The WTC and the Tragedy of Business as Usual

Ground Zero has, at long last, begun taking on its final shape. After spending billions of dollars, what exactly have we wrought?

Ground Zero Museum
Photograph by Soohang Lee

When does mixed use become mixed metaphor? At Ground Zero, from the moment the decision was made to rebuild as both a memorial and a vast office and commercial complex, the conflict between auras was on. The question has long been how close mourning and profit can be squeezed. Now that the museum and memorial are complete, buildings one and four are ready for occupancy, building three is back on the rise (thanks to yet another bailout for developer Larry Silverstein), and the Santiago Calatrava–designed PATH station is framed, it’s possible to get a sense of the texture, proportion, distribution, and artistic register of the site. And it’s clear that the contest between dignity and banality has been resolved on the side of the latter, decisively and consistently.

I walked down to visit the museum a few days ago—I live in the neighborhood and have been in daily touch with the site for years—approaching along Greenwich Street, much touted by the planners as the eventual key to the reknitting of the site into the city and the grid, a healing suture for a wound that preceded the attack. For the moment, Greenwich is still blocked by the temporary PATH station, and, when it’s demolished, the street will pass along the rear of the three skyscrapers fronting Church Street and Calatrava’s porcupine to the east and the memorial plaza to the west. The entry to the site from the north will cross the little plaza—festooned with its pathetic Jeff Koons balloon flower (which will eternally trivialize the tone for arriving visitors)—in front of 7 World Trade Center, and then between towers one and two, both of which will be higher than the Empire State Building. Somewhere in this “gateway” space, an art center may eventually rise if cash and a sufficiently noncontroversial tenant can be found.

Whether this stretch of street is freely open to vehicular traffic—it’s likely that there will be security apparatus at either end—will be of little actual difference to the pedestrian experience of crossing the site. And Greenwich’s narrow asphalt surface will not make much of a mark in an environment so overblown it will create its own weather. In fact, the one strong connective move that has been successfully included in the plan is the elimination of the podium on which the original World Trade Center used to sit, which continued the level of Church Street towards the river, resulting in thwarting walls on three sides of the site and the severing of Greenwich. By simply following the slope of the ground plane, the site has been made intrinsically crossable and “streets” are not really necessary to this. The real function of the restoration of Greenwich is to demarcate the sacred and the profane: a key question remains regarding the nature of the uses that will flank the plaza on the business side. Cafés and restaurants? Clothing stores? Souvenir shops?

This same sort of perilous segregating gradient will also occur in the project’s vertical section. The main element in the idea of memorialization has been excavation, which applies both to the two sunken pools in the footprints of the original buildings and to the museum, which is almost entirely underground, its main level below the bottoms of the memorial cavities. Elsewhere on the site there will be extensive underground commercial activity occupying the same strata as memorial and museum, but with neutralizing seams to bulkhead the tragic from the cheerful. This segregation will likely be successful at least at the visual level, but the imbrication of meaning will persist.

 “It’s clear that the contest between dignity and banality has been resolved on the side of the latter, decisively and consistently.”

One hears endlessly—like a mantra—about the success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in establishing a precedent for commemoration. It’s incontrovertibly a fine work, although not necessarily one that establishes a formula for every subsequent memorial—a descent into the earth lined in black stone and a list of names hardly encompasses the full possibilities of creative memory. What’s truly critical about the Vietnam memorial, however, is that it honors those (Americans) who died in a bitter, failed, and divisive war, and that its dignity had to be pared of any sense of celebration, of uplift. As we increasingly—and rightly—resist thinking of our wars as invariably just, our commemorations become more and more cautionary, admonitions of “never again,” victory displaced by mourning. The grim landscape of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, or the over-referential architecture of the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, or the tombstone-surrogate chairs in Oklahoma City, or the benches beside the Pentagon have become an abstracted default. But there’s a need to question the nature of their present-ness in our cities, to avoid the point at which marking, too assimilated to the familiar, becomes a perverse celebration.

The memorial in Berlin occupies the heart of that city, addressing especially the criminals (and their descendants) who planned the act so nearby, an insistent alteration of the fabric of urban normality—interference. This quality of rupture, an evocation of horror via tectonic foreboding, is something almost completely lacking at Ground Zero, which seeks, in the end, to fit in. Although I found the memorial moving the first few times I visited, I now also find it both grandiose and borderline anodyne. Part of the problem is the tenacious orthogonality of the planning, reinforced by the too-disciplined lines of landscaping, stripes of paving and grass with identical trees aligned with military precision. To be sure, there was some internal, largely arcane, conflict over the signifying power of geometry during the original “competition.” The winning scheme was very much under the influence of the then fashionable “deconstructivist” style, with its sharp images of fragmentation and collapse and its dopey arguments about representing the instability of both knowledge and the world.

Poor Snøhetta. These good architects innocently bought into the skewed vibe as the authorized style (as all the other architects on the job tiptoed away) and their entry pavilion for the museum is a frailly built referent to a bygone sensibility, a squidge of irregularity in a field of right angles, although there are also a few mildly off-axis moves in the museum below, designed by Davis Brody Bond. Here—unlike at the modest Vietnam memorial—the descent is not gradual and shallow, but a long trip down flights of escalators to the level of the foundations of the original buildings. While the space is very big and has a certain pharaonic dignity and grandeur—and, while the curators have obviously worked very hard and very sensitively to produce exhibitions that “tell the story” of 9/11—the whole draws the line too far over into aesthetic territory. Little feels truly raw and the styles of mediation—TV clips, interviews with Condoleezza Rice, projections onto the walls that are far too ephemeral and dim—yield too much familiarity, dissipate too much emotion. Indeed, the exhibit that made the strongest impact was one without images of explosions and collapse, one without carefully curated “souvenirs” from the site: a simple room in which there were just portrait photographs of the dead, almost all captured at moments of happiness. A room filled not with things, but with people.

“Who cares if that stupid building is the tallest in the city, the country, the world, the universe? Why should we?”

The design of the museum uses the same normalization strategies that take place above. Prominent throughout are elegantly mounted “sculptures” of twisted steel recovered from the Twin Towers’ ruins that are selected and displayed with such refinement that they might as well be Sir Anthony Caro’s. In the context of the clean and ordinary architecture of the museum, they can be read only for their “artistic” appeal, not their horror, a cultural impression cemented by the 24-buck entry fee and the fact that the first list of names seen on entering is that of the corporate donors to the project. Even the vaunted slurry wall seems too little heroic, too dissociated from the meaning of its original function, sandwiched between newly built simulacra that make it hard to know what’s real and what’s fake. And the one truly galvanizing tectonic opportunity is blown. Much of the “useful” space of the museum—galleries, corridors, classrooms, bathrooms—lies under the great voids of the memorial. Although the walls in the museum interior appear legibly in a bland cladding of gray granite as they descend from above, the potentially extreme experience of walking beneath this monstrous and weighty absence is completely lost. Once past a little overhang, you’re in a banal and ordinary anywhere, with no sense of the subterranean.

As a piece of planning, the import and success of the project as a whole can be described with a certain autonomy, provisionally removed from the meaning of the site that derives from the horrific event. It isn’t simply that disaster has been diminished by its repackaging as a tourist attraction but that the site parti—and its governing aesthetic—is so standard issue that it has become little more than a basic site-planning exercise. The scheme doesn’t rise above the parameters of big buildings around a plaza because neither the buildings nor the plaza have any real aspirations to questioning or disquiet, or originality or comfort. Because the quality of the design is so terribly and uniformly everyday, the place doesn’t feel like New York, and—viewed from the memorial plaza—might easily be Pudong or Canary Wharf. Too much signification is simply tied up with the quantitative as if that were a suitable substitute for the emotive or the artistic. Who cares if that stupid building is the tallest in the city, the country, the world, the universe? Why should we?

The meaning of the site is produced by a series of displacements, by the distractions of “normalizing” stuff. From the start, the governing powers had concluded that the only possible response to an enormous crime was an enormous—and enormously expensive—project, one that would replace all the architecture lost. Setting aside the thin film that this idea places over the desire of most of those empowered to make decisions to reap huge amounts of money, there was a kind of potlatch in the riposte, a compensatory extravagance: throw money at the problem. This reminds me of Ronald Reagan and “Star Wars,” of the idea that we could defeat our adversary by inducing it into an arms race to construct a system so fantastical and useless that bankruptcy was the only possible outcome.

“This is a scale of expense, a piece of the ‘bigness’ syndrome that too much serves as guarantor for the project’s relevance, even it’s excellence.”

What’s been translated at Ground Zero is not so much the idea that we can best our asymmetrical foes with vastly expensive technology—ironically, we are failing at that because we remain too invested in this antique bellicosity and the corporate welfare that sustains it. That is rather an irresponsible militarization of our own extravagance. We’re building a train shed for a commuter rail line that serves about 30,000 people a day on average for a price that may hit a mere five billion dollars (the cost of nine B-2 bombers!). This is a scale of expense—including the equivalents of those endless thousand-dollartoilet- seat rip-offs, the contractor-engorging cost overruns that are military par for the course—a piece of the “bigness” syndrome that too much serves as guarantor for the project’s relevance, even its excellence. If it cost that kind of money, it must be good!

At the end of the day, though, we will have the architecture and planning of an airport, a soulless and sinister police state Modernism, all slick surfaces pared of originality and eccentricity, designed for the efficient movement of crowds, overseen by a ubiquitous apparatus of surveillance and control, which becomes a validating part of the “experience.” As a planning project, though, it will do one important thing, eventually allowing pedestrian circulation to cross the site both east-west and north-south, scrutinized from every angle but largely unimpeded by physical barriers. But a stretch of Church Street will become a glass canyon (prepare for very dark afternoons) in what was once a masonry realm. And one of the biggest and persistent problems with the site—the interruption of the pedestrian flow to the river by the highway-scaled West Street and the too-impermeable frontage of the World Financial Center on the opposite side—will remain. This is a good time to remember the proposal of the late, great Frederic Schwartz to recover West Street as part of the downtown fabric, to connect people rather than to control them.

How much better this place would have been if it dared to exceed business as usual.

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