PRINT November 2001

READING 9-11-01

Divided We Fall

New York City is, at its healthiest, a crucible of one-upmanship. So it was heartening to find that spirit alive—indeed, thriving—in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Personal accounts from those not directly affected that day (and there is no one in the city at more than three degrees of separation from the dead) have sometimes taken a distinctly competitive, closer-than-thou cast. Watching both towers fall was, sadly, a commonplace. An apartment coated in what we’ve all agreed to call “dust” was worth more. Seeing the first plane hit—not through the filter of television—trumped all.

Shocked at what had happened in their city, New Yorkers understandably tried to put themselves down there. And what held for individuals was true for whole professions. In the first hours after the calamity, as every newly essential pipe fitter and crane operator headed for the wreckage, less burly sorts struggled to assess their place in a world that had gone from decadent to defenseless in the span of 100 minutes. In that singular utilitarian moment, those whose contributions to the crisis would by nature remain more abstract were already at work to forestall their irrelevance.

A land rush was on to stake an intellectual claim at “ground zero.” Theater and fashion critics, asserting in passing the pertinence of their criticism, assessed the collateral damage on Broadway (as actors started to pitch in at Chelsea Piers) and on Seventh Avenue (as Heidi Klum volunteered incognito at the Javits Center). Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brought Fifth Avenue to the ruins when he wrote that they were a “masterpiece” to be cherished and preserved. Top chefs boiled lobsters for firefighters and cops.

The city’s writers, not surprisingly, saw the disaster as an occasion for writing; perhaps the only thing left unreported about that day is that, as night fell, a crescent moon rose high over the city. Though most were appropriately selfless—holding the public trust above individual agendas—some saw in the smoke a chance to layer a second code. As Ron Rosenbaum pointed out in the New York Observer, many writers used the events of September 11 as a vehicle to promote the overriding importance of narrative, their stock in trade. A few days earlier, in reference to some devious post-disaster legislation, a Washington Post editorial had labeled such opportunism “hitchhiking.”

For architects, the urge to hitchhike has been especially strong. This was, after all, an architectural as well as a human catastrophe, and in some early responses from the field it was hard to determine which class of victim took precedence. Echoing older New Yorkers who remember the pre-WTC skyline (so close to the one that pains us now), certain professional and lay critics did not hesitate to note, as the site still burned, that those buildings had been an eyesore, that rebuilding would be a chance to get it right, that this or that architect should be chosen for the job. (Rumors of mercenary day-after string-pulling should be checked against whoever is eventually selected.) A cabal of corporate architects met at the offices of Fox & Fowle, ostensibly to plan a coordinated response to the huge loss of office space the city had suffered in an instant days before. Richard Meier was surveyed twice by the New York Times—he twice favored rebuilding grandly—and was booked to chat with Barbara Walters, who asked him to bring along a sketch of what might come next (he demurred). To date, there has been a conspicuous silence from those at the very top of the star architect short list—from Rem Koolhaas, who once wrote so eloquently about change in New York, and from Frank Gehry, who has said only that this is not the time to say a thing—but their proxies have been active. The Guggenheim’s Thomas Krens, patron to both, suggested that the still-stinking ruins would be a good site for his proposed downtown franchise.

Architects less likely to be directly involved in rebuilding also went on record right away, but with ideas that seemed to further their particular aesthetic. Richard Gluckman, who recently designed light sculptures for Pittsburgh, said that the towers should be brought back with some sort of luminescent skin. Speaking to the Times just after the attack, Diller + Scofidio, the boutique firm that was awarded a “genius” grant for its theory-rich inquiries at the intersection of technology and space, warned coldly that we should not “erase the erasure”; the lost identity of the skyline is, they said on a day when the estimate of the so-called missing approached 5,000, “what’s most poignant now.”

The last time American architecture packed off to battle, the response was similar: In World War II, architects of a more builderly stripe mobilized to assert their utility while those who cleaved to artistic prerogatives found themselves quickly forgotten. Anthems to architecture’s relevance—“The Architect Must Be Used”—echoed through the trade press for years, even before Pearl Harbor, and grew increasingly strident when government neglect became the norm. Situated where purpose and inspiration cross paths, architecture at all times finds itself pulled between the glamour of the other arts and the grit of engineering. In the war, with vital industries mobilized and all others marginalized, there was a pitched campaign to cozy up to engineering, to repackage the gentleman aesthete as a “technical planning professional.” One architect recorded this sentiment memorably in a 1942 sketch, captioned with this call-to-arms: “Let’s throw the silk hat and the gardenia in the wastebasket and beat hell out of everybody!”

That, of course, never happened. While a small number of firms were essential—none more so than those which could get a bomber factory built in ninety days—most architects suffered a fate similar to their peers who followed the Seabees into the Pacific Theater: watching engineers build airfields while they were put to work festooning the officers’ quarters with palm fronds. The big firms that served the military came to dominate the postwar scene, laying the practical groundwork that would make possible titanic projects like the World Trade Center. When artistic practices reemerged and flourished in the 1950s, there was little common ground between architecture’s taste-mongering theorists and its get-it-done practitioners. They remain divided today.

At the risk of piling one more hitchhiker into a crowded hearse, let me suggest that if even more distance is put between architects’ dueling incarnations then there really will be no place for them, at ground zero or elsewhere. If the direct experience of terror and its secondary economic effects continue to temper the cultural imagination beyond the shell-shock chic of the early weeks, we may see a return to some of those wartime tropes: a profession scrambling to be useful, a government that spurns it, and a widening rift between the architects who toss their gardenias and those who hold them dear.

Philip Nobel is an architecture and design critic who lives in Brooklyn. A contributing editor to Metropolis magazine, where his “Far Corner” column appears monthly, Nobel has written for the New York Times, Vogue, Architectural Digest, and L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui, among other publications.