Put living memorial in place of towers

October 09, 2001|By Crispin Sartwell

THERE ARE many reasons why the World Trade Center will not be rebuilt, but even more reasons why it should not be.

The reasons that it will not be are primarily economic and aesthetic. The 100-story tower as an American architectural form is over: It turned out to be inefficient and expensive to maintain. The structural elements needed to keep the thing upright took up too much of the floor plan.

The WTC itself was innovative because it solved the structural problem in a new way, replacing internal pillars with a sheath of steel web. The visual appeal of the towers originated in that innovation as well: they were slimmer than was previously possible in a building that size.

Nevertheless, though the towers were a prestige address, they were never economically successful. And though they were a landmark, they were never beloved.

Arid in a modernist way, they were out of human scale; they damaged rather than celebrated the lower Manhattan they occupied.

The WTC does not bear comparison to the great skyscrapers of an earlier era such as the Chrysler Building, nor even to many of the imaginative and visually appealing "shaped towers" of postmodernism.

Rebuilding the towers would be a powerful reassertion of our will in the face of murder. The writer Andrew Sullivan, among others, has suggested that the towers should rise again "taller, stronger" than they were before. But this, to put it delicately, is the immature response of people who read the destruction of the towers as emasculation.

The WTC was conceived in the 1950s by David Rockefeller, and it was built largely with public funds when Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York. The best way to understand the WTC is as monumental architecture celebrating empire - think the pyramids or the Colosseum.

The WTC was a celebration of human aspiration, but it was also an expression of hubris, an extreme conspicuous consumption. It was a symbol of economic power to dominate the world's economies. That is why people flew planes into it.

The most important thing we could do with the site is to make of it a living memorial to our dead. We must make something human and true. Part of the space should no doubt be a place where the families and friends of the dead, and all people so inclined, can come to remember and to mourn.

But the space is large, and part of it could also be used in celebration of rebirth and of life: gardens, artists' spaces, even residences, as well as local retail and office space. Lower Manhattan could become a place to live, to create, to work and to remember.

That would be the best tribute to our dead, and the best rethinking of our policies and priorities. Beauty should replace banality; life should spring again from death; humility should be learned from excess; liberation from oppression; and love from hatred.

That is the real aspiration: not a new Babel, but an enduring truth.

Crispin Sartwell is chairman of humanities and sciences at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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