At ground zero, a new American icon

A decade after 9/11, a skyscraper is finally rising on the site. An expert explains what the building says about us

Published August 13, 2011 8:01PM (EDT)

If you've looked at the southern tip of Manhattan over the last few months, you've seen something rather unexpected looming over you. 1 World Trade Center, the 1,776-foot-tall centerpiece of the rebuilt ground zero site, is rising up towards the sky and increasingly dominating the New York skyline. For many New Yorkers, it seems hard to believe this day would ever happen, since, for much of the past decade, the building, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, had functioned mostly as a punch line: It was delayed by endless rivalries and conflicts among the site's developers, and its original design by starchitect Daniel Libeskind was reworked until it became a fairly generic office building with a spire attached to the top.

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approach, the new building is likely to get a lot more attention from the media, and with that in mind, Basic Books has issued a new version of "Divided We Stand: A Biography of the World Trade Center," Eric Darton's beautifully written book looking at the history and meaning of its predecessor, Minoru Yamasaki's iconic twin towers. In the expanded reissue, Dalton, a New York writer and cultural historian who has taught at Fordham and New York University, describes how the original towers transformed New York and our ideas about the American city, and how the city was impacted by their destruction.

Salon spoke with Darton over the phone about the Trade Center's historical role, the design for the new tower -- and what it says about the decline of the American empire.

In the book you explain why the original World Trade Center towers, which were completed in 1971, were symbolic of a particular time of change in American culture. How so?

Up until the time of the World Trade Center, much of the identity of Manhattan was as a port city. The rise of the first towering skyscrapers in New York coincided with the city becoming the greatest port of the world. Then, with the rise of containerization and other phenomena, port facilities increasingly moved out of cities, and when we lost the port to Newark and Elizabeth, N.J., it changed the identity of New York from a maritime city that could manufacture and finance things to a city whose primary reason to exist was to be a powerhouse of finance, insurance and real estate. The building of the World Trade Centers reflected that.

The World Trade Center also changed the way New York thought about itself. As you point out in the book, it made us feel more self-important.

In any great city, these kinds of symbols end up shaping our idea of who we are and what we ought to be -- and sometimes that's in sharp contrast to what we actually are. The World Trade Center presented New York as the dominant market center. These towers articulated quite beautifully, quite unconsciously, that the city was ripping itself away from the rest of the world.

They really did look unlike the other skyscrapers in New York. From an architectural standpoint, the fact that they were twin towers was genuinely pretty captivating.

What fascinates me about the original towers is that they were so anomalous. The Petronas Towers [in Kuala Lumpur] and some of the skyscrapers in China and Hong Kong have really bizarre feng shui, but you don't get anything as bizarre as the World Trade Center.

With the [flat-topped] World Trade Center, Yamasaki broke radically with the vocabulary of the skyscraper as we had known it, as it classically derived from the cathedral and the spire. I looked at the Rainier Bank tower Yamasaki designed after the World Trade Center, in Seattle, and a reviewer in 1967 called them Yamasaki's "balance of terror" because what he did was take the traditional skyscraper with its spire and turned it upside down, and I think it's the same with the World Trade Center.

Yamasaki was a really interesting and tortured figure who had designed some really strange buildings, including a much heralded major public housing development [called Pruitt-Igoe, in St. Louis] that failed and was demolished by the federal government. He had learned from one of his mentors, Frank Lloyd Wright, to break out of the box. But because he had to get this enormous amount of square footage into a small footprint for the Port Authority, he essentially capitulated to the box and just cloned it. It was almost like a form of psychic suicide for him.

I remember visiting New York before 9/11 and thinking about how much the World Trade Center dominated the city. I mean, they were so tall, so much taller than anything else in the skyline.

I don't even know how it was worked out legally but apparently no surrounding structure in the city was permitted to rise to more than half the height of the WTC. You ended up with towers that were supremely isolated.

When it was first proposed, the Freedom Tower had an interesting design by Daniel Libeskind. Since then it's been pretty watered down, and renamed, and it looks kind of hideous.

There were aspects to Libeskind's original design that had a tremendous amount of energy. It did give this sense that something was moving energetically in lower Manhattan and in New York and by extension in the U.S. It's unfortunate that it got denatured, but at the same time it was so contrived and capricious. You don't really follow up a monster like the Trade Center with a caprice. It was a very entertaining building, deeply entertaining, and it would have sent the message that New York is the entertainment capital of the world. But how does that work in a place that's marked by that kind of heart loss?

What do you think the current design of the new World Trade Center says about New York and America's role in the world?

They are two very conventional buildings that look highly securitized, and one looks really pretty freakish because of the armor around it. But nothing about them says that we're going anywhere. For better or worse Yamasaki's statement did say something new. Their message was that history was over [and that American hegemony would last forever]; they were two big bars at the end of the musical score. After 9/11 you heard many, many people, even those who hadn't liked the Trade Center, say they wanted it to be built exactly as it was, but the new buildings represent a kind of amnesia about the World Trade Center itself.

I would be really happy if anyone can provide me with a real justification for why these things are being built other than to satisfy the need to build something massive in that space. I was always of the mind that we ought to really think long and hard about building anything there that had that kind of center-of-the-world assertiveness to it. Why towers? I really have yet to hear any compelling reasons why.

I think the most interesting part of the new World Trade Center, from what I can tell so far, is the memorial. I think that's going to be physically very interesting. I can't project myself into a space I haven't been in yet but I have a feeling it will harness some of the very powerful energies that still exist in that site, not just from 9/11 but from all the long history of lower Manhattan.

In recent years, the center of the global economy has shifted away from New York, to other cities like London and Beijing. Do you think these new generic-looking buildings reflect that?

As the idea goes, every 100 years the market center shifts, from Venice to Antwerp to Amsterdam to London to New York. There are many cities recently that have become more New York-like, like London. These days, we're not really interested in big infrastructural projects like the Three Gorges Dam, and if New York isn't the financial center of the world anymore, it should be an opportunity for us to go, "OK, so we aren't this, then what are we?" If we embark on that project, our architecture could come out of a genuine propensity of the city rather than being imposed on us.

Looking back at the past half-century, it seems like no other building has had the kind of impact on our collective memory as the World Trade Centers over that period of time. Do you agree?

They're now iconic in the sense that the Parthenon represents old Athens and the Roman amphitheater represents ancient Rome. During the Third Reich, Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect proposed a theory of "ruin value." The idea was that the 1000-year Reich would have these magnificent buildings and cities, and that even when they lay in ruins they would still have an incredible beauty, like Rome. We didn't achieve that from a physical standpoint. Our ruins are located in our collective and individual consciousness -- and for that reason they're all the more iconic.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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