What is an Event and What is its Duration?
Assessing the cultural and architectural aftermath of September 11th.
The title of this talk comes from a short text that was presented in New York last November at an architecture conference on globalism. Like so many things that had been conceived, planned, and scheduled for the days immediately post 9.11, this conference too was taken over by this tragedy and steered toward issues which have been lurking in our national conscience for a while but whose urgency not many of us could imagine then. In the case of this conference in New York, because its pre-9.11 theme was globalist to begin with, the true dimensions of what is clearly a global tragedy often seemed to confound the participants struggling to determine a precise space to situate a nationalist sorrow. Like an unexpected and stubborn patina, this confrontation between global rhetoric and national sentiment surfaced everywhere… including in my talk that day.
Tonight I’ll use that talk as an armature to say firstly, a few things about the news from New York; secondly, about architecture’s fundamental yet peculiar capacity to simultaneously reflect and determine social practice in an environment, and, lastly, perhaps I’ll touch a bit on what one has to do with the other.
Before I get going, I’m going to suggest how you might consider taking my remarks. I make no claims for authoritative status here nor am I invested in truth claims one way or the other…I think of myself as being an American pragmatist in the sense that I believe with the late John Dewey that ideas are less useful as ways of determining what is true or false in the world than as wonderful tools for solving problems at hand. And I believe with Richard Rorty that theories are less useful as prescriptive strategies than as sources for imaginative novelty, helpful in their capacity to inspire not only a just world but also, with luck, some richly textured and interesting possibilities for the ongoing, but non-teleological, human project. In both of these senses, to paraphrase Rorty in his book Philosophy and Social Hope, (which this image is the cover of) my ideas about teaching are less motivated by a desire to pass along accepted knowledge than by an interest in stirring the kids up…you all; to instill exciting doubts in you about your own self-images and about the society to which you belong. This might sound subversive, but I don’t believe it is. In fact, I suspect it strays very little from what deep down, everybody — even the average taxpayer — knows: that this is one of the things colleges and universities are for - to help ensure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different - let’s say "better" - than that of the previous generation.
Another point I want to make, by way of placing my remarks for you, is that, over the years, I have become increasingly aware that despite being a member of an unusually evolved community that developed a language with which it was able to introduce the notion of… species, I have come to find it useful and inspirational to think of myself as a member of one… grappling daily with my environment like all the other phylogeny, yet, with an important and privileged perspectival difference: I’m able to stand up here and talk about such things.
Now, if I don’t spell this out explicitly in what follows see if you can hear it in the background noise. In fact, think of this not as a lecture but rather a form of story telling.
I…NEWS FROM NEW YORK… ONCE UPON A TIME
As some of you probably know through the grapevine, both my home of 21 years and my office were destroyed on September 11. Both were in a quirky turn of the century loft building fronting on Liberty Street opposite WTC 4, approximately 200 feet from the South Tower.
My three children were born and raised there and most of my professional life, I sat at a window so close to the facade of the South Tower that its hegemonic presence as hyper-scaled urban artifact and national icon soon became for me only local surface texture - all stainless steel framing the light and activity of my neighborhood.
I was in my office when the planes hit and, like many others, was on the run soon thereafter. The explosion from the 2nd plane and the collapse shattered windows and the debris swept through the open building destroying most everything in its path. I have written about that day elsewhere, and I need not go into detail here today. I’m sure many of us have our stories.
However, two weeks later, I stood with a fireman and a police officer at my demolished windows, staring into the smoking hole where Tower 2 had been, amazed at the fortuitous convergence of physics that had spared my building. I could not answer the officer who when he learned that I was an architect, asked me "what do you think they’re going to build there now?…" The question took me aback. It was one of those moments that feel familiar and yet eerily disjunctive at the same time…cocktail conversation at Ground Zero. But this was with a police officer, who stood with binoculars scanning the debris field in search of his dead friends. Even though I was far from thoughts about architecture, it was clearly important to him that I play my role in the social matrix. For him, I held the disciplinary authority of the specialist, the expert, the master planner. We all had our jobs to do and I could see he was disappointed when I told him his guess was as good as mine. Not to be deterred, he ran through the litany of options we had all heard by then. Re-build the towers exactly as they were, re-build the towers taller, make a memorial park but, then again, no the real estate is too valuable. I told him of the leaseholder, Mr. Silverstein’s calculus: 2 becomes four, 1/2 size, memorial in the middle. He thought this was clever and let the image settle in as he went back to his binoculars.
Since that day, I have been asked, as I am sure all of you have in the audience - students and faculty alike, "what do you think they should build there now…" It is the question that certainly grips New York and has brought forth from the architecture community both the most wonderful public-spiritedness that one might have hoped for and the most pathetic and inevitable head-banging that, unfortunately, one might have expected.
Indeed, one of the more interesting effects produced by the destruction of the towers has been the public attention on the Architect. The event of 9.11 became the locus for playing out all the varying and conflicting social perceptions about architecture and architects. Driven by an intense almost prurient attention from the media, scores of architects were called upon to both confess and prognosticate. Perceived as imperious aesthetes, it was our hubris that did in the buildings. Yet, confused with the engineers (and perhaps the priests), our logical explanation of the buildings’ physical failure held out the hope of redemption from a metaphysical horror. Even within the architecture community, it was hard to avoid the vague sense that the attack on the towers was personal. Given our social charge as the designers of our nation’s symbols, it seemed we had a public relations responsibility that went woefully awry in provoking the cultural fury of Mohammed Atta and his colleagues. Nonetheless, after the early period of soul-searching and public obeisance, the community set to work spurred on by the manic and largely unfocused public & political demand to do something.
This demand to "do something" has taken a number of tones. There have been angry calls for taller towers in a show of national defiance and strength, solemn appeals for a modest field of memory, dire economic warnings about lost corporate square footage, populist and parochial reminders about environmental opportunity and neighborhood life. Over the course of the last five and a half months there have been hundreds of architecture and art exhibitions, municipal and academic forums, and grass-roots public gatherings all of which are driven by either explicit propositions or mournful inspiration to do something. The one thing they all seem to share is an inability to get precisely focused as if the object of their attention has still not come into view and it is this obscurity clouding the horizon of public and professional attention that seems to be producing much of the head banging.
However, there is one thing which is clear, and that is that there is a major jurisdictional issue to be sorted out. This jurisdictional issue has two problematic aspects. Firstly, who has the claim to this 16 acre plot of ground? Although Larry Silverstein holds the 99-year lease from the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg will exert the powers of eminent domain in a heartbeat if public and political winds demand it. Most architects view Silverstein’s work with SOM and David Childs as only provocative strategies to keep things moving on behalf of the developer’s property rights rather than as actual proposals to be built. But secondly, and ultimately more importantly, who gets to determine what the social stakes are in the future of this site? At my last count, out of scores of advocacy and policy groups, seven have emerged as the most dominant in their commands to attention.
Cited less in order of importance than in my own rhetorical interest, there is firstly September Mission, an organization that represents the families of victims killed in the attack. This group, as one might imagine, is treated by everyone with kid gloves. Nevertheless, in recent days, grumblings have surfaced over the indecorous formula equating their rights to huge sums of money with the existential pain of life and death not to mention some embarrassing but justifiable squabbling from the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Furthermore, some feel that this group’s proprietary insistence on the site as their burial ground unfairly jabs at the Achilles Heel of a nation proud of its secularity and tolerance but oddly constrained by emotional religious taboos that refuse to square with the project of progressivist modernity.
Imagine NY, is one of a number of grass roots organization whose claim to attention so far seems to reside solely in the idea that we better not forget populist sentiment or else. Groups such as this reflect the contentious urban sociality of public versus private right and theirs is a power to be reckoned with since it hovers like a big club over any and all municipal activity. The exact size of this bludgeon is indeterminate and it is always difficult to predict precisely when and over what issue it will come slamming down. Stay tuned.
Rebuild Downtown Our Town, ratchets up the populist position. Comprised of a number of professionals and academics in support of community and environmental reform, this group has placed environmental issues at the forefront. Seeing an opportunity to work in conjunction with the City mandated green-guidelines, recently put in effect in the adjacent Battery Park City development, the organization envisions a model of urban sustainability in Lower Manhattan. As usual, there is a lot of lip-service being paid to their issues but so far largely as a gloss.
The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York is driven by Robert Yaro, the Executive Director of the Regional Plan Association and claims to represent "more than 100 groups of New Yorkers…(forging) a common vision for rebuilding that represents the aspirations, the memories and the pride of the entire city and the region it centers…" Sounds pretty comprehensive, a group to comprise all groups. In actuality, the Alliance has largely operated as a Town/Gown forum where the New York and New School University graduate programs in real estate, urban policy, and infrastructure come together to debate and spin their curricula.
The real power at the moment seems to lie with The Lower Manhattan Re-development Corporation, a state agency empanelled by the Governor consisting of lawyers, former venture capitalists, and a few seemingly token voices from public advocacy. For this group, "it’s the economy, stupid…" Exactly whether they will prove to be visionary or simply a clearing house which sorts out the ideas of others remains to be seen. It’s also interesting to note that there is not a single architect on the decision-making board.