Aug. 19, 2002

Build 'em Back Higher!

The World Trade Center and the Culture of Diminishment

Ted Rall wrote a piece on Yahoo! News about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center that advocates "Rebuilding Bigger, Smarter, Sooner". I was glad to hear someone say it. I found it tragically misguided that New York and the U.S. should settle for building something utterly undistinguished on the site of the Twin Towers. Why should we hang our heads and put up some humble, moderate structure in the place of what was surely one of the most spectacular skylines in the world?

Rall says, "A grander, taller building should be the site's new centerpiece." Yes, indeed.

I agree with Rall, and there seems to be broad public consensus on one thing: the proposals all suck. (see "A New Design Concept for the World Trade Center")

[For some much more imaginative possibilities, see The Architectural Record.]

I do not share Rall's opinion that the Towers were ugly, though I know many do feel that way. A part of my daily life for over 20 years, they were to me magnificent. Though they were audaciously colossal and the design was minimalistic, they were not "just big boxes," as some say. There was a great deal of subtlety in that design. (see Great Buildings Online for views of the towers.) There was delicate detail work in the grating at the top of the towers and at the bottom surrounding the plaza. The variation in the textures on the sides was subtle, but effective. At night the lights sparkled like jewels and gave the towers a friendly quality that was in dialectic opposition to their monstrous size. The fact that there were two twins became familiar, but was novel when first presented and was emulated by what is now the largest building in the world, the Kuala Lumpur City Centre in Singapore. (An even taller building is planned in Chongqing, China.) Even colossal size can be used as a design element, and in the case of the WTC it was used effectively in my opinion.

I do agree with Rall that the new building should be as spectacular and at least as tall as what we grew accustomed to before. The attitude seems deeply flawed that we should settle for a diminished skyline, when it was probably the most photographed and admired urban vista in the world.

Berlin was bombed; London was bombed; Dubrovnik was bombed; Hiroshima was razed. All were built back boldly, proudly and beautifully. Rebuilding is an essential part of the psychology of healing, renewing and moving forward. To adjust our aspirations downwardly would be tragically misguided.

What should be built in memory of what happened there should embody what was symbolized by the towers as well as their tragic destruction along with so many lives. It should be a new model, but should still symbolize the hopes and aspirations for greatness that were embodied in the Twin Towers, and always have been part of the architecture of towers.

I have heard some say, "It wouldn't be safe." Well, if they aren't safe, neither are any other buildings in the United States. A plane could crash into any building. If that is a reason not to build a great skyscraper, then we might as well tear them all down. That would be to cower and give in to defeat by a senseless tragedy. When you get knocked down, you don't stay on the ground.

What happened on September 11 was an utter, disgraceful failure of our well-funded defense and intelligence establishments to do their jobs and protect the American people. The mountain of military and intelligence failures has been gone over in detail elsewhere (see "Unanswered Questions"), and the administration has done nothing to dispel the suspicion that something sinister went on at the highest levels of government to allow such a disaster to occur. But in any case, it was failure of defense. It was not a failure of architecture. It was not because the buildings were too tall.

Others say Ground Zero should be sacred ground and nothing should be built. But the grounds of the Trade Center already included a plaza larger than St. Marks Square in Venice. There is plenty of room for a fitting memorial as well as an appropriately rebuilt structure.

All of this is wrapped up in the pathology of the Bush administration's suppression of investigations into the failures that led to the catastrophe. It runs counter to what a healthy society would do. Instead of excising the disease, the sick Bush administration has forced us to suppress the problem, hide the source, live with its presence and let it fester at the heart of our society.

The Bush era, from the moment he took office, is defined by downsized expectations, diminished hopes. It's still, as Poppy Bush put it, "the vision thing." It is vital that America not settle for diminishment.

There are certainly ways to improve on what was there before. But the new building should represent everything good that the old did, and more. It should be colossal, spectacular, bold and beautiful. And perhaps more important than anything, it should be an expression of defiance.

-- By David Cogswell

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