WTC Reconstruction

Originally, the memorials were of a variety that has become well-known since Oklahoma City bombing in 1995: walls of flowers and photographs mixed with mementos and votives built up as individuals attached their tributes to chain-link fences. While these memorials lacked permanence, they were certainly visceral and real; they emanated from the grief of individual people. So, too, was the Tribute in Light, now a staple of the annual ceremonies and the first memorial that really attempted a collective statement. It was successful because it was not clearly a memorial: it was a reproduction of the towers as ephemeral shafts of light. It remains the most eloquent statement produced since 9/11. Tribute was not to last, having been designated temporary, and the search for a collective symbol was pressed forward. The intervening years have not been kind to that decision.

To be sure, few people liked Libeskind's design for the World Trade Center. It was always a poorly executed plan with a symbolic tower that epitomized the worst in patriotic poshlost; the design did, however, represent the zeitgeist. No doubt Libeskind himself sees it differently: a great symbolic gesture and, perhaps, a new wonder of the world. Arguing about Libeskind is not completely relevant: the design has been radically altered since he won the charette, though it retains the height of 1,776 feet. These alterations have ultimately been for the worse: Mr. Child's design is uninspiring, bland and generally in keeping with the work of SOM. Whatever the failings of the original Libeskind design, it at least had the benefit of not being a great glass box. The failure of the Freedom Tower is apparent contrasted against Calatrava's soaring and dynamic PATH station. However, with its economic viability a matter of serious concern, perhaps the tower should simply be abandoned.

The choice of ignominious fates--abandonment of the project or abandonment of aesthetics--is the expected outcome for such a project. From the beginning the project was beset with handicaps: a range of controlling authorities, public opinion hostile to nearly any design, the need to be an economically viable memorial. The last item should be made clear: the reconstruction and the memorial are inseparable in enough ways to argue, simply, that there are two redundant memorials: Michael Arad's and the Freedom Tower. By contrast to the Freedom Tower, Arad's simple but unfortunately named Reflecting Absence is fairly good as far as memorials go. Most people, however, noticed that Arad had originally designed a dystopia; only with the addition of trees has it become worthy of status as a memorial. Though an alteration for the better, it is hard to maintain much hopefulness for the site.

The particulars of the politics here have been well-covered elsewhere and shan't be lingered on. Within some segments, this process has become a focal point for a fight over architecture that has pitted conservatives against Moderns and, strangely, seems to have sucked even some presumed libertarians into a debate about grand planning. In this, I've found City Journal to be among the most vocal but also the most productive, having published designs in their pages. The first round, in an article presented by the principals, demonstrate precisely why the argument developed elsewhere that Modernism is inhuman seems hypocritical. The article describes "heroic statuary monuments" to firefighters and police that stand upon enormous pedestals, towering over pedestrians in a way that recalls Soviet monuments. Completing the sculptural programme is a great bier topped by colossal figures described as "Memory and History... illuminating and recording the dead." The comparison with a political cartoon cannot be helped.

How any of this is humanizing is not clear. Rather, it seems detached and meant to instill a feeling of smallness in the viewer. Such a design is in no way keeping with the event: 9/11 is fairly regarded as an event that made a great many people feel like they could accomplish something heroic or, at least, contribute to it. These designs, as monumental as Libeskind's tower, deny the humanity that appeared that day. They are meant to ring with a general paean to "courage," "heroism" and "sacrifice" without any great reflection. They are as dead as Arad's original design, but no doubt excite those, like Todd Seavey, who want anything to go up but Modernism. Other problems with his article aside, it is instructive that he settles on Art Deco without much reason except an appeal to "chrome, spires, lightning bolts, and Fred Astaire class." Again, however, a discussion of form before content and an appeal to another overly broad term, "class."

What has emerged from the debate should have been clear from the original memorials composed of flowers and photos: a few general sentiments that are the only continuity between divergent experiences and reactions. Libeskind, Arad and the schemes advanced by City Journal, et al lack any coherent message and thus lack any ability to put political and artistic will to use. In reality, the rush to build a permanent memorial came too soon; no idea had formulated and the events had yet to truly play out. Even now the importance of 9/11 is an unknown quantity that will not be settled by a series of political procedures or designs. Moreover, there is no reason why the site needs to be redeveloped immediately and, certainly, the political capital invested in the project could have been put to better use. Perhaps, then, it should remain empty and one more temporary memorial, a simple public park not unlike any other, should serve as a placeholder until the implications of 9/11 have played out and a consensus forms. Until then, the project will remain as it has been: an attempted eloquence that stutters, stumbles and fails.

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