It's been over a month now since terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center led to the collapse of the landmark twin towers. To varying degrees, and for those who can manage it, the routines of Manhattan have restarted. The city, in its myriad ways, is going about the work of going back to work.
While chain link fencing keeps casual onlookers from a close-up view, the enormous absence is visible from miles away. Stripped of its minimalist, sculptural figurehead, the prow of Manhattan seems to disappear, rather than loom, in the distance.
Meanwhile, the city's public spaces still commemorate a multitude of private absences and griefs. Collections of flowers, candles, and handwritten notes wait at corner kiosks and subway stations.
However, most New Yorkers are more-or-less ready to fulfill the promise that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani offered on the day of the crisis: "We will rebuild: We're going to come out of this stronger than before, politically stronger, economically stronger. The skyline will be made whole again."
But what should rebuilding mean? As discussions begin, they, like the practice of architecture itself, waver between the need for structural concern and the hunger for poetic gesture.
There is no shortage of opinions about how to fill the site. One might in fact make two small towers of the opinions in favor of and opposed to the rough idea of "rebuilding."
Opinion editorials from cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Dallas on rebuilding the World Trade Center suggest exact replacements, memorial gardens, peace parks constructed of combinations of ruins and plants, or different, but also double, towers. If the tower of opinion in favor of rebuilding appears higher, it is only slightly higher than its twin, which favors other courses of action.
Architectural critics are writing flurries of commentary. Scholar Michael Sorkin asserts that the idea of rebuilding towers disavows the deep, pervasive sense of rupture present in the city. James Howard Kunstler claims that the fall of the World Trade Center marks end of the skyscraper. Robert A.M. Stern believes we can and should rebuild taller buildings. At the online Architecture Forum, a diverse community of architects and lay participants are engaged in an ongoing lively discussion, with opinions represented from across the spectrum.
At meetings in New York since the attack, architects, planners, and real estate developers have also gathered to come to terms with the deeper meaning of the destruction. For some, the idea of rebuilding new identical towers seems like a ludicrous act of denial of the universal sense of loss.
Meanwhile, in the shadow of this well-publicized debate, the city of New York faces staggering logistical concerns. The New York Times reported that when the fourteen acres of glass and several miles of steel that composed the two towers collapsed, they displaced 50,000 workers and destroyed 15 million square feet of office space. In the rest of Manhattan, contiguous blocks of office space are rare. Thus, in the short term at least, New York may be on the verge of dramatic restructuring.
The city and architects may need to think outside the two boxes, and spur development in unexpected areas and far flung boroughs. The question in the short and medium term may not be the shape of the lower Manhattan, but how to ensure that short term development benefits and strengthens New York in the long term. As the city prepares to spend billions of dollars on reconstruction efforts, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, partner and chairman elect at Skidmore, Owings and Merill offered this call to architects and civic activists. "The city faces an extraordinary set of choices about infrastructure and creating a new city fabric. We must make the public aware that design can matter. We can use the set of choices ahead of us to fashion a better civic realm. We must be articulate representatives of the power of our profession. It is not a time for specifics, but an occasion for vision."
As the process continues, and the considerations begin, it seems that one vision of reconstruction will be realized in the short term. Architects Gustavo Bonevardi and John Bennett paired with artists Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere to design a scheme for two laser towers "built" of light. With the help of Creative Time and the Municipal Art Society, two of the city's pioneering public arts organizations, they may realize the vision soon.
Perhaps the pale twins, shimmering as they light up the sky, will be a fitting tribute to this strange in-between time, while New Yorkers live in the presence of many ghosts.
J. Andrew Jarvis, chairman and CEO of the Philadelphia firm, Ewing Cole Cherry Brott, has sketched his own image of this idea. He says:
"One light would shine for each person who perished there on September 11, 2001. The lights would be placed within the giant footprints of the twin towers, recreating their volume in the night sky to remind us where they once stood. During the day, the site would be a public memorial garden, displaying the name, photograph and hometown of each person who died.
"At night," Jarvis continues, "the combined power of all their lights would slice through the evening haze into the heavens; far higher than 110 stories. The twin towers of light would signify that buildings may fall and people may die, but the spirit of our nation endures. Steel may fail, but light cannot be destroyed."
In the rush to remember, it is easy to forget that the buildings had always spurred debate. Architecture critics, from Blair Kamin to Paul Goldberger, once denounced them as bad design. As Newsweek recently reported, their great height was partly a public relations boondoggle, as well as an architectural triumph. Their brief status as world's tallest building was conceived as a way of selling the image of a city to itself.
When New York hovered on financial crisis in the 1960s, the towers were built to buoy the city's image of self-preservation. They were supplanted as the world's tallest buildings two years after they were complete.
Now, of course they mean a great deal more. To New Yorkers, friends, and neighbors, they are the epicenter of a multicentered loss. As a result of the destruction of those towers, thousands of children of fire fighters, janitors, and investment bankers have their parents.
From outside, to a group of terrorists, the buildings may have symbolized a great, monolithic evil empire. Inside, the towers were not were not so much a monolith as a microcosm of what the city holds.
On a basic level, the destruction of these austere cuboid towers on our skyline has provoked us to reflect on what buildings mean. To level a skyline is to assault a city's very idea of itself.
In the chaos of the attacks, New Yorkers assembled together in odd assortments, reorganizing all social relationships as they struggled to help each other through the crisis. As it rebuilds, New York has the chance to come together, not humbled, but reordering in emergent, unknown, and hopeful formations.
Tess Taylor is an architecture writer who lives in Brooklyn.