An Architecture of Doom and Dread

by Jeffrey St. Clair

These are days of lamentation: for the horrifying toll of the innocent dead, for the near certain prospect of thousands more-American and Middle Eastern-slated to die in the impending retaliatory strikes, and even for a weird kind of innocence and naivete that seemed uniquely American, a naivete that persisted in the heart of the nation’s most cynical city.

But one loss that mustn’t be mourned are the Twin Towers themselves, those blinding prongs that rose up like a tuning fork above the Battery. Under other circumstances, thousands would have gathered to cheer the planned demolition of these oppressive structures as lustily as they have the implosions of the Kingdome in Seattle and other misbegotten monstrosities of the 1970s. You could say the World Trade Center was a singular atrocity–except there were two of them. As architectural historian Francis Morrone wrote his 1998 Architectural Guidebook to New York: “The best thing about the view from the indoor and out observation decks of Two World Trade Centers that they are the only high vantage points in New York city from which the World Trade Center itself is not visible.”

But now there’s talk, serious talk from people like Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and the building’s new owner Larry Silverstein, of rebuilding both skyscrapers. This impulse must be resisted. Those buildings terrorized the skyline of Manhattan for too long. They combined ostentation and austerity with all the chilling precision of an economic package devised by the IMF.

The architect of the World Trade Center complex, Minuro Yamasaki, was morbidly afraid of heights. It shows in his work. Like the tycoon in Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful film High and Low, Yamasaki has projected his own nightmares on all of us. His towers are more than blunt symbols of corporate power. They are erections of dominion that inject a feeling of powerlessness in those who must encounter their airy permanence. His architecture does violence to the psyche as surely as those planes did violence to the human body. Yamasaki said he wanted enough space around the base of the towers so onlookers could be “overwhelmed by their greatness.”

Yamasaki, who died in 1986, saw himself as a field marshal of space, a kind of Japanese-American version of Philip Johnson, the avatar of the glass curtain skyscraper. Johnson’s neo-fascist erections made him the favorite architect of Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, with whom he once debated the finer points of Martin Heidegger in the salon of Ayn Rand. Yamasaki is like Johnson only duller. He was more ruthless in his desire to shave all aesthetic pleasure out of his cubes and tubes, to make them monuments to functionality.

The towers were meant to be impervious to the elements, as if they could not only defy space, wind, and the colors of nature, but time as well. That was Yamasaki’s biggest lie, a conceit as big as the ever-expanding bull market or the prospect of an impenetrable missile defense shield. But the lie was shattered in a matter of minutes, as first the load-bearing exo-skeleton quivered and buckled, then the joints melted in the inferno of the burning jet fuel, and finally one floor after another collapsed with all the finality of an Old Testament prophecy fulfilled.

Compare Yamasaki’s structure to the great old spire just down the avenue and you can almost read the arc of corporate America. The Woolworth Building, Cass Gilbert’s gothic confection, offers the city a kind of airy whimsy. Illusory, yes, but self-consciously fun. It doesn’t demand your attention so much as it seduces it.

Yamasaki was a favorite of the new corporate order because, unlike Frank Lloyd Wright or the spendy Johnson, he built on the cheap. The WTC towers cost only $350 million. The early price tag on rebuilding the structures is put at $2.5 billion. Also recall that the towers were for most of their life public buildings, owned by the city of New York. But there was little truly civic about them: they were cold, sterile, forbidding symbols of a government that had turned inward, that had begun to co-inhabit with the very corporations and financial houses it was charged with regulating.

It is instructive to note that Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps America’s greatest architect, was never awarded a commission by the federal government. Why? Because he was a pacifist, whose work the government deemed subversive if not seditious.

Of course, the WTC buildings had their admirers, mainly a cadre of engineers and construction magnates dazzled by the logistics of erecting such behemoths in the bowels of one of the most gridlocked cities on Earth. With this in mind, it may not be coincidence that the towers became an obsession to Bin Laden, whose fortune derives from a family construction conglomerate that made billions building mega-projects for the Arab oil states.

It might be argued that the Towers were an attractive nuisance, that they were, in a sense, standing there asking for it, inviting all comers to take a shot. Indeed, this very argument was made in an excellent book on the towers by Eric Darton titled Divided We Stand. Darton argues that the buildings were inextricably linked to the terrorists who tried to bring in tumbling down in 1993.

“One kind of extremism, unfortunately, begets another, and when you raise up an icon like the WTC and fill it with vulnerable humanity- it’s a pretty sure bet that someone will try to bring it down if they can,” said Darton in a 1998 interview. “What emerges when you juxtapose mega-development with terrorism is a kind of unity of opposites. Both master-builders and terrorists consider everyday life at street level to be absolutely trivial. The former make their plans the rarefied air of executive boardrooms, while the latter carry out their schemes, quite literally, underground. Both master-builders and bombers adhere to single-minded cataclysmic visions – either the creation of a bright, corporate future; or a return to the ‘fundamental’ values of the past. Both visions are abstract projections of an ideal world which has nothing to do with the here-and-now.”

The construction of the World Trade Center towers began with the destruction of a community, a community that the rich rulers of the city of New York, such as David Rockefeller and Robert Moses, considered a blight to be obliterated. It was a program of forced eviction and relocation that is not dissimilar to what is going on at the behest of American corporations in the Third World every day. The New York City Port Authority was used as the muscle to transform lower Manhattan from a community of people to a blinding canyon of corporate might. For an excellent documentation of the vicious history behind the construction of the WTC complex, I highly recommend The Destruction of Lower Manhattan by Danny Lyon.

Now the wreckage has a surreal cast to it, a kind of macabre beauty, like the best abstract expressionist paintings, or the smoldering end game of one of those self-destructing sculptures by Jean Tinguely. A friend of mine has spent much of the last week down in the ruins, helping the workers, giving comfort to the families of the wounded, the missing and the dead. “Of all the awful things about it, one of the worst is that there’s no dirt, no earth, underneath a blown-up city, only more and more city” she told me. “I kept looking, but there’s only gray ash, everywhere, on everything, but no dirt. The horrible illusion about skyscrapers is that they make you think you’re close to somebody’s idea of nature or God by being so high up in the sky but you’re as far away from that as you ever could be.”

But the towers should not be resurrected. Those blocks should be left as an open space, graced by sunlight, so that, to paraphrase Yamasaki, people can appreciate the “greatness” of what was lost. CP

CounterPunch’s Complete Coverage of the Attacks on the World Trade Center/Pentagon

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