FRANK GEHRY, perhaps the most famous non-acting, non-directing, nonathletic son of Los Angeles, was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. He was in town for the opening, the night before, of an Issey Miyake boutique in Tribeca, just ten latte-soaked blocks north of the World Trade Center. The architect had contributed a signature cloud of folded sheet metal for the store's interior, and his son Alejandro, an artist, had drawn several murals. The next morning his son went back downtown for a meeting, and Gehry couldn't contact him as he watched the neighborhood smothered on TV. "I was in shreck," he said. Stuck in town with the airlines grounded, he would go down to the site later that week to take a look--"around the edge, as close as you could get." Because he toured the perimeter with his patron, Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Museum, it was soon rumored that the two had designs on the place. Though Gehry's interest was undeniable, and he played a longer game than any of his colleagues, he would sit out most of the ensuing follies--the projection onto the site of hysterical, inappropriate visions that sought to bring to Ground Zero, in the sneering words of the New York Post's indispensable real estate reporter Steve Cuozzo, "truth, beauty, and Architecture-with-a-capital-A."1
The site was a magnet for all, but for architects--always thinking big--it was irresistible. They could see in the devastation a clean slate, a chance at greatness, a reprieve, at least, from anotherdecade of museums and Miyake. Or Prada. Rem Koolhaas was probably the most influential architect in the world at the moment of the attack. In the summer of 2000, a New York Times Magazine cover story had helped take him out of the design studios, where he was a hero without peer, and into the public eye, revealing for mass consumption his stable open marriage and his jet-set ennui, but also his passion for expanding architecture's ambit and his odd, piercing insights into our fallen world: public space is dead; shopping is our civic religion; the future of the city is elsewhere.2 His claim on New York City's attentions in the years before September 11 was a flagship store he was designing for Miuccia Prada in Soho. After a long drama--during which the whims of the architect and the forbearance of his client turned the commission into an arts-and-crafts playtime that more than one observer thought would "revolutionize" retail--in 2001 the store was nearing completion at last, having dallied through the city's boom.
On September 11, Koolhaas was in Chicago, at a meeting for a stalled project there. He had flown in from New York that morning to find himself stuck with clients who decided that the end of the world would not delay their business. He could catch only glimpses of the event on television. After a day of indecision and appeals to travel agents (and, yes, a trip to a local Prada store), Koolhaas hired the cab driver he had been using, a Syrian man, and a second driver from Egypt, to take him and an associate back east. The trip through the flag-draped heartland would be salted with assertions of Israeli complicity and Osama bin Laden's innocence, and overshadowed by the passengers' fears for their drivers' safety in late-night Pennsylvania truck stops. When they pulled up to a Manhattan hotel in the very early morning of September 14, police standing guard rushed the car. Like Gehry, Koolhaas stayed in town and made his pilgrimages to the cauldron, often at night.
Star architects were far from the only ones drawn by the allure of Ground Zero. In the first hours after the calamity, as every newly essential construction worker headed for the wreckage, lessburly sorts were struggling to assess their place in a world that had gone from decadent to defenseless in a span of a hundred minutes. In that utilitarian moment, those whose contributions to the crisis would by nature remain more abstract were already at work to forestall their irrelevance. A rush was on to stake a claim, to put sneakers and loafers down there with the boots on the ground. Poets flooded the zone with images, theorists with ideas; theater and fashion critics, asserting the pertinence of their criticism, assessed the collateral damage on Broadway (as actors started to pitch in at the support center at Chelsea Piers) and on Seventh Avenue (as model Heidi Klum volunteered incognito at a supply depot). Fashion designer Michael Kors spun the attack as an opportunity for couture in a statement released at his runway show the week after: "Life continues on, but it is an unavoidable truth that life is also irrevocably changed. We must remember that fashion and the fashion community have always been receptive to change ... . I know we will all be able to move forward in these trying times."3 David Bouley, star chef and owner of several restaurants near the site, opened a franchise--it came to be called Green Tarp--in a ruined deli hard by the pile on Liberty Street. David Byrne and Candice Bergen served stew to the workers there.
Though physically Ground Zero resembled nothing that had been visited on this country before, from the beginning its culture looked just like America. There was, of course, that descent on the site by volunteers from all points, that salutary wave of giving at a scale the United States had never seen. But there was also, beyond the papers, a larger, more colorful, less useful descent, exhibiting in spots the full measure of prime-time narcissism. Depending on one's threshold for tolerating the absurd, this might have been an abomination or a hopeful reclamation--"Life victorious," as Daniel Libeskind, the World Trade Center site's eventual master plan architect, would repeat in later years. Either way, it was clear to all, especially to the audience at home--removed from what one volunteer referred to as the "tomato sauce and vomit" stench--thatthis disaster area, in its recovery and its redevelopment, would play by limelight rules. The parade of stars preceded in some cases visits by prominent politicians: Susan Sarandon circled the pile hawking donated pizza from the back of a pickup truck; John Travolta visited with volunteer ministers of the Church of Scientology, ready to offer succor in the form of "nerve assists." Product placement was not far behind: Campbell's Soup, Starbucks, McDonald's. The place was not without humor--workers called one tent, designated for R&R, "Ground Zero's"--or, naturally, a reflection of the politics that began there; invoking the nation's preferred emotional solvent, another tent was named "Freedom Café."
It was the curse of culture makers to get a handle, each as his métier allowed. Actors could get by just by putting their bodies at the site; Hollywood would not attempt a September 11 movie right away. Others had to represent with their ideas. And in tapping the sensibilities of the day before to make sense of the aftermath, it became clear what every effort shared: a culture of surfaces had left its artists poorly equipped for depth. "Make no mistake," one poet wrote in an introduction to a large collection published in 2002, "our arts have thrived on remoteness, deflection, over-the-shoulder innuendo, a myriad of aesthetic dispensations, and have (have they?) disdained the masses in need of their sustenance."4
Every artist drawn to Ground Zero faced the same problem--adapting the frivolity of his practice to the horror of what smoldered before him--but it was the architects who revealed just how perilous the new normal would be. On Sunday, September 16, 2001, the New York Times posted online the text of the next week's magazine section, in which architects first aired their ideas about the site. Under the title "To Rebuild or Not: Architects Respond," the editors arranged remarks from nine local opinion makers. The reporting for that story, the would-you-care-to-comment calls, took place within one or two days of the attack, in a week that most New Yorkers remember as progressively more harrowing, asfright overtook shock and--forgetting that al Qaeda takes its time between attacks--the city waited for the second shoe to drop.
Most of those interviewed called for a defiant, though not identical, rebuilding; one proposed a national vote: "Maybe it's not just our decision."5 But the standout response came from Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, the husband-and-wife team whose theory-rich investigations at the intersection of technology and space had earned them architecture's first MacArthur Foundation genius grant. They struck one of the most regrettable notes of the too-soon thereafter: "What's most poignant now is that the identity of the skyline has been lost. We would say, Let's not build something that would mend the skyline, it is more powerful to leave it void. We believe it would be tragic to erase the erasure."6 No other early comment showed quite how far architecture's intelligentsia were from the grit of the event, or how ill prepared were the profession's fashion-addled thinkers even to answer some of the top-line questions posed by the attack: Why do we gather in cities? What does it mean to build to the sky? How can more building--mere building--make sense of all this?
Architects found themselves in an awkward position: to exercise their professional expertise would be crass, yet all the time the public clamored for it, filling the letters columns of the papers and the open lines of radio chat shows. Rebuild to complement "the lovely lady in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty," one public radio caller urged in late September. "So we have here now another torch that is at the center of the old ruins." The columnist Liz Smith, on the same show to discuss the future of gossip, weighed in on the future of the site as well. "I think the spirit of the Phoenix will rise," she said, favoring the reconstruction of the Twin Towers.7 Ed Koch, the irrepressible former mayor, was also an early advocate for building copies. "We have the plans," he said.8 (At the time of its construction, he had decried the World Trade Center as "a conspiracy by people who think they know what is best for New York City.")9 Donald Trump, the taste-deprived developer, alsopiped up for the cause of reconstruction, with the caveats that any rebuilt Twins should have a touch more finesse about them, and must once again be the tallest in the world.10
From the earliest days after the attack there was a near-universal belief that a building at Ground Zero could give meaning to what had taken place there, and that architecture's "best minds," despite such a long, long vacation from pathos, could create such a thing. But hubris was producing the wrong questions and the wrong answers: the response to the attack was not an architectural problem. "In my shock I want to rebuild it," a New York architect wrote on September 13. "That's all I can say because of the thousands of lives we cannot rebuild."11 How can a building stand in for a life? Even the Taj Mahal, built by a shah as a tomb for his favorite wife, could not succeed in reviving her. And that is a building serving no other purpose than memory. Ground Zero would have to be rebuilt with office buildings, and expressing vengeance and grief are not things that office buildings do; they may rise from a graveyard but they do not redeem it; they may fill a site but they do not heal it. The attempt to make of commercial construction an emotional balm would leave architecture's emperors standing naked over and over in the following years. But the public was so hungry. On October 2, Richard Meier, among the most famous architects in New York City, appeared on television with Barbara Walters. He had not been shy about his ideas for the World Trade Center site--the Times had interviewed him twice, and twice he favored rebuilding grandly--but to his credit, Meier declined to bring a sketch when, incredibly, he was asked.
Shortly after his return to Los Angeles from New York, Frank Gehry, certainly high on any short list of best minds, was approached from all sides with requests for a therapeutic image. He demurred: "I just said no comment, no comment, no comment."12 Though it was an inexact parallel--the pickup-sticks chaos of the pile might have been more accurately compared with the work of the so-called deconstructivist architects--a consensus soonemerged, codified in November by New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, that the ruins were somehow Gehryesque.13 Everyone was searching for a solving name, and words were stretched to fit. "When the two towers collapsed," Jean Baudrillard wrote, "you had the impression that they were responding to the suicide of the suicide-planes with their own suicides." 14 One Dutch critic saw the buildings as "a death-collecting sandwich. Millefeuille, the horror of concrete puff pastry filled with bodies."15 "Somebody burned down the Christmas tree," a homesick ex-New Yorker wrote the week of the attack. "Burned it all the way to the ground."16 On September 12, a reporter for a local radio station described her push into the site and the emergence of one severed wisp of the towers through the still-thick smoke. It looked like "modern art," she said. And then there was Ada Louise Huxtable, the grande dame of American architecture criticism, who quickly established herself as one of a very few unshakably sane voices in the process. Asked by a magazine to contribute to yet another platform for pundits, she filed this rebuke: "It's a very large, tough subject, and there's too much static out there, too much talk and not enough thought ... . I frankly wish everyone would just shut up for a while."
Robert A.M. Stern was another whose voice rose above the noise. A week and a day after September 11, the architect delivered a lecture for the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, one of the few Manhattan civic organizations that would not retool to address the crisis downtown. Stern is a diminutive man with perpetually arched eyebrows and a wry cock to his voice. He is also invariably the smartest architect in the room, a fact noted by Philip Johnson, his teacher at Yale, to whose mastery of the politics of the profession Stern is the only heir. The lecture was delivered as scheduled--Stern insisted--but he had adapted the speech to circumstance with poetic results.
"The toll in human lives is vast and the impact tragic," Stern said that day with characteristic sureness over his first slide, aconnoisseur's view of the Twin Towers from the west in sideways light. "The political and economic implications are only beginning to be understood. Architects and investors are beginning to consider the future of the skyscraper building type. I am not proposing to enter into that discussion now, but simply to point out that whatever its shortcomings as a work of architecture, the World Trade Center was a powerful symbol of our city. It was a landmark. Oh, the tricks history plays on our aesthetic senses; how we now miss this imperfect monument. Landmarks are important--buildings bear silent witness to what we do, what we believe. They are our immortality on this earth. And when a landmark is torn down we lose witness to our humanity. Buildings are at once silent witnesses and yet they speak."17
That maximal take on the function of buildings would become a fixture of the American Pop understanding of the new cultural hot spot of Ground Zero. At that moment, the usually architecture-averse public was ready to buy into such a remedy: not buildings, architecture; not construction, not containers, not merely the largest of our business machines, but art, bearers of meaning, transcendence. The larger architecture firms in town sidestepped this new calling, or burden, carrying on as they had before with only practical problems in their sights; a week after the attack, the biggest of them held a summit to plan a coordinated response to the loss of 10 percent of the city's class-A office space. For the academic elite--the artsier wing of the profession that is assumed to be better equipped to conjure symbols--there could be no such out; to dodge the ugly questions of sanctity would have been to embrace obsolescence.
One wet night in the summer of 2003, almost two years after the attack, a wild-haired, forty-something woman from New Jersey was wandering the south rim of the site, lost under the mercury vapor. She had come down after sitting through a nearby hearingon the impending memorial competition (the rebuilt site was to include a memorial to be chosen from the submissions in an open competition). Staring through the tall fences, she was not sure exactly where the site was. The space was so clean and clear then, looking nothing like it had, either as built or in the iconic images of the aftermath. She was looking for the footprints, the offset squares where the towers had stood--everyone was--but the sawed-off nubs of the perimeter columns, the last on-site remains of the structures themselves, were buried under a layer of mud on the bedrock at the bottom of the pit. She was thrown off by the construction of the temporary PATH commuter rail station along one side of that seven-story depression, known as "the bathtub," and by the remains of the color-coded parking garage still wedged into the far end--a speck of the ruins about the height of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and resembling its bombed state in the rag of its exposed layers. She described her vision for the memorial, as she would have to anyone who came too close: there would be 2,792 angels--the death count had stabilized at that number, though it would soon fall again by forty--rendered in bronze, wings spread, looking down on the pit from the top of its concrete retaining walls. "Is there enough room?" she asked. "Can I fit all my angels here?"
As time passed, it became clear that the scale of the site was elusive. In New York City, value is measured in square feet, and every apartment is a measuring stick. No one knows how big an acre is. As the papers came out with the first exhaustive reminders of the Twin Towers' giganticism (forty thousand doorknobs), we learned that each of them occupied one acre--and, because they lacked the decorous setbacks of older buildings, one acre per floor, a square roughly two hundred feet per side. There's safety in numbers, a kind of accounting that is impossible any other way. In the fall of 2001, a professor at one of the elite East Coast architecture schools asked her students to imagine accessible ways to represent the center's lost space; it would equal 261 football fields,one student found, stretching from the site up to the middle of the Bronx; another calculated the number of cups of coffee that could fill both twins. Journalists cast about for hooks--As much office space as downtown St. Louis! Twenty Toledos! A thousand Peorias!--before defaulting to that anodyne measure: sixteen acres, sometimes seventeen, when the area of the rubble on surrounding streets was thrown in. It was a confident assessment for a mundane city. But it left the site's capacity for the sacred undefined. How many angels can dance on the edge of the pit? Like everything else in town, that would have to be quantified before it could be sold.
Faced with the unknown, Washington and New York reacted in concert by returning to first principles: New York would not forget its wallet, and the capital would not forget that Americans, with little else to bind them, love their flag. This should have been a comfort, one of few in that terrible season. We don't want to see the act against a city that would change its ways; we don't want to see a devastation so complete that those native rules of engagement are thrown out. No one had witnessed such destruction outside of a movie theater, but it would become very clear that the events of September 11 were not a big enough hit to make a new ethic stick. They were not a big enough hit in Washington to change one of that city's signal habits: exploiting tragedy for political gain. What those sixteen acres could do, how they could be put to partisan work even as they burned, was first grasped by beltway politicians, with Republicans out in front of Democrats by a mile.
After what seemed in the warped time of that first week like an interminable delay, George W. Bush arrived at Ground Zero on the morning of Friday, September 14. Here he found a stage-prop elderly fireman, not too tall to hook a consoling arm around, and also a convenient mound from which he addressed the workers through a bullhorn. As one of his sharpest critics had already noted, Bush tends to belligerence anyway when speaking without benefit of a teleprompter. So it was no surprise that, answering acall from the crowd--"We can't hear you!"--he would bellow one of the defining lines of his presidency: "I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon!" The hard hats responded with "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and--the perils of live television--some off-color anti-Arab remarks, behind the camera but audible, quickly squelched by cooler heads. Bush wouldn't directly invoke rebuilding until a speech the following Thursday, but this first statement set the tone. As translated into the popular imagination, it sanctioned the distinctive tenor of the early response and inspired the first widely seen proposals for the site.
Juliet McIntyre, a twenty-year-old Scientologist from Manhattan, helped run the commandeered showers at Stuyvesant High School for the first three weeks after the attack. Her job put her in constant contact with recovery workers on break, looking to talk, and they found a receptive audience in the young volunteer under a stars-and-stripes hard hat (a coveted trophy on the pile). In an enthusiastic account of her time at Ground Zero--she wrote a chapter chronicling the many visits by celebrities--McIntyre recorded, somewhat scandalized, the earliest architectural stirrings of the culture of retribution at the site.
"When we asked the guys how the area should be rebuilt, half the men thought the Towers should not be rebuilt and the area should be turned into a memorial park," she wrote. "The next few answers I got were a little more radical. Quite a few workers thought the Towers should be rebuilt a story taller and at the top they should have a giant statue of a hand flipping off the terrorists. The next one was similar but even more extravagant. These rescue workers thought we should build five buildings, also forming the shape of a hand with the middle finger extended. Two short ones on either side, then two a little higher, and finally the middle building sticking high into the air. I'm not sure whether that one is going to be the most popular."18
In fact, it remained among the most popular and durable ideasfor the site. Within days of the attack, a crude Photoshop doctoring of the Twin Towers--cut, multiplied, and pasted back on the pre-eleventh skyline--was making the rounds on the nation's jangling e-mail nerves. This was the first scheme many people saw--FUCK YOU!--the first essay at making meaning through construction at Ground Zero. In this case it was an emotion that architecture, wielded in the spirit of a broadside snipe, could successfully express. It was also the closest that architecture would ever come through the long campaign to reinventing itself as a medium of popular mass communication. In time there were at least three versions, all unsigned, two of which found their way to an online shop where they were available on T-shirts, boxer shorts, mugs, and the inevitable mouse pads.19
It was clear in the language that grew up instantly around the event, in the ferment at the site, that there would have to be a shrine to the civic religion of the United States--"we hold these truths to be self-evident," etc.--as well as to the swashbuckling variant that had been reborn that day in force; within hours of the attack, someone had scratched "An eye for an eye, Semper Fi" into the ash on a window of a Brooks Brothers store that was being used as a makeshift morgue. No corner of New York had been asked to celebrate America--not New York's glory--since the statue, a gift from the French, was assembled on Liberty Island in 1886. Now, beyond replacing the offices and shops and train stations--things it could do and, by local standards, do well--the city's peculiar development culture would have to produce that other much more slippery thing. The national audience, and particularly their representatives in Washington, needed a new symbol raised, as sure a sign that the nation was fighting back as an unqualified victory in Afghanistan (or later Iraq) and the capture of Osama bin Laden (or later Saddam Hussein). The patriotic pressure on the site only intensified. Rebuilding Ground Zero was the only response to September 11 that America could achieve without the cooperation of her enemies.
But New York is not exactly the homeland. That was demonstrated spectacularly in the summer of 2001 by George Bush himself. On July 10, he visited the famous screening station on Ellis Island to announce plans to streamline immigration policy. ("New arrivals should be greeted not with suspicion and resentment, but with openness and courtesy.") As he posed for a photograph with the harbor and the elapsing downtown skyline as a backdrop, a reporter asked him what he thought of New York City. "It's a beautiful day," he snapped, and his hosts, Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani, squirmed. Bush had visited thirty-two other states before he made it to New York, and to his country's most important city, the one he did admit later that day was "the capital of the world."20
New York is at once the most and least American city, and its repatriation would not be simple. Many New Yorkers were probably surprised to learn that their home was the nation's first capital, as was repeated so often when Congress rolled into town on September 9, 2002, for a special session a few blocks from Ground Zero. They met at Federal Hall, the Greek Revival block built over the site of George Washington's inauguration and the drafting of the Bill of Rights, a building occasionally sought out by tourists but known to natives only because its steep steps make an inviting seat for lunch on the Wall Street corner it shares with the New York Stock Exchange.
And then New Yorkers are averse to flags. The most prominent public building after the Pentagon that represents all four branches of the armed forces is a little recruiting station perched on a narrow traffic island in Times Square. In 1998, it was rebuilt by a young local firm. They had struggled to find an expression for it that would please their feuding warrior clients. Finally, out of options, they proposed to ornament the building with the American flag--one on each long side, rendered in colored fluorescent tubes--an on-the-nose gesture they, or any New York sophisticate, would never have made except under duress. The military men loved it, and, as it was lost in the swirl of the other TimesSquare signs, the architects went along. So it was something new when the city followed the country and hoisted the colors in the fall of 2001--along every avenue in Manhattan, the boroughs veering more to hand-painted tricolor lampposts and Old Glory fire hydrants. In some of the more predictably dissenting neighborhoods around town, from the same windows where posters had promoted Ralph Nader's candidacy for president the year before, another strange new symbol appeared: a banner with fields of white, Dutch orange, and ocean blue (colors familiar to fans of the Mets and Knicks), an Indian standing in for trade, and a windmill for industry--the seldom-seen flag of New York City.
Those two flags flanked Rudy Giuliani at the secret command center he set up on September 11 at the Police Academy, and for a time he would bridge the distance between them: "America's Mayor." But as he found later when he began to argue for making the whole site a memorial, Giuliani was powerless to change the people who build his city. In New York, an acre is as an acre does. And as the smoke cleared in those very early days, those sixteen acres downtown were being asked to do the impossible: to make sense of the senseless; to extol the dead even as they were being exhumed; to transform victims into heroes and heroes into gods; to find meaning in the squalor of real-time mass murder. This last task was of particular interest to the largest group of stakeholders, looking on from near and very far: witnesses beyond number. As the redevelopment process rolled forward, they would be there to demand an architectural object onto which all could project their confusion and have it returned to them as resolve--pain soothed, bloodlust sanitized. The flag and the wars and the site itself would only be a stopgap until the burghers and bureaucrats of Manhattan could serve up something more.
"What is the response to the event?" architect Daniel Libeskind asked in the summer of 2003, gesturing at a paper model of his master plan in his new office near Ground Zero. "It is what we build here. That is the response."21