loss of virginity --the first day of the rest of our lives. The terrorists' destiny may have been the proverbial virgins in the heavens; instead, they did it to us. Being predators, they took those virgins in the heavens and posted their degraded images in alt.pictures.binaries.erotica.wtc-collapse. Yet we discovered so much about ourselves ...so much that it frightens us. Maybe we're not all up to disclosing it; though to quote a certain "Omni" goddess, free your mind and you won't feel ashamed...
Yet somehow, there's an unconveyed --or perhaps understandably distracted, given the slaughter of innocents and of innocence-- element out there. We hear, we read a lot about the void in the sky, and the obits for the Twin Towers proper --but the net effect is as oddly banal and mundane as the Towers themselves long were regarded. And amidst it all, confusion as to what buildings were affected or how they were affected, what was or wasn't part (or which part) of the WTC complex, et al. And worst of all, the jingoistic shake-the-fist-at-Osama newsgroupy impulse to rebuild the World Trade Center, bigger, better (which winds up feeding the argument for restraint, perhaps a Libeskindian kind of memorial or park in lieu of rebuilding) --or conversely, the adolescent sneer at how those evil capitalists had it coming.
The void isn't just in the sky --it's in the perspectives of the well-tuned, broad-raging, architectural/urban observationist, perhaps because at this early moment it's too unseemly. But it needs to be said, for this violent assault upon the city takes on a distinctly special dimension for those versed in the art of Pevsnerian or White-Willenskyan perambulation --while in its turn vaulting the concept to another, abjectly radicalized level. (With the net effect of preservationism, anti-Modernism, and the postmodern "rediscovery of history", the main stream of archi-urban observation hasn't always been terribly conducive to the radical or abject.) We're all viewing it at a worm's eye, we feel the area affected, and we notice not only the lacunae in the coverage, but our own universal running myopia. Ultimately, the discussion and reportage over whether the capitalists were evil, the terrorists were evil, the architecture was evil or banal, or our loved ones or parts thereof became projectiles, becomes subservient --as for us, the archi-urban observers, politics, while playing a part, is transcended by physical fact as a fact. And now, yet another dimension of physical fact. Even in adversity, we sift through the wreckage, horrifyingly enthralled by the range and scale of ruin, encompassing everything for blocks and miles around, spreading its soot and paper and parts as if it was the blood and bone and entrails of the doomed Monika Beerle, and eliciting a massive spectacle of mourning and fixation of many, many dimensions as if all roads of centuries of Nieuw Amsterdam aesthetic expression led up to this, and we see beyond, bedazzled, but beyond, as what lies beneath continues to tell the stories it always has, now with the horror and grotesquerie and personal tragedy and perverse eros of the story of all stories added. "Monika's Karma", indeed.
And as the dust settles, we're at peace with the city. A pregnant peace, a peace in the face of ...war, maybe, but peace all the same. A richer peace.
The disaster (unlike most staged implosions) needed to sacrifice humanity and other collaterals for full drama --yet ironically, snuffed humanity itself, in the form of thousands of bodies and parts thereof, hasn't been an overt part of the spectacle, at least as (so far) communicated through visual media. The visuals, in fact, have been eerily goreless, almost as if the victims had mercifully disappeared into the ether; as far as the eye can see, the built stuff has carried all the weight of the snuff. And so it should be, out of discretion but also out of aesthetic sense --the gore is best sublimated through the imagery of destroyed and mutilated buildings (as well as more reflexively through the weeping of loved ones, the posters of the missing, etc). It's too trite to describe; while disconcerting, to behold a snuffed building is far, far less unpleasant than to behold a snuffed being. I hide my eyes at the fake human gore of horror films, yet I stare and stare and stare at the real, magnificently awful yet weirdly beautiful physical gore at and about Ground Zero. Physical ruins "live" in a way that human ruins do not. The cult of ruins thereby enters the new millennium, and the real thing is to the movies what a real lover is to porn --even if (or, in an echo of our deepest darkest selves, especially) said "real lover" is in itself abjectified by being professional, or underage, or kin, or adulterous, or same-gender or otherwise "forbidden". After all, this ruinous "real lover" came about through induced pornographic fixation; and we all know how intertwined, arguably out of necessity, love and porn, the ecstatic and the horrific, really are...and if one thinks deeply, the most enthralling, least stifled and retrograde, indeed, the most lasting posthumous reflex hasn't been warlike rage or revenge...it's been love. Ecstatic love in the face of devastation. As if New York, America and the civilized world had hit the ground running and dancing and went to creating an instantaneous sparkling diamond out of the coal of imminent war, inducing an osmosis that morphed the horrors of the Holocaust into the celebratory rapture of Perestroika. If it is really the dawn of war, it's something quite different from any dawn-of-war before us; the full-bore swagger and boilerplate that's forever been the stuff of war now wilts in its fatuousness, it's been subverted by love, that transcendent means of coping with horror. (No wonder a Whoville-versus-the-Grinch Dr. Seussesque telling of the disaster was soon making the rounds.) Maybe this means that the threat of war itself will be defused through subversion ...or maybe it's the proverbial last celebratory hurrah before the apocalypse. Like we're partying like it's 1999 --but two years later, and in circumstances that render Prince archaically quaint ...maybe we'll have a population explosion in 9 months. Maybe we'll all be obliterated by explosion in 9 months...
...and the ruins, and the non-ruins or not-so-ruins about them, continue to be inspirational, and worth reflection. And so we cope. And learn. We might not just turn to great art and great music; we may turn to the least alienatingly elite thing of all, the great city. Understanding the city, that which fans out from Ground Zero, that which we were reminded of by Ground Zero, or even gained a deeper engagement to through Ground Zero, in a way too may of us have forgotten.
Architecture --and omnitecture-- is like that.
[T1] 1 and 2 World Trade Center (north and south towers), 4, 4, and 6 World Trade Center (plaza structures), Church to West Sts., Liberty to Vesey Sts. WTC 1, 1973. WTC 2, 1972. WTC 4, 1977. WTC 5, 1972. WTC 6, 1974. Minoru Yamasaki & Assocs., design architects. Emery Roth & Sons, architects. Plaza sculptures: Globe, Fritz Koenig. Ideogram, James Rosati. Unnamed granite, Masayuki Nagare.
Two shimmering 1,350-foot-tall, 110-story, stainless steel towers (which tourists simply call "The Twin Towers") are flanked by somber, brown, low buildings and a plaza larger than Piazza San Marco in Venice. When completed, these stolid, banal monoliths came to overshadow Lower Manhattan's cluster of filigreed towers, which had previously been the romantic evocation that symbolized the very concept of "skyline." The coming of the World Financial Center's shaped-top towers in Battery Park City softened the impact of the Trade Center's pair--at least for viewers in New Jersey.
Ten million square feet of office space are here offered: 7 times the area of the Empire State Building, 4 times that of the Pan Am. The public agency that built them (Port Authority of New York & New Jersey) ran amok with both money and aesthetics.
A visit to the top, however, is a must: to the indoor-outdoor Observation Deck and its exhibition area in WTC 2 and/or to Windows on the World, the pricey but memorable restaurant atop WTC 1 ("If only you could eat the view!" Redesigned, 1996. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer). The public accomodations at both are superb. Below, in the enclosed WTC concourse, which drains the plaza of any meaningful activity (rush hour or noon is the time to see the crowds streaming through the concourse's corridors), are a profusion of eateries.
And it evaporated with all the incendiary eroticism of a bolero --"Beck's Bolero".
Mind you, I personally haven't experienced the immediate World Trade Centre environs as intimately as I should have --the family went up to the observation deck during our "John Paul II" 1979 visit to NYC, but on my most recent "major" visit in 1992, I mostly sidestepped the WTC on behalf of its surroundings; too banal and obvious, you know, a tourist trap best transversed, lest its hugeness consume me in a waste of time and energy. Thus, any self-identification I have with the Twin Towers is kind of by default, and perhaps more with the beckoning "distant view" (from Queens, from distant NJ, etc) where they, more even than the familiar Empire Chrysler State Art Deco mountains and beanstalks, were what conveyed Manhattan as a mythic Oz, a postcard come to life. Yet as all prior criticism shows, there was a tawdry, simplistic pathos about the WTC complex --to many, the urbanistic nadir of 70s New York-- that fed so well into the myth of the baldly parvenu hollowness behind the "all-American" dream, one can understand why many feel it "had it coming", or why those who wish to rebuild as it was, or "bigger and better", or even rebuild at all, too often appear naively daffy, patsies for kitschy jingo, compounding the sins of the original. It was, instead, a blindingly flashy, yet vulgar and dim young thing, destined to die young and leave a beautiful corpse. A laughably, narcissistically vacant naif --all height, little depth-- rendered poignant through its Kamikaze-hits-Yamasaki destruction, a destruction that even fed into the narcissism not only through the towers' neat "implosion", but through the eerie containment of the worst of it almost entirely within the WTC complex; other than a picayune Orthodox house of worship, just about everything that appeared unsalvageably obliterated, even including the "wayward" WTC 7, carried a WTC address --and that meant everything with a WTC address, as if an entire address was swallowed up by the earth, scarring but largely sparing what was around it. Like the whole thing, so inane as to look like an apparition, really was an apparition of 30 odd years. It never happened; it was a dream, almost like an affectionately absurdist Bruce McCall depiction of 70s superskyscraper architecture. And in spite of itself, the WTC's even banal, through its very un-banality, in ruin; as in life, it glaringly, gleamingly detracts and distracts from what's around it. (And it wasn't even the tallest freestanding Towering Inferno --though people have understandably forgotten Moscow's Ostankino Tower disaster last year. Why, even the tallest structure ever erected --an 650m aerial mast near Warsaw-- faw down go boom in 1991.) It is, or ought to be, the Princess Di of architecture; Elton John should sing "Candle In The Wind" for it ...but lucky for us all, this is architecture, this is urbanism, this is New York City, so it becomes something bigger and greater regardless. Albeit almost accidentally through the life within and without, and the lives impacted, rather than the dumbly lionized icon in and of itself. It's the New York soul, not the all-American bluff, which endures.
The reporters' initial ill grasp of the site often led me to wonder if they confused the tattered/mangled ancillary lower structures, WTC 4, 5, 6, with the remains of the Twin Towers (however "salvageable" the low buildings are, why would anyone bother?) ...and it was all so stunning as to blow away immediate opportunity to mull the loss of contents, the artworks and art collections, the archival material that the whole complex may have contained, a blow to the connoisseur, the scholar, the researcher, how many breakdowns must have been occurring, it was like being robbed of one monstrous mountain of patrimony and essential data; what was within was richer than the complex itself, and of course, that includes the people, the innocents ...yet again, it was all like an apparition, a dream. Miro, Nevelson, Lichtenstein --a dream. Our parents, children, spouses, best friends --they were all dreams. We woke up, and they were gone, vanished into the ether of our dreamscape. Maybe a hallucinogenic dream, as if the Twin Towers didn't just implode --they blissed out. The World Trade Center's dead? No, no, no, no, it's outside, looking in...
Save some of the haunting tracery on the site as a memorial, maybe, but otherwise let the dream be --particularly as the architectural reality was so meagre; too much of it was generic or institutional, with only a few things such as Windows on the World living up to the loss being our generation's version of the burning of the Normandie...so what of those who seek to rebuild, according to the original design or some (possibly "enhanced") semblance thereof? Well, as that's tantamount to branding it not just a terrible loss, but an architectural masterpiece of its and our time...despite the convenient sound bites of one of the original Yamasaki team, fugeddaboutit, period. Though the eulogizing and memorializing admittedly may signal a dubious new phase in Lost-New-Yorkism: the first deceased architectural monument ever to be ideally lamented in terms of Dianaesque supermarket-checkout-style "memorial editions". Hmmmm...
"Goodbye New York's Twins,
Penn Station, the Euston Arch, Les Halles, the Garrick Theater, etc must be turning in their architectural graves...
may you ever grow in our hearts.
You were the grace that placed itself
where lives were torn apart.
You called out to our country
and you whispered to those in pain
Now you belong to heaven,
and the stars spell out your name.
And it seems to me you lived your life
like two candles in the wind
never fading with the sunset
when the rain set in.
And your footsteps will always fall here
along America's greenest hills;
your candles burned out long before
your legend ever will.
Loveliness we've lost;
these empty days without your smile.
This torch we'll always carry
for our nation's golden child
And even though we try,
the truth brings us to tears;
all our words cannot express the joy
you brought us through the years.
Goodbye New York's Twins
from a country lost without your soul
who'll miss the wings of your compassion
more than you'll ever know."
[T2] Marriott Hotel/originally Vista International Hotel/3 World Trade Center, SW cor. WTC Plaza. 1981. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
With its elegant, horizontaliped aluminum-and-glass curtain wall and its somewhat diagonal orientation, this handsome hotel looks out of place next to--but better than--its enormous WTC neighbours. The looming canopy is just one of those that have proliferated in the city's hotels in the 1990s.
Poor WTC 3, the Marriott Hotel; it got more publicity in the 1993 disaster than in the 2001 disaster. And no wonder, given the dumb luck of being so close to the Twin Towers as to be rightnexttothem, like a waif clinging to a pair of ankles. So what happened when the Twin Towers collapsed is that the Marriott wasn't just destroyed --it vanished. Scarcely if at all mentioned. Crushed like a tin can; or just evaporated into metal particles. I squint at the pictures, and can't find any recognizable vestige except a floor or two. It died instantly, knowing no pain, the phantom amidst the ruins.
[T3] 7 World Trade Center (office tower), Vesey to Barclay Sts., Washington St.
to West Broadway. 1987. Emery Roth & Sons.
Contrasting with the 25-foot-tall, bright red Alexander Calder stabile, Three Red Wings, are the sheer 47-story walls of polished and flame-roughened red granite veneer that corset this 1980s addition to the original WTC project. Built atop complicated trusswork that spans the Center's original one-story utility and service ell, No. 7 achieved fame not for its structural gymnastics or unrelenting form but for the unexpected cancellation, just a year before completion, of a 2 million square foot, $3 billion rental deal by expected tenant Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, Inc., as a result of tax law changes and an insider-trading scandal.
The Red Wedge. The shunned stocky fatso of the ensemble, the mammoth constipated turd plugging the bottom of Greenwich, and somehow it became the only collateral "implosion", the appendix to Black Tuesday --in fact, for a while its massively crumpled and collapsed red curtain seemed to be more "visible" on TV, thanks to its finishing the Greenwich vista, than the impassible inferno that lay beyond. (And it's even a constipated turd in ruin, a big unlovely pile of gracelessly twisted and contorted blockage without the eerie shimmer and glow of the Twin-Tower wreckage. And to add superfluously, an insult to the Sandy Calder that once stood before --only to be consumed by --it.) WTC 7 was really a lateblooming example of pure 70s "bureaucratic brutalism", that dreaded genre that seems to go hand-in-hand with sick building syndrome and whatnot, here inflated in size and scale and (this being the WTC and the anti-brutal 80s) a little more smoothed-out and luxe in detail (it figures that amidst the disaster, it became best known, in a fire-at-the-firehouse kind of way, as the doomed home of New York's Emergency Services). Perhaps its fate was not unwelcome, as to imagine this ungainly gargantua as the sole survivor of the complex might be a bit much to take; in fact, there's a strange kind of poetic justice, as WTC 7 probably had more "Alfred P. Murrah" to it than any other building in Manhattan...
[T4] New York Telephone Company (office building), also known as the Barclay-Vesey Building, 140 West St., bet. Barclay and Vesey Sts., to (now demapped)Washington St. 1923-27. McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin.
Distinguished, and widely heralded, for the Guastavino-vaulted pedestrian arcades at its base, trade-offs for widening narrow Vesey Street. This Mayan-inspired Art Deco design by Ralph Walker proved a successful experiment in massing what was, in those years, a large urban form within the relatively new zoning "envelope" that emerged from the old Equitable Building's greed. Critic Lewis Mumford couldn't contain himself. A half century later, Roosevelt Island's main street used continuous arcades as the very armature of pedestrian procession. Why not elsewhere in New York to protect against inclement weather and to enrich the architectural form of the street? Why, indeed, not next door at 7 World Trade Center?
Oh, mercy! Fate must be an architectural critic. Now, here,
in a real sleeper story of the disaster, is what separates
architectural perambulators and well-tuned poetry-of-the-urban-fabric
lovers from mere mortals. Dwarfed by the Twins on one side,
crowded by the hyperthyroid chunk-chocolate on another, Ralph
Walker's masterpiece had a location that ought to have been as
cursed as a Chris Rock performance attendee --yet by some white
magic, it was spared. Not unscathed; understandably a little worse
for wear, battered, damaged, with holes and gouges and flesh or
more-than-flesh wounds here and there, a few points of severe
stress and mess (especially where WTC 7 dog-piled against it),
its current Verizon switching centre contents badly shaken,
the whole thing thrown into "no occupation" mode --but in and
of itself, spared. Surprisingly, and apparently reasonably
salvageably, spared. (It probably helped that the need to
support all that 20s-style telephone switching equipment
meant that it was built as strong as an ox --one wonders
if it would've been so hardy a survivor were it one of
those windowless 60s/70s switching towers.) Footage showed
its classic Deco profile, tower and all, standing steady
as always, gamely shielding the Lower West Side from the
inferno. Before the WTC came along, NY Tel was the most
magnificent thing hereabouts --now, like the little house
that miraculously withstood the floods at Chicoutimi,
it's a magnificently lucky and heroic survivor. But one
that was scarcely acknowledged through the reportage;
few knew the gravity of its survival, perhaps because few
(among journalists, at least) knew the gravity of its
fundamental architectural importance. Which is fascinating...
and it may say something about the physical endurability
(or appearance thereof) of old ways of building; remember
that while there was lots of talk and fixation about newer
buildings (1 Liberty Plaza, Millenium Hilton, World Financial
Center, etc) falling down as a consequence of WTC, virtually
nobody made such a prediction for NY Tel, which was
about as cheek-by-jowl with the carnage as one could get
--in fact, it was barely ever even mentioned. Even
architectural critics and scholars gave it short shrift or
no shrift at all, preoccupied as they (and all of us) were
with the twin icons and trying to distill what they and their
ruin meant. But the fact remains that the twin icons were
architecturally outclassed by most of their neighbours, NY
Tel most forthrightly; indeed, through its heroically old-school
skyscraper aesthetic and construction and urban sensibility,
NY Tel now conveys a "told ya so" message of sweet revenge,
Gershwin raising a gracefully disdainful eyebrow at the vanity
of Yamasaki's "Moog Gothic", the Walter Carlos rendition of
Woolworthian "Skyscraper Style". And in those all-too-rare
images where it serves as a conspicuous backdrop to the
carnage, Deco brick and detail massing still sparkling, a
Hugh Ferrissian mountain that's now as distantly miragelike
against the ruin as the WTC used to be against the whole of
Manhattan, NY Tel seems to shout a yawp of victory not just
for itself, but for an entire classic high-rise New York
(and not just New York) urban mythos. But don't just call it
a desert mirage; here's what should be a true oasis of
urbanistic nourishment potential. It's now proven itself
an urban hero, far too coolly (warmly?) sure of itself to
ever be much of a collateral sitting duck and patsy for Osama
Bin Laden. If you thought Lewis Mumford and his admirers past
and present lionized NY Tel, hold on to your hats, you ain't
seen nothin' yet ...or so we, the "true" urban romantics, may wish...
[C4] Federal Office Building, 90 Church St., bet. Vesey and Barclay
Sts. W side to W. Broadway. 1935. Cross & Cross and Pennington,
Lewis & Mills, Inc. Louis A. Simon, Supervising Architect
of the Treasury.
A boring limestone monolith that has trouble deciding between a
heritage of stripped-down neo-Classical and a new breath of Art Deco.
While this grey Fascist pillbox of the 30s found itself in the
"damage assessment zone", it did an infinitely better job of
withstanding the blast than the red Fascist megapillbox of the
80s on its western flank. How telling that when WTC 7 belched
its last, it expended its collateral energy not so much upon the
Jazz-Deco NY Tel or the Fascist-Deco Fed (or upon SOM's humongous
hollow 80s icecube at 101 Barclay, whose stepped form was another
landmark in those distant views of the inferno from the north,
and which survived surprisingly unscathed for its proximity),
but upon the small 50s-ish (80s-ish?) strip-windowed CUNY
nonentity at 30 West Broadway, gishing a big south corner of
that structure and arguably writing it off for good (but
earning its raggedly open corner a lot of free, if misleading,
media exposure in those Dantean views down Greenwich St).
[N22] Originally American Telephone & Telegraph Company Building (offices)/now
195 Broadway Building, bet. Dey and Fulton Sts. W side.
Built in three sections: 1912-23. All by William Welles Bosworth.
Addition to W, 1989, Eli Attia. The square-topped layer cake of New York:
a deep-set facade of 8 Ionic colonnades (embracing 3 stories within
each set) is stacked on a Doric order: handsome parts assembled into
a bizarre and wonderful whole: more Classical columns than any facade
in the world, the columns within the lobby extending that record.
(All was surmounted by Evelyn Beatrice Longman's Genius of the
Telegraph until that colossal gilded sculpture was moved to the
then new AT&T Building at 56th Street, and thence to New Jersey.)
Maybe it would've been neat if the WTC collapse ruined the old AT&T
building; the thought of it being reduced to a heaping pile of
columns would surely touch the heartstrings of those besmitten
by fantasies of Pompeii or Baalbek. Instead, it was shielded by
the 1989 addition, i.e. the Millenium Hilton, the gangling smoked
(and now ashen and shattered) glass cigarillo box facing Ground
Zero, whose impossibly tall and narrow form made it a very
frequently cited candidate for collapse (and if it fell over
backwards, AT&T would have become a Heap O'Columns).
Salvageable or not, a slender sprite such as MilHil (sort of
like Kubrick's 2001 slab in growth-spurty adolescence, its
voice cracking like its window panes; or else like the
Johnny Cymbal to 1 Liberty Plaza's Mr. Bass Man) across
from the epicentre of it all should henceforth make a
dauntingly perverse marketing challenge, one'd imagine.
Still, located as it is hard by St. Paul's churchyard,
the MilHil exuded a more wistful flavour than almost
any other WTC-zoner. In the event that it did
fall down, perhaps I should have nicknamed it "Aaliyah",
in honour of another sleek, black, and oddly wistful
victim of aircraft misfortune, only two weeks earlier...
[N21] Century 21/originally East River Savings Bank, 26 Cortlandt St., NE cor. Church St. to Dey St. 1931-34. Walker & Gillette. Expanded upward.
Cool neo-Classical Art Deco with marvellous stainless steel winged eagles over both entrances, in the spirit of the Chrysler Building but nowhere near as daring.
As it's low-rise, I recall this 30s dynamo-box more in the early ash-flying "overhead shots" than in anything subsequent--press photogs simply can't overcome their fixation with skyscrapers looming over WTC foreground debris. One subsequent overhead seemed to suggest a hole in the roof --or maybe not ...what little I saw from street level carried a peculiar shattered-Moderne fascination, evocative of abandoned fair buildings or of post-race-riot-deserted business districts. On the other hand, there's the matter of 22 Cortlandt St behind it, the 50s-ish International Style file cabinet with shattered windows filling the gap between MilHil and 1 Liberty Plaza. If it hadn't been mucked up by the Twin Towers, this period highrise probably would have been destined for a big recladding and repackaging anyway, someday...
[N18] 1 Liberty Plaza (offices)/briefly Merrill Lynch Plaza, Broadway, Liberty, Church and Cortlandt Sts. 1971-74. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. [N19] Liberty Plaza (park), Broadway, Cedar, Church, and Liberty Sts. 1974; SE corner holdout, 1980. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
A gloomy, articulate, cadaverous extravaganza of steel: handsome and somber as the Renaissance of Florence. It replaced the great Singer Tower (1908-1970) by Ernest Flagg, an eclectic palace-tower and the tallest building ever demolished. Bollards and chains surround the low, depressed basement that seems designed, consciously, to crush the passer and enterer. A hovering hulk.
Across Liberty Street to the south is a large, bleak, red granite treed plaza dedicated to the public, part of the zoning calculations that allowed the developers (U.S. Steel) to add bulk to their behemoth. The plaza links, in a chain, Marine Midland and Chase Manhattan Plazas to the east, and the World Trade Center to the west.
Well, not only is Singer no longer the tallest building ever demolished, early rumours were rife that we were headed for a bizarre superlative: for the first time ever, two megascrapers demolished at the same location. For all the shared fascination I had with the WTC ruin proper, I was positively fixated upon the reportedly uncertain fate of the hovering hulk, tagged by rumours of its imminent or even already partial collapse (to the degree that newspaper maps of the scene depicted it as wholly/partially collapsed). The potentially catastrophic gravity of the situation wasn't lost on me; not only wasn't 1 Liberty Plaza a part of the WTC complex, but it appeared more tied in to Wall Street and the downtown core, seemingly too distant to be so adversely affected as was being reported --moreover, its raw, gaunt rigid frame simply didn't look capable of falling down even in this extremity, and if it did, it surely wouldn't implode so neatly as the Twin Towers. Were the rumours true about "unsinkable" 1 Lib, the disaster could easily have snowballed from relative containment into catastrophic unreality, a new-millennial "Great Fire" --if WTC strained cinematic metaphors, WTC plus 1 Lib would have crashed them. As it was, 1 Lib was an eerily intense participant in the spectacle, lending its ample albeit battered lobby space as a triage centre when it and its environs weren't being evacuated under threat of collapse; and while it was being "threatened", its looming, window-blasted and otherwise brutalized silhouette appeared, through the televised shroud of billowing smoke, not obviously afire but bathed in gloom, positively possessed by Piranesian dread. We didn't know what was going to happen to it; and for all the ominous rumours, we didn't even know what had happened to it. It was an uncannily synchronous fluke of Dantean fate; finally, to a degree totally unforeseen, the building was living up to its gloomy cadaverousness.
And this might explain why 1 Liberty Plaza, usually vilified either as a 750-foot tombstone for Singer or as an apotheosis of narcissistically "anti-urban" Corporate Modern hubris, may be the architectural sleeper of the disaster, gaining in stature like no other within the affected zone. No longer was the brutish dread of all that hardcore-70s-SOM steel, steel, steel vertical horizontality a mere arbitrary, inappropriate, "inhuman" gesture --SOM at their most S&M-- but now that it had been witness to greater ur-inhumanity without, it ascended to a new plateau of greatest-architectural-generation heroism and magnanimousness. If the Twin Towers touched too-easy sentiment even in their afterlife, 1 Lib inspired staggering awe through raw endurance --it even wore its brutal battering well, as the scars of war. Clearly, SOM's designers instinctively understood the architectural and aesthetic sublime; thus, whatever sublimity had imploded with the Twin Towers, 1 Lib salvaged and soaked right up, reasserting it as a virtue.
It all balanced upon the moment; 1 Lib appeared mildly anticlimactic as soon as it was given a clean bill of structural health. (Even its shattered windows looked pat once the worst WTC smoke cleared.) But we're left impressed, enthralled by the raw self-confidence that went into its design --a spectre from a lost age of architectural bravado, one that Postmodern fidgeting had shunted to the perma-purgatory of misguided swagger and embarrassment. Even before the disaster, I'd developed a rebel's embrace of this kind of architecture, conscious that it was at the nadir of its fashionability, devoid even of anything like 50s/60s populuxe'n'jetset charm. Think of it as a tattoo'n'piercing reflex in the face of Rybczynskian and Kunstlerian humanism, a big F U to the mealy mouth of New Urbanism; these thudding early 70s corporate monsters were f***ing awesome. If the WTC was Moog Gothic, 1 Liberty Plaza is pure Led Zeppelin: heavy metal, maximum thud, the hammer of the gods. (US Steel was its original client, and it friggin well shows. You can practically do da limbo under those sunken-entrance-level monster beams.) And like Led Zep, you'll never see'em that big and heavy and over-the-top again. Besides, the contrapuntal rolling medieval melee of Lower Manhattan truly enhances 1 Lib's dizzying, unrelenting Whole-Lotta-Love-riffness; the net effect would be comparatively static within the orthogonality of Midtown or, for that matter, in Chicago, where this particular form of extreme-Mies (Terry Kath vs. Jimmy Page?) would arguably be more "apropos". (And it just naturally extends the analogy to compare 1 Lib's oft-questioned endurance in the aftermath of Sep 11's cataclysm to "Whole Lotta Love"'s orgasms-in-warfare break.)
1 Liberty Plaza's gains, though, are largely cerebral, and perhaps lost to those not conditioned or charitable toward pure, uncompromising Modernist architectonics; frankly, this hardbody still lacks the easy-lite charm of those Twin Towers (and probably flicks away the insipid notion of "charm" like a dead fly, anyway). Even as an object in the now-truncated Lower Manhattan skyline, it remains too self-consciously grim to be an assertive presence --especially compared with the earlier and even taller downtown SOM Modernist box, Chase Manhattan, which as the flat peak of a prickly mountain does have the kind of jetsetty cold-war cool and charm that Tyler Brule would one day exploit so lucratively. For better or worse, even lesser mega-examples of 70s Corporate like 55 Water Street have more skyline/postcard "presence" than 1 Lib's narcissism-to-the-point-of-self-effacement. But still, cachet may have finally arrived at the hardscaped doorstep of the notorious Singer-killer, even though it humiliates its urban context as if said context were some kind of Led Zeppelin groupie. And it took disaster to do it --now, for skyscraper-fleers to steer clear of this architecture-that-makes-your-ears-bleed is an instant sign of wimping out. 1 Liberty Plaza definitely earns some kind of a Monika's Karma medal for turning sheer unyielding endurance into an aesthetic statement; now, we'll have to see if the architectural perambulator will respond in kind (unfortunately, "perambulator" and "headbanger" are diametrically opposed concepts). And in the face of war, forget about rebuilding Yamasaki's wuss twins: hunker down here, patriots, where inhuman brutality shall truly meet its match. And pass the Asprin while you're at it.
[F66] 90 West Street Building (offices), bet. Albany and Cedar Sts. E side. 1907. Cass Gilbert. Limestone and cast terra-cotta.
Increasingly interesting and complex the higher you raise your eyes: designed for a view from the harbor or the eyries of an adjacent skyscraper, rather than the ordinary West Street pedestrian. A similar, but less successful, use of terra-cotta than Gilbert's spectacular Woolworth Building.
In 1985 the upper-floor colonnades and mansard roof were brightly lighted, surprising many people who had never given this building any notice.
The southern environs of the WTC, always an area lacking urban definition, were a bit of a post-disaster enigma, partly because they took so much sloppy battering from the S Tower collapse, partly because it was the off-limits "downtown" side of the disaster zone and tended to be camoflauged by WTC fire and smoke and haze according to the typical news-camera trajectory. (And we, observers, reporters, were making constant ill-educated guesses as to how much inferno was coming from the WTC proper and how much was coming from these southern neighbours.) Thus we saw very few images of Bankers Trust, although this conspicuous tres-1970ish high-rise glass packing carton --if 1 Liberty Plaza is Led Zeppelin, Bankers Trust must be Mountain or something-- was appreciably and very photogenically a la war scene lacerated by debris (huge gaping facade hole, column ripped out, WTC shreds hanging about, etc --an anarchist's delight if ever there was one). But that was (almost) nothing compared to little St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 155 Cedar Street but really all by itself upon its block, an tiny, stuccoed, bellcoted, exotically unlikely granny's-house holdout (if one may assert pre-Sept-11-style ironizing here, according to the Archdiocese news release, "among its first members were the parents of Telly and George Savalas") whose core was a 1832 house/tavern, and despite its Southeet-Seaport-gone-unmoored venerability too picayune to ever be landmarked or very much acknowleged (AIA-NYC leaves it unsaid). It was by far the humblest (by c21 standards) built object within the danger zone, the anti-1 Lib, whose neck-breaking counterpoint w/the Twin Towers (also taking into account the icon'd and relic'd worship spaces within) was an integral part of its effect. It placed itself bravely in the path of the S Tower collapse and was buried--the forgotten footnote of all footnotes in the disaster, and the only actual immediate non-WTC building demise (unless the WTC-WFC North Bridge counts). And St. Nicholas probably died with as much pluck as Fr. Mychal Judge, so East and West must be shaking hands in the Holy Eternal. (It says something that St. Nicholas is the more likely Phoenix than its gargantuan neighbours --and one imagines that overzealous Jacobites and Kunstlerians would wish that all of the disaster zone could be rebuilt along the lines of St. Nicholas.)
90 West Street is really the architectural star hereabouts, Cass Gilbert's sneak preview of Woolworth, albeit less as a soaring Goth here than a sturdy American Classic, almost too dapper a Ragtime-era relic to merit being sprayed with WTC spew. But spewed it was; in fact, it was purportedly the most severely affected "older" building (excluding, of course, St. Nicholas), to the point where I feared the worst, that it perhaps had been burnt out and damaged beyond repair --in the footage from the north, I puzzled over whether some of the smoke presumably coming from Ground Zero was actually coming from the shadowy mass with the shallow mansard behind it (i.e. 90 West). Nor did later aerial footage alleviate the possibly grim scenario, until I realized --talk about paradox-- why 90 West appeared "ominously" blackened and pocked with holes: the restorationists' scaffolding and black mesh. The roof was still a verdigris-green picturesque delight, though, peekabooing above the mesh; and as far as I could discern, the stone and terra-cotta on the scaffold-less side facing the WTC still, for all its battering and singing, glowed naturally bright, so while it was a scary and precarious situation, all was not lost...perhaps. The major architectural damage does appear to be facade, but the consolation: it's curtain-wall construction, 1900s style. And if that facade's already been in mid-restoration (and perhaps not for the first time, either), one assumes that to brush off and start anew won't be such a technical problem (hey, just cast more terra-cotta), even if it means a little more time in the intensive care ward, and the circumstances'll be a little too, er, pregnant for such re-restoration to be a matter-of-fact event. But architecturally speaking, it's the thinking person's WTC victim, and a building whose star's already been on the rise for a generation, a classic of the American Renaissance and an almost literal cornerstone of the traditional Lower Manhattan urban cluster, now essentially coopted as a kindly sage by the yuppies and Battery Park Cityans of the Second American Renaissance (sex'n'scandal: Stanny & Evelyn, Bill & Monica, Gary & Chandra, what the dif), so sentiment's unflappably on its side. And furthermore, if you want a southern counterpart to NY Tel's demonstration of the endurance of old buildings, take a glimpse at 90 West, then crane your neck leftward to the outrageously gross spectacle at Bankers Trust --you'll be laughing hysterically with tears in your eyes. But ah, if only 90 West's saga could match the tragic folk poetry of the St. Nicholas that once stood (and may yet again stand) before it. (And there's a different kind of folk poetry to the "anonymous" little c19th office-turned-loft sliver at 125 Cedar St next door...)
World Financial Center: The 7-million-square-foot commercial center, encompassed in a group of towers sheathed in reflective glass and thermal granite. The towers vary in height from 33 to 51 stories, and each has a different geometric termination--mastaba, dome, pyramid, stepped pyramid. The overall design concept was developed by design architect Cesar Pelli with Adamson & Associates as coordinating architects. As bulky as the towers are, they begin, in Pelli's irregular placement (dictated by landfill configurations), to soften the impact of the neighboring World Trade Center's ray, 110-story prisms. After years of lonely exposure, the Trade Center's out-of-scale twin towers have finally been shoehorned into a context with Lower Manhattan.
[B26] North Bridge (200-foot clear span, 40 feet wide) connecting U.S. Custom House to the Wintergarden.
[B27] South Bridge (220-foot clear span, 25 feet wide) connecting Liberty St. to South Gatehouse. Both 1985. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Haines Lundberg Waehler, architects. Lev Zetlin & Assocs. and Thornton Thomasetti, structural engineers.
Pedestrian access from "Little Old New York" across the great gulf formed by West Street. From the inside the bridges are long narrow ballrooms; from the outside they resemble levitating Brobdingnagian interstate buses minus their tires. (The bridges are formed of Vierendeel trusses of great span to accomodate the uncertainties of a multibillion-dollar Westway that was destined never to come.)
These bridges are the least successful part of the project.
[B28] 1 World Financial Center/Dow Jones & Company Building and Oppenheimer & Company Tower. West St. opp. Cedar St. W side. 1985. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Adamson Assocs., architects.
Mastaba-topped, 40 stories high.
[B29] North and South Gatehouses, West St. W side framing Liberty St. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Adamson Assocs., architects. 1980s.
The marbled interiors of these bulky octagonal pavilions are spacious, lavishly clad, fussily detailed, and embarrassingly devoid of purpose.
[B30] 2 World Financial Center/Merrill Lynch World Headquarters, South Tower. West St. bet. Liberty and Vesey Sts. W side. 1987. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Haines Lundberg Waehler, architects.
Dome-topped, the tallest tower at 51 floors.
[B31] The Wintergarden, opp. North Bridge. 1988. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Adamson Assocs., architects. Lev Zetlin & Assocs. and Thornton Thomasetti, structural engineers. M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, landscape architects.
It's hard to fathom why London's 19th-century Crystal Palace was framed in so gossamer a structure, while this is encased in so heavy a steel-pipe frame. Nevertheless, it's a welcome, sunny, barrel-vaulted, palm-filled interior public space measuring 130 x 230 feet, roughly the size of Grand Central's concourse. (The 90-foot-tall palms are Washingtonia robusta, specially chosen for heartiness from among the world's 2, 780 species.)
[B32] World Financial Center Plaza, W of 2 World Financial Center and the Wintergarden. 1988. Siah Armajani and Scott Burton, artists. Cesar Pelli, architect. M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, landscape architects.
Poised around the indented North Cove, the Plaza comprises the Terrace, the Court, Summer Park, and West Park. The New York City Police Memorial (Susan B. Crawford, 1997) contrasts water and polished granite, on which the names of officers lost in the line of duty are engraved.
The Belvidere (1995, Mitchell/Giurgola) comprises a platform with a bosquet of trees and a belvedere. Stainless steel pylons (1995. Martin Puryear) provide welcome symbols to arriving ferryboaters.
[B33] 3 World Financial Center: American Express Headquarters, West St. SW cor.
Vesey St. 1985. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Adamson Assocs., architect.
[B34] 4 World Financial Center: Merrill Lynch World Headquarters, North Tower, Vesey St. SE cor. North End Ave. 1986. Cesar Pelli, design architect. Haines Lundberg Waehler, architects.
[B35] 5 World Financial Center: New York Mercantile Exchange, Vesey St. bet. West St. and North End Ave. N side to Murray St. 1997. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
No hat this time, but cool views of the Hudson reward its traders. David Dunlap (in the New York Times) described the trading floor: "...nothing about its gray-flannel facade betrays the sheer pandemonium within...clad in the eye-popping colors of a medieval pageant, shouting and gesturing wildly, they buy and sell futures and options in crude oil,...platinum, copper, silver and gold."
If 1 Liberty Place was the big stature winner in the immediate disaster aftermath, that great icon of Gordon Gecko-era NYC, the World Financial Center, was the big loser, almost like a shrill 80s Genesis to the former's sturdy 70s Led Zeppelin (as opposed to Lev Zetlin) (WTC 7 = Motley Crue?) --though like everything else in the vicinity, WFC'll probably gain in the longer term through this spotlight moment. But then, the stature loss may have been preordained, as the reality of WFC and the rest of Battery Park City has, except for the Esplanade and the views of the complex from the Hudson, always fallen short of the unqualified public embrace that was hoped for --though (definitely) not for lack of trying. The problem was that between conception and execution, a mood changed, and it wasn't good for either architectural culture or corporate culture; what was conceived as grand urban largesse ended up looking like inflated 80s-hysteria high-style hubris. It may have been far better architecture and urbanism than the World Trade Center, but the WFC, even features like the Wintergarden (how much wistful lament have we heard about its fate?), could never dovetail into WTC's egalitarian embrace; it all felt too "corporate", i.e. it "smelt of Gecko". The residential sectors of Battery Park City suffered analogously; great urbanism ...for those slicks and suits who could afford it. (Passcard territory, in other words.) But you can't blame architecture or urbanism, really; we used to be able to coexist happily, civilly with this stuff, whether we were "of it" or not, but by the Spy'n'Letterman late 80s we couldn't stanch this flow of wary-eyed, pop-deconstructive jaundice. Arguably, WFC and the rest of BPC was a victim of the very culture of irony and cynicism that certain commentators have claimed was blasted asunder by the events of Sept. 11.
The net effect of Sep 11 on the World Financial Center was messy, to say the least, although only the N Bridge was truly decimated in the cataclysm (and for practical reasons, it would also be the first built casualty to be actually cleared from its site --though we got good news camera footage of naked Vierendeel in the meantime; the S Bridge, too, is probably rendered semi-superfluous by it all). Oh, WFC looked "normal" from the New Jersey side, a romantically reassuring all-is-well shield from the carnage, "Manhattan lives on", etc.; but the opposite side was a different matter. If a building's success hinges on its making a "great ruin", then 1 Lib succeeds to the utmost; it wears its shattered glass and scars beautifully. WFC, on the other hand, looked like its Manhattan-ward face had hit a windshield. If you thought 80s Postmodern was a gratuitously "ugly" style in and of itself, such thoughts are compounded by the positively ghastly sight of WFC's eastern flank piled with and pocked by debris, with windows shattered and stone facings cracked and a huge javelin-like piece of World Trade mullion bizarrely sticking out of an upper corner of 3 WFC. Plain and simple, from an aesthetic standpoint, this kind of architecture "ruins" terribly. (It hasn't even the borderline Cronenbergian black hilarity of Bankers Trust.) Besides the N Bridge, 3 WFC (with its phallic "javelin" embodying a badly lacerated SE corner) and, especially, the Wintergarden (piled with the debris that smoked the N Bridge, and with a badly dented/buckled roof to boot) suffered significantly more than cosmetic damage; and the whole complex was threatened by something quite different --undermining as a result of fill construction and damage to the WTC's foundations. Nasty. (And consider, too, that the WTC's disappearance may naturally lead to the reconfiguration of WFC's Manhattan face, anyway, to conform to the "new scale".)
Curiously, the whole cataclysm of events may be positive for World Financial Center (and, by extension, the rest of Battery Park City), if it signals a retreat from a generation of poisonous cynicism. Maybe--especially if the Wintergarden rebuilding becomes a "civic event" (at least its non-gossamer steel-pipe frame, lethally damaged as it may be, seems to have spared its contents from worse) --we can now behold and embrace this "enlightened" urban creation with some semblance of the unjaded civic reverence and clearness of mind that was intended from the start, especially as the parched eating-its-own-tail era which it signifies (or is bogged down by) has now been thoroughly, irrevocably, consigned to history. Perhaps the Twin Tower ruins may be viewed as, er, a bonfire of Battery Park City's vanities. Wait ...did the disaster rob us of our innocence, or is it restoring our innocence? (Well, true urban love is kind of innocent...)
[C1] St. Paul's Chapel (Episcopal) and Churchyard. Broadway bet. Fulton and Vesey Sts. W side to Church St. 1764-66. Porch, 1767-68. Maybe Thomas McBean. Tower and steeple, 1794-96, James Crommelin Lawrence.
Manhattan's only extant pre-Revolutionary building. Although the city's present territory contains a dozen older structures, they were isolated farmhouses or country seats that bear no more relation to the city than do still-rural 18th-century houses in outlands surrounding today's metropolis. Unlike Fraunces Tavern, St. Paul's is as close to the original as any building requiring maintenance over 200 years could be. Stone from the site (Manhattan schist) forms walls that are quoined, columned, parapeted, pedimented, porched, and towered in Manhattan's favorite 18th- and 19th-century masonry, brownstone.
A gilt weathervane forms a finial to the finial of a tower crowning a "Choragic Monument of Lysicrates" (Hellenistic Greek monument for Renaissance and neo-Renaissance copycats).
The graveyard is a green oasis, dappled with sunlight, an umbrella
of trees over somber gravestones. Ivy. Squirrels. Lovely.
It is rumored that Pierre L'Enfant, the soldier-architect who designed the Federal Hall, America's first capitol, and laid out the plan for Washington D.C., designed the golden sunburst (gloire) over the high altar.
Governor Clinton's and President Washington's pews are within.
Restored innocence lieth here. Although the thought of St. Paul's without the twin pinstriped monsters looming behind it may now be too nakedly, disconcertingly unfamiliar to urban beholders grown accustomed to thirty years of that shrieking counterpoint. But in place of the counterpoint, something ageless --or even beyond ageless.
I really worried about St. Paul's for that pinstriped-backdrop reason; that it was in a latently obvious path of potential destruction, all the more vulnerable given its age. Luckily, the Twin Towers were on the "far" side of the WTC site from St. Paul's, thus sparing it from burial a la St. Nicholas, though not necessarily the overall splatter'n'puncture effect that the Millenium displayed so vividly next door. But St. Paul's was blessed in that regard as well; windows, spire, brownstone and all, it withstood the melee with flying colours. The obvious and unforgettable impact was in the churchyard: battered trees, smashed and toppled tombstones, and most conspicuously, the omnipresent sea of dust and debris and scorched and burnt shards of paper, here turned into something unreal: a timelessly epic elegy amidst the haze. The searing hush of a churchyard in a blizzard --and a most unseemly blizzard; a blizzard of the dead, a portrait of the dead. Death by violence, but as it landed in this particular place, without horror, at least horror of the 21st century variety. (Imagine if Edgar Allen Poe had beheld it.) A disconcerting confluence of unthinkable terror and unsinkable tranquility, where the city of the ages struggled to maintain its urbane serenity against all odds. Everything that landed at St. Paul's, pieces of building, pieces of paper, perhaps pieces of people and personal effects, was blessed with the tragic essence of art and poetry and spirituality. It rendered all the horror that existed without, trite --the terrorists' ego trip, the journalists' idée fixe, the sensational extent of damage, all but the affected innocent. The items that landed here instantly became eternal relics, objects of reflection in their unity of effect. At St. Paul's, a nexus for humility and hope, unsung by the media except in touching passing, but a truer, subtler expression of a reassuringly time-honoured and virtuous American spirit than the World Trade Center posthumously pretended to be --the only reason why it doesn't gain more than 1 Liberty Plaza is that it had so much to begin with --New York's most unextinguishably primal instincts counteracted whatever the terrorists meant to cancel out. Its spire thusly became a stake in the terrorists' hearts.
The chapel itself made for the swellest, most transcendent WTC relief centre imaginable, where the ghosts of Washington and Governor Clinton touched noses with perfectly (extra)ordinary coffee'n'donuts-imbibing emergency workers smack dab in the age of Senator Rodham Clinton. And the transcendence shan't end there, we'd hope. Take a pause from the horrible recent past and get away from the ruin for a second, and go to St. Paul's Chapel, to a much more distant past, where you may feel a serene, contemplative future of hopes and dreams. And if it isn't to be, well ...when St. Paul's goes, we'll all go. Maybe we should go there when the time comes.
Keep in mind, of course, that my perspective is for the most part very second hand. Not just because I can't access the danger zone, but because, well ...I don't know the area very well, not on a first-hand, day-to-day basis. In fact, the last time I was here, specifically, was in 1992. I'm not a New Yorker except in my heart (though when I go there, I hit the ground running). Perhaps that affects how I visualize things ...but then, certain great architectural treatise-writers never visited many of the buildings of which they spoke so eloquently. (And that was before photography, yet, let alone the Internet.) Hopefully, it reflects a long spiritual engagement to the physicality of New York, its (and all our) architecture and urban form ...as well as how the disaster itself engaged us --more of us even more intensely than we could have dared to predict. In fact, if a good guidebook is capable of turning us into "honorary citizens", Ground Zero surreally amplified the process. It became our alternate "neighbourhood" for the duration, awful as it was. So, as an idée fixe, it merits "reading", except that ...morally...ethically...
But must the overwrought spectre of perceived "morals" and "ethics" manacle us beyond the call of duty? Sooner or later, we have to get out of paralysis, because we're too rich for paralysis.
Think of it as the rally of normalcy. Whether a reverent normalcy, or an irreverent normalcy, it's normalcy. Nothing's too haunted.
So maybe it's a normalcy that encompasses extra-normalcy.
As soon as the focus of CNN et al shifted from disaster to war, I got bored. The war on terrorism, the shaking of the fist at Osama Bar Sinister, is a bore. The raw ripple effect of what happened in New York, however, never bores. It is beauty, from Ground Zero to Union Square to everything. It is where the spirit prevails.
But we must still rally out of shellshock --perhaps through means "discredited" by the disaster. Make love among the ruins, make love even with a jaundiced eye. And range widely, encompass all, embrace, don't exclude.
They say irony and cynicism is dead, discredited? Maybe we've just been softened by its debasement. Maybe it --or something even more fundamental-- is being restored, regaining time-honoured power and ferocity. Perversity and horror vacuii is no longer the silly giggly stuff of a dorm room wall. We can now truly feel the aura of plague and pestilence that underlay the art of Bosch, or the mad socio-politico-cultural realism behind the viciousness of Grosz and Dix, Brecht and Weill. Acid's no longer just the banal chant of the raver. To mourn is easy --we must go beyond. Yet we must accept our legacy, because to do otherwise would be using the airbrush.
For instance, we must accept the legacy of cynicism and disdain toward the World Trade Center --because, really, that's part of the whole story, the whole legend. It is part of the trope. And it's not without base --we shouldn't pretend otherwise.
And (drumroll, please) it makes it richer.
I am not in New York, so I cannot convey the true degree and spread of impact, whether through strewn debris, dirt, damage, or afterglow. In fact, the challenge is prohibitive. I defer to others. Others have already picked up the slack. And they continue to do so.
The shattered traceried shards of the WTC towers make a fine memorial, yes, with more eerie angelic organ-pipey Friedrichian beauty than when they were really part of a building. It's a worthy case, but I defer to others, lest the point be beaten to mawkishness.
This is no place to shriek suburban or New Urbanist sweet revenge; if it were, I wouldn't be embracing (even with a remnant touch of pre-Sep 11 ironizing) 1 Liberty Plaza and its compatriots. My concern is less with how to build, than with how to behold. And as we have seen, at and around Ground Zero, there's a diverse lot of the affected and otherwise adjacent to behold --1920s Skyscraper Modern, 1930s Stripped Classicism, 1970s Corporate Modern, 1980s Corporate Postmodern, 1900s Skyscraper Eclecticism, plus a venerable and venerated pre-Revolutionary chapel and a converted Orthodox midget nearby, and a lot of lesser or not-so-lesser glue holding it all together and fitting it into territory beyond, sometimes haphazardly, sometimes not so. A spectrum that's perfect in its fluid imperfection. It's a true city, part of the true beyond. We work here, we live here, we party here, we make love here. We die here. Sometimes brutally. And we live on.
Maybe there really is no limit as to how Delirious, in the best sense of the term, New York can get...
Fight splatter with a gentler counter-splatter. For as Jane Jacobs et al have proven, the city works best as a splatter. But I'm all for the meta-splatter, encompassing even that which revulses the urban splatter-lovers. The omni-splatter?
I'm bored by the war, by the commonplace patriotic bluster. I'm bored by "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America". As a real 2001-style call to arms, let's instead counter the bluster by pumping up "Bootylicious" full blast. Now, those terrorist characters can't beat "Bootylicious", can they? And maybe if you pump that Stevie Nicks vibrator rhythm high enough, you'll do what Osama couldn't do --bring 1 Liberty Plaza crashing down. Estrogen beats testosterone? Ah, the fun of it all ...taking that which exterminated Ernest Flagg and exterminating it back with Fannie Flagg...
...[Finished September 28, 2001, on what'd be Ingrid Alt's 39th birthday,
wherever she is.]
The Transcendence Continues November 2001
Omni on the World Trade Center