New York Should Be a 21st Century Machu Picchu—What Happened?

We had a dream after 9/11. What happened to it?

A dozen years have slipped away since the 9/11 attacks came at us from the sky.  In all that time we’ve watched New York City grow more wealthy, with big money showing off its tall, sleek, trophy buildings that say more about dreams of power than the needs of the women and men on the street. Yet there was a moment when we had nobler dreams.

“New Yorkers expect a 21st century city to rise from the ashes of the twin towers and connect us with the historic city,” I wrote in a New York Times Op Ed on July 23, 2002.  “We need a ‘high-tech Machu Picchu,’ as some said at our table,” during a massive public hearing about rebuilding downtown.

That was before I went to Peru and came in intimate contact with the sun, the winds, the sky, and the earth, at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level overlooking the Sacred Valley where the Urubamba River hurtles over ancient rocks. On this small and glorious spot I understood fully what my tablemate meant about building a 21st century Machu Picchu in lower Manhattan.

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It appears that the Andean builders of the 15th century knew all about the sun’s trajectory, though the seasons and translated their knowledge and intuition into built form. We, on the other hand, even with our super-tech tools for measuring and documenting everything that goes into our buildings’ “performance evaluations” seem clueless at times.

Courtesy One World Trade Center

So I must ask here, if we don’t understand and respect the power of the sun, and of nature itself, how can we hope to create buildings that harmonize with them even as we claim to have created a high-tech civilization?

It appears that we have a long way to go before that 21st century Machu Picchu comes into view. Today we build a high-rise on a London street that creates an inferno on the ground, concentrating the sun’s rays to melt a parked Mercedes, burn holes in a carpet, and singe a woman’s hair.

What will it take for our architects, engineers, designers, builders, and developers to finally connect the knowledge of the Incas, and other ancient civilizations, to the high-tech world we live in?  We haven’t been able to make that essential connection and use it to leap into the 21st century New York City. Maybe other cities will be more fortunate.

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