Omni on the World Trade Center

2 Essays
by Michael R. Allen

1. The Weakness of the Strength Metaphor   September 2001
2. From 0 to 1,776  October 2004

From 0 to 1,776
October 9, 2004

One has only about one year to visit New York City before its skyline is forever marred by the emerging tallest building in the world, which will be a clumsy pointed hulk dumbly named the Freedom Tower. This is, of course, the much-ballyhooed 1,776-foot replacement tower for the former World Trade Center Towers site. Over the next six years, this tower will rise to reclaim the absence of those towers, making a statement even more offensive and obvious than the Two Tombstones did. The Freedom Tower will close the window -- literally, an opening in the sky that towers once occupied -- of contemplation that New Yorkers have had since September 11, 2001.
                  Currently, the empty site acts as a sort of ritual location; here is where New Yorkers can come to study a ghastly pockmark that suggests absence, wondering what in the world the events three years ago mean and what they can learn from the experience. The site is too horrible to be easily understood, and thus has become a sort of terrible monument of silent contemplation. Here is where the Towers, now the stuff of national myth, once stood. No one can see the towers, and no one can see any more of the wreckage that has long since been removed. But the site is unmistakably the grave of the World Trade Center Towers, from the hole in the ground to the open sky above. This is a space full of emptiness, packed with potential meaning that can never be made tangible or even visible.
                  The WTC site is, in short, a veritable cinema a memory upon which visitors can project their own scenes of horror, dignity and disbelief. There is nothing on the site except nothing, and that nothing provokes mortified contemplation. One imagines that only the grounds of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, provoke so much horrified awe as does the WTC site. Disaster sites seem to retain and expand the energy of terror that once caused great trauma in survivors. At New York’s Ground Zero, this energy cannot possibly reside in any particle of the towers, because all of the debris is gone. But it’s there, offering people the chance to come to the site and stare at all that is gone, all that exerts a certain absence.
                  The built environment tends to absorb trauma. Buildings, after all, endure countless abuses and serve as the settings for every possible pain a human being can endure. They keep standing through small fires and murders, gaining some new store of anguish with each event. When they are torn apart, their stored energies do not rapidly dissipate but become a part of whatever replaces them. This energy is no supernatural force, but rather is the inscribed force of historical and semiotic memory. People keep this energy alive through their responses to changes in the built environment. People remember changes in facades, storefronts, and so forth. People also strongly remember things that eventually disappear. Nothing so powerfully invokes the iconic recollection of a building than a visit to its site when it is gone. The mind projects the building as more than just a structure then; the building’s placement in the web of the individual memory is evident and gives the site continued power to terrify, astound or sadden. Yet the empty space itself cannot be said to embody any of the memories or to signify any of the history.
                  We know that a certain building was there and we know what it means, but we cannot identify the signifier that will neatly bind memory to place. The site is a sort of empty signifier, a catalyst for meaning but not an agent. The empty lot is the ultimate zero degree signifier, because it is a nothing. Even if paved over or built upon, nothing of the original building remains but perhaps a few small fragments that do not suggest the form or mass of the missing building.
                  If the empty lot is the ultimate zero degree signifier, then Ground Zero is the ultimate empty lot of this century. Not many empty spaces in the built environment have continued to inspire such contemplation among both architects and lay people. In a sense, everyone in the world is a historian of the WTC site, simply because the meanings of the terrorist attack on the towers are indelibly inscribed there for anyone who knows that the event happened. Although this effect may be due to the rather garish semiotic oversimplification the WTC Towers offered (that is, big buildings equals big American money), it also has to do with the powerful images that many of us have seen. Most of us have never seen skyscrapers so instantly and dramatically pulverized. Anyone who doesn’t live in New York City knows the event of September 11, 2001 through broadcast images, which only intensify the inscription of horror in Ground Zero. The broadcasts provided instant interpretation and amendment -- death tolls, accounts of the simultaneous attack on the Pentagon, etc. -- that made it even more significant than it was for those who saw it first-hand, unaware of the event’s full impact on human life and political culture.
                  In the last century, Hiroshima and Nagasaki tie for being the ultimate empty spaces, and the horror that they suggested is much greater than that Ground Zero does. Yet these are places obliterated by war and, although they were created through extreme new weapons, these empty cities were not surprising in their historical moment. The spontaneity and singularity of the WTC attack makes it even more novel, and its happening in the affluent USA makes it even stranger. If this event had happened elsewhere in the world, it may not have left so much excess meaning behind; it may have been easily explained and mourned. Yet the event at Ground Zero marks the end of the insularity of America and the American capitalist dream, a project that holds the attention of the world. Few would have ever anticipated its possibility, regardless of their approval of the political project that the WTC Towers represented. Its occurrence was truly terrible.
                  Thus so much is unresolved, and it seems that the Ground Zero site offers a place to study that lack of resolution. In the wake of such a large national trauma, Americans should not be eager to see anything else built on this site. Do we all know what the event means? Do we understand it already? How could we? An event of such shocking importance takes years to endure, and is never fully understood. We should be wondering why the state and city of New York and developer Larry Silverstein are in such a hurry to rebuild. Obviously, the reasoning is mainly economic: the loss of those towers necessitates swift rebuilding to recoup Silverstein’s investment and resume the flow of tax revenue. Of course, no one is surprised that the supposed patriots of New York -- Governor George Pataki, Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg -- prioritized economic reasoning over design and environmental considerations. Yet their rush to bury the site of the disaster under a hastily-conceived hideous tower is astounding.
                  They could not have even waited a half-decade to decide what to do. Instead, they tried to solve the problem of the empty hole in the ground, converting the sacred site of terror into just another real estate conundrum, which is what the Trade Center ground was forty years ago. There’s a big hole, and it needs to be filled, they must have reasoned. We can’t let this much space go fallow, or become a park space. After all, the site is one of the most visible and potentially lucrative parcels in lower Manhattan. The logic of its use as real estate stipulates that it must be kept in use for speculative projects. The logic of its use also easily accounts for and welcomes the attacks of 9/11. No developer could have afforded to wreck the aging towers, which had long since lost their allure to tenants. They were enjoying moderate success in 2001, but their depreciation was becoming a blight on the site. If the terrorist gang had not plotted to destroy them, Silverstein or one of his associates may have.
                  This may seem like a far-fetched idea, but in today’s speculative market -- especially in Manhattan -- perpetual use means perpetual rebuilding. One cannot rebuild towers such as those that stood on the WTC site. They were built as a rigid binary statement, according to the Modernist idiom prevalent at the time of their design in 1966. They were designed to proclaim the stability of American capitalism, to signify power by being powerful. Like most icons of power (consider also the Pentagon), they were designed with form in mind ahead of function—and adaptability last of all. No one could have adapted them or seriously considered rehabbing them. In order to redevelop that site, the towers had to be demolished. No one could afford to do that properly.
                  Nonetheless, by fortune the demolition occurred and the land is being restored to its place in the use order of the New York real estate market. The Freedom Tower puts an iconic shine on what is nothing more than a crass reclamation of valuable land. The tower and its land are simple commodities, appearing as meaningful icons only to people who cannot detect their own embrace of commodity fetishism. The new tower is slightly vulnerable in its signification; there is a hesitancy to proclaim much in its lines. Yet its name offers sound reassurance that the new building signifies with as heavy a hand as the towers it replaces. Freedom Tower. That will certainly teach the terrorists not to destroy it, right? At least, not until this tower becomes an obsolete and obvious sign of capitalist decadence, and its own builders may silently begin hoping for another “redevelopment opportunity” to emerge.
                  The name of the tower is not as hollow as the building design. Its fractured glass body suggests an ephemeral presence while still making that fatal reach to the sky. The Freedom Tower might be beautiful as a 900-foot building, but at its proposed height it’s a ridiculous contradiction of grace and overreach. The building’s form is sophisticated, but it is simply too tall. Something that is trying to evade the appearance of solid, boxy mass should not also be the tallest building in town. The height, of course, is part of the attempt to package the real estate as something historically meaningful, as a supposedly-final statement in the war of statements: World Trade Center, 9/11, Freedom Tower. Odd that the signification would reduce the “World” to specifically American dimensions.
                  Libeskind, of course, is trying to make a proper moral statement. Yet he fails because he is designing a speculative office building that is as crude in its signification as the average make-it-historical “retro” baseball stadium. His aversion to the glass box is likely rooted in great compassion for the people who suffer in the war of statements; he doesn’t want to build them another sure death trap. Yet he engages in the stylistic overstatements of the name and height that may seem to be fringe components of the design but are, in fact, essential to its success. Every office tower needs its pretense at originality.
                  The most original plan for this site, however, would be to momentarily grant it rest, allowing it to absorb the historical weight of the disaster that took place there. When the city of New York announced its design competition, it did not call for designs of emptiness. It called for the rebuilding of the real estate use of the site. No one seriously intervened with an attempt to slow the process so that a public discussion could be held later to determine if the site should even be restored to commercial use. In the heat of grief, New Yorkers and others vowed to rebuild what was lost. Never mind that what was lost, foremost, were human lives. The discussion could have eventually shifted to consideration of how to properly consecrate this land for those who perished at the site on September 11, 2001. Perhaps some could have made a logical argument for speculative real estate development, but I doubt that many people would have as time wore on. People would have considered a turning Ground Zero into a proper memorial -- an empty signifier in the real estate game -- rather than a new tower with only some memorial space. Or they may have contemplated the wisdom of building a new tower in Manhattan after the tallest towers on the island were terrorist targets.
                  Perhaps people would have demanded a more human-scaled development project. They may have chosen to extend their charity to the less fortunate by dedicating the site for use as low-income housing or for education. Maybe they would have started thinking about how the logic of real estate speculation plays into a larger system of capitalism in which terrorism plays a handy foil to “progressive” multinational corporatism. Who knows? The public never had a chance to recover from 9/11. They never had a chance to fully contemplate the meaning of empty land, and are now finding their site or grief abruptly converted into a site of forced celebration. Are the people celebrating?
                  Who would celebrate the great loss of a chance to resolve trauma?
                  What people still need is nothing at Ground Zero. The Freedom Tower is a premature closing of the great wound, demonstrating not that our profiteers have learned from the nothing of Ground Zero but that they have, in fact, learned nothing there.





Omni on the World Trade Center

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