9/11: 20 years later

Planning for the Worst

After 9/11, we had a chance to build the downtown that New York deserves. But timidity and fear have us hemmed in at every turn.

Photo: Alexei Hay
Photo: Alexei Hay
Photo: Alexei Hay

On a heat-stunned late-summer afternoon, the World Trade Center Memorial feels livelier than much of Manhattan. The sun shatters against the tree canopy, reaching the ground in green-gold shards. Tourists approach the twin voids, mesmerized by the whisper of four-sided waterfalls. Even on less sultry days, people slow their pace; it’s rare to see someone striding purposefully across the plaza bearing a briefcase or a pizza. That might be due to the solemnity of the memorial’s design or the explicit border between this sacramental zone and the profane city beyond. Or perhaps it’s because visitors sense the enduring spirit of this place: timidity. You can feel it in the grid of gray stone and gray glass, in the orderly arrangement of planes, and in the swarm of security guards. Two decades ago, the Twin Towers were attacked because they were seen as emblems of capitalist arrogance; the complex that replaced them is a monument to overweening caution.

The feeling of contemplative satisfaction fades as I circle the edge of the plaza, which is dotted with prefabricated police booths. Here and there, rows of pointy steel traffic-stoppers break through the asphalt like dragons’ fangs. At the corner of West Street and the fantastically misnamed Liberty Street, I’m thwarted by a formidable set of obstacles: bollards linked by steel bars, a stack of metal fence segments that have been chained together, and, for those who are slow to take a hint, a sign reading NO PEDESTRIAN ZONE. Obediently, I detour up the stairs to Liberty Park and the construction zone for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Below the railing, the lifeless moat of Cedar Street curves toward a parking lot filled with stacked shipping containers that serves as a command center for the Port Authority Police. Another set of stairs leads back down to Greenwich Street: more barriers and guard booths, complemented by a herd of NYPD vehicles and, no doubt, a flock of lurking surveillance cameras. This is a landscape shaped by fear.

It has been formed not only by the reasoned response to a documented threat but by an amorphous, open-ended anxiety. You can see that disquiet embedded in the architecture — in the blank, nearly 200-foot-high base of One World Trade Center and the blast wall facing the entrance, in the placement of the truck ramp away from tall buildings, in the armored delivery lane on Church Street, even in the signs prohibiting sitting on the ground, playing instruments, or walking dogs. Here, there is no mess, no noise, no spontaneous anything. Even grief operates during business hours: The memorial plaza is roped off every day at 5 p.m. and, until it reopens each morning, the public is banned from this ostensibly public space. The message of all this heavy-handedness is two-pronged. To peaceable visitors: This former site of chaos and terror has been sealed, surveilled, and protected, so if you die violently, it probably won’t be here. To would-be evildoers: If you’re planning to commit an outrage, please choose one of the city’s many other easy and symbolically resonant targets.

Photo: Alexei Hay
Photo: Alexei Hay

A belt of similarly constrictive zones stretches clear across lower Manhattan, from Park Row, where the NYPD maintains a defensive perimeter around its headquarters and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, to the Hudson River Greenway, where bikers must shoot through narrow openings between concrete barriers installed in 2017, after a driver used a truck to mow down cyclists and pedestrians, killing eight. Four centuries after the Dutch West India Company built Manhattan’s first fort near here, New York has erected another kind of fortress, part high-tech, part slapdash. We’ve become so accustomed to stepping around reinforced perimeters that we rarely stop to wonder what purpose they still serve, whether they will ever go away, or if they protect us against the most urgent forms of menace. Today’s World Trade Center towers were emptied not by fire or blast but by an invisible microbe and the vagaries of market forces. Climate change will not be impressed by steel barriers.

Walking these forbidding streets today, it’s hard to remember how moving it was, even in the aftermath of cataclysm, when New Yorkers tried to reconceive this 16-acre core. The sheer scale of destruction created a moment of blank-slate idealism. Within days of the attacks, even before the rubble fires had been put out, politicians and architects began talking of reconstruction, not simply to replace lost office buildings but as a way of expressing the highest American ideals. A site adjacent to New York’s oldest neighborhoods would bring forth the ultimate new city core, taller, stronger, safer, and more fervent than ever. The World Trade Center campus was supposed to become an acropolis devoted to America’s highest aspirations, a representation of resilience, creativity, and life as an answer to fanatical nihilism.

Abstract goals generated innumerable suggestions. The gallery owner Max Protetch invited more than 100 designers from around the world to contribute ideas, some whimsical, others futuristic. The German architect Frei Otto wrote that “a new tower of Babel is not needed” and proposed a landscaped park with a pair of memorial ponds. The Italian Paolo Soleri drew an immense “secular cathedral.” The state attempted to marry vision and pragmatism by holding an international competition for a master plan. Officials winnowed more than 5,000 entries down to eight skyline mirages, including Norman Foster’s “kissing towers” and a pair of latticework ghosts by a consortium that called itself THINK. Meanwhile, some planners kept their eyes on the ground, working to reinstate the street grid that the original World Trade Center had erased. Out of this swirl, a popular favorite emerged: Daniel Libeskind’s master plan, four shardlike skyscrapers spiraling around a commemorative void, the whole arrangement tricked out with numerology (a 1,776-foot tower) and sunray axes. Then the drawing board met the boardroom, and the haggling began.

From the beginning, optimism collided with fear — or rather, many fears that rushed in, formed a committee, and meddled in the design. The terror of more mass murder mingled with the fear of appearing meek, of rebuilding too slowly or modestly, of financial failure or political embarrassment, of forgetting tragedy, dishonoring the victims, or stifling lower Manhattan in a gloomy necropolis, of committing errors of taste or straying too far from the real-estate instincts that have built this city over hundreds of years. Many New Yorkers worried that it would never recover its mojo.

Anxiety masqueraded as logic. First family members and then the governor, George Pataki, declared that the Twin Towers’ footprints must never be erased, lest the future forget what stood in them. The imperative to replace the 10 million square feet of office space obliterated on 9/11 led to the disposition of office towers around the open memorial, like a postindustrial Stonehenge. The need to make those structures class-A office space with expansive views dictated the façades: glass. Westfield asserted its contractual right to undergird the complex with a shopping mall.

Insurance coverage kicked in, and so did the whole financing apparatus, which is only ever comfortable doing what has been done before. The most irresistible power was the force of habit, a nervous society’s protection against the fear of getting it wrong. All this twitchiness opened the door for the private-security industry and its public partner, the NYPD, to march in with warnings of nightmare scenarios and reassurances that only they knew how to prevent them. The cops’ priorities helped determine the thickness of concrete, the specifications of fireproofing, the width of staircases, the distance from a public street, and many other details of engineering and design. When you cross from a city sidewalk onto Port Authority property, you are entering an anti-terrorist keep.

But security is far from the only reason that the rebuilt World Trade Center wound up betraying its civic aspirations. By 2001, the top-down megadevelopment had already established itself as the most efficient and predictable way of growing affluent cities, and the post-9/11 period reinforced that trend. From Roppongi Hills in Tokyo to London’s Canary Wharf, big financial institutions have partnered with big developers and big government agencies to build on big and complicated sites. The realities of multibillion-dollar budgets and timelines measured in decades concentrate decision-making power in a small number of people, and they tend to reproduce those formulas all over the world — at Hudson Yards, for instance. The sociologist Saskia Sassen has pointed out that global cities are more tightly bound with one other than with their surrounding areas, and their common culture manifests in dense forests of megatowers. Construction projects are financial instruments, yielding buildings in which workers trade other financial instruments. Those glossy skyscrapers are the visible manifestation of an international circuit of digital money, measured in nanoseconds.

In lower Manhattan, the result is an enclave shrink-wrapped in global tastefulness. Whatever their faults, the Twin Towers were bold, rising from their plinth like alien monoliths, proudly and vastly and flamboyantly out of scale and out of place. It looked as if the gods had fixed the tip of Manhattan to the surface of the planet with a pair of square pegs. These were not buildings that claimed to “dematerialize,” a favorite architectural sleight-of-hand word. Minoru Yamasaki’s towers were always, unignorably there — until they weren’t.

Their replacements, designed by a corps of ultraprestigious architects, share an aesthetic of ruthless self-effacement. Fumihiko Maki’s 4 World Trade and Rogers Stirk Harbour’s No. 3 stand next to each other in their charcoal-hued uniforms, waiting for Nos. 2 and 5 to complete the lineup. The cumulative effect can be attractive, especially on a clear winter afternoon when the glass facets slice up the metallic sky, turning sunset into a cubist composition. Afterward, though, they merge in the mind; it’s hard for many to remember how many towers there are now or will be eventually, let alone which is which. Aside from Calatrava’s much-maligned Oculus and his still incomplete St. Nicholas Church, the World Trade Center is the architectural equivalent of mouthwash: The packaging varies slightly, but the products are interchangeable.

Photo: Alexei Hay
Photo: Alexei Hay

I hope that, over time, a measure of forgetful casualness will creep into this controlled domain. The sutures where the World Trade Center meets the rest of New York may eventually fade, and life in all its messiness may intrude. For now, Blue Bottle Coffee holds a prime corner between towers No. 3 and No. 4 with a few metal tables and a small store; maybe it’s just saving a spot for a café like those in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, a more expansive vantage from which to observe the human comedy. When I drop by, the handful of folding chairs are taken, and I keep strolling from guarded garden to guarded lobby. I wonder whether those of us who expected something better were deluding ourselves. Was that whole parade of new-city fantasies just a shadow play, distracting us from the inexorable forces of mediocrity?

I would have liked to pose that question to the late critic Michael Sorkin, who never stopped hunting for humanistic alternatives glittering in the transactional murk of real estate. In the essay collection After the World Trade Center, he and Sharon Zukin railed against the business-as-usual clubs: “Encouraged by the media, architects and planners trotted after the ambulance, ready to try to get the biggest job of their careers, joined by politicians and developers eager to thump their chests and proclaim the importance of rebuilding immediately,” they wrote. “Everywhere the bromide is retailed that to rebuild something bigger, taller, and better than ever is the only way to respond to the terrorists.” (Sorkin suggested that the destruction of the financial hub should lead to a more “polycentric” city, with commercial nodes scattered throughout the boroughs.)

In distributing blame so widely yet specifically, Sorkin and Zukin strongly suggested that nameable individuals had made identifiable mistakes, ceding vision in the name of short-term goals. The critic Ada Louise Huxtable, irate that a planned World Trade Arts Center appeared to have been scrapped, howled at a different form of herdthink: The task of memorializing murder, she concluded, had squeezed out vibrant cultural life. “The death of the dream has come slowly, in bits and pieces, not as a sudden cataclysmic event,” she wrote. “The parts that speak of hope and the future have not been able to survive the pressure for a singleminded commitment to the tragic past.”

Those impersonal formulations — Sorkin and Zukin’s “bromide,” Huxtable’s “pressure” — imply that the project’s cramped horizons were baked into the process. To harbor dreams of a more energized, less regimented public space amid thrilling architecture was simply naïve. Such aspirations crashed into rocklike historical forces that dictated disappointment. To take one example, the ethic of urban renewal brought forth the original World Trade Center, and the reaction to it would shape its replacement. Decades before 9/11, a federally funded multidecade movement to clear away “blight” had obliterated urban cores all over the nation. Neighborhoods vaporized, populations scattered, and parking lots became placeholders for new buildings that never went up. The last thing anyone wanted was for downtown Manhattan in 2021 to look like downtown Akron, Ohio, in the 1970s: a field of asphalt. Whatever came next had to be quick and big and triumphant.

It’s taken long enough to execute the plan that the culture has evolved and circumstances have changed. The arts center that Huxtable grieved for was partly a casualty of the paranoid post-9/11 climate, when fear of saying the wrong thing (or allowing the wrong thing to be said) intensified. The Drawing Center realized that sooner or later, an artist would cross a line, triggering costly scandal, and backed out. The Signature Theater and the Joyce Theater wobbled too, and the whole project evaporated.

As it turned out, its death was provisional. When the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, a glimmering cube of translucent stone designed by the firm REX, opens in 2023, it will fulfill that promise to bring creative culture — enjoyment, even — to a place defined by loss. Some dreams outlast the forces that would crush them.

The 9/11 attacks destabilized our sense of permanence. Concrete was transformed into fire and dust, yet paper survived in a rain of scraps that fluttered to earth like cherry blossoms. Now, at the stone garden around the memorial, I’m walloped by the sense that time moves simultaneously forward and back. Here I am, ambling through the future we all tried to envision, and the war that 9/11 triggered is rewinding to its opening days. In Afghanistan and right here, we have wasted unthinkable fortunes and lost irretrievable decades and lives in the name of safety. We did it because we thought we had no choice, all other considerations subordinated to the goal of preventing a catastrophe we had already suffered. The war on terror and the World Trade Center have this in common: They are profoundly contradictory works-in-progress, confounding attempts to distinguish between achievement and surrender.

9/11 Gave Us Two Decades of Anxious Architecture