World Trade Center Revival

(I think I’ve been a bit too worried about keeping these blogs coherent and whole. I strive for well thought-out essays, because that’s what I’m used to working for in my article/essay writing. But I’m going to try to engage in a disciplined disengagement from discipline, and share some ideas that aren’t ready for primetime. It should make for more frequent posts.)

Today, I attended an architecture review at Columbia University where a group of graduate students presented some ideas for the WTC site. Although half-baked, they were all a lot more creative and far-reaching than the proposals presented a few weeks ago, to the official committee deciding what to do with the site.

One of them (the one I liked best) explored the various perspectives from which picture postcards were taken of the original WTC. Most seem to come from the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, or the Brooklyn Bridge. So, this architect came up with a design that would make the buildings look just like original WTC from those three angles. From any other angle, however, they appeared to be either imploding or emerging from the ground. I’m not exactly sure of his intent, but for me it represented the WTC in various moments of linear time. Before the attack – as a static icon; during the attack, as an imploding form; and after the attack, as an emergent form.

The occasion of a new WTC project is actually a tremendous opportunity to acknowledge a newfound public awareness of the role of architecture in our lives – both as practical space, and as symbolic form. Buildings, at their best, serve functional and metaphoric roles, simultaneously. And these two roles can be wed to one another, as well.

Watching the towers fall, as so many of us did live from our rooftops or windows, changed our appreciation for architecture. For me, as each tower collapsed, I became aware of how the tower is representative of the human body. As a column fell, I could feel a column in myself fall in sympathy with it. This was not a symbolic event, but an intensely physical one. It was as if I was watching a human being bend, collapse, and disintegrate. Then I watched – and felt – it happen again.

Yes, there were people inside – and yes, there was a whole semiotic about trade and the west and all that going on. But in the moment of the collapse, from the distance and place where I and thousands of others saw it, it was a building – an architectural character – that was being brought down. In those moments, I couldn’t help but anthopomorphize the WTC.

This is one reason why its resurrection is so profound for so many people, and why so many of the uninspired, utilitarian, and market-driven responses to the call for proposals has been so disappointing. Even the memorials seem like obligatory nods to a “big sad thing” rather than soil for the imagination of new forms.

Yes, a building must work – but it must live, too.

If it were mine to do, I’d replace the World Trade Center with some kind of World Creativity Center. I’d make a building that both stands for and promotes imaginative new solutions to problems of all sorts. It’s not a building to conduct or perpetuate business as usual, but to imagine, foster, and generate entirely new forms. The tenants bold enough to rent space in it immediately identify themselves as engaged in the most valuable (and wealth-producing) pursuit in the Western World: new ideas.

Talk about urban renewal.