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From the WTC to the Freedom Tower: an Architecture of Doom and Dread

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Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress.

On November 3, 2014, the first tenants moved into the new Freedom Tower, the 1776-foot tall glass-and-steel structure built on the site of 6 World Trade Center. Those employees of the Condé Nast publishing company probably entered the monstrous building with some trepidation. You can understand their anxiety. The old World Trade Center had been targeted by terrorists at least four times and ultimately completely destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. The new building, rising from the tip of Manhattan, dominates the skyline which such audacity that it seems to flash a “I dare you to hit me again” sign from its imposing spire. The structure has the ungainly heft and bulk of a skyscraper on steroids, but, in reality, is no more secure than its notorious predecessors, which used to sway tremulously in winter winds.

Over the course of 12 years, the cost of the Freedom Tower rose much faster than the building itself. By the end of the summer, when the finishing touches were being applied to the interior, the price tag had escalated to nearly $4 billion, with about a quarter of the cost coming from the killing that real estate mogul Larry Silverstein had made from insurers and reinsurers following the destruction of the WTC complex. Nowhere along the line did anyone in power seem to consider that those billions might be more efficasciously spent aiding the thousands of people still suffering cancers and lung diseases from the airborne toxins that shrouded the city following the collapse of the Twin Towers or assisting the tens of thousands of working class New Yorkers displaced from lower Manhattan by the takeover of the one-percenters and their political hacks.

Initially designed by Daniel Libeskind, a pop architect who has been described as the “Jeff Koons of building blocks,” the shape of the Freedom Tower suggests a brutal monument to the inviolate power of finance capitalism, a mirrored spike thrusting into the empty sky. Strangely, it is the kind arrogant tower that one expects to encounter rising from the desert in some oil sheikdom on-the-make like Dubai. There is an irony here that will, perhaps, bite deeper in the decades to come. 

If there was even the slightest consolation to be mined from the collapse of the Twin Towers, it was that the Manhattan skyline had been purged of two of the ugliest buildings ever constructed. I had hoped that those haunted grounds would remain sacrosanct. A few days after the attacks, I wrote the following essay calling for the site to be set aside as a memorial, a public commons in the heart of a city that has too often chosen to pave over and bury its history. Naturally those calls for a space of contemplation went unheeded. Instead, the WTC site has been impaled with a lurid building that rivals the Twin Towers for the banality of its design and the oppressiveness of its structure. You weren’t expecting a measure of humility from the new masters of capital, were you? –JSC

September 16, 2001.

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.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

This article was originally published in the September 15, 2001 print edition of CounterPunch.

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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