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DAVID COHEN's column

September 15 , 2001

The Stones of New York
A Tribute to the Twin Towers

Call it fiddling while Rome burns, call me an aesthete with confused priorities, but I feel an urge to set on record a heartfelt assertion: they were beautiful. The Twin Towers were steel, glass, concrete, but they had a spirit. A footnote to five thousand others, they never the less deserve an obituary.

Sure, they had the brashness of their era: born in 1970, they were to architecture what Abba or Queen were to Rock n' Roll. Actually, controversy and bitterness first greeted them. The diggers moved in, early one morning, without planning permission, at the order of Governor Rockefeller, something of the robber baron resurfacing in his aristocratic genes. But in no time, architect Minoru Yamasaki's Twin Towers defined themselves as timeless, defying the possibility of removal or stylistic tampering as surely as they cocked a snook at gravity and the niceties of urban planning.

I don't claim for the World Trade Center the intense aesthetic joy to be felt for some artistic masterpiece like the Taj Mahal or Saint Mark's Basilica or any exquisite though less feted landmark that all lovers of buildings can name for themselves or indeed countless architectural and decorative wonders on the streets of Manhattan. But like other "stones" of New York, especially the mid-town campanili around where I live, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler, New York Life (which really is a campanile) and the Flatiron, the Twin Towers were buildings that elated the spirit without waiting to be examined. Skyscrapers are one of the reasons New York is, physically, so addictive. They are the sublime yin to the beautiful yang represented by the constant flow of gorgeous humanity at street level - at least to this flaneur. If the breathing, living loveliness of passers-by represents transient beauty, the man-made mountains offer a solid, enduring, perennial grandeur. Or so one thought until September 11. What an obscene object lesson in transience this calamity provides, proof that cities are as fragile as the individual lives of their citizens in the scheme of things.

Walking around in a stupor these last days, the city mocked in its grief by cruelly sumptuous sunshine, New Yorkers have had the perfect light to gaze at their architectural wonders: every detail of masonry, every line of construction, has exuded vitality just when life was being so pointlessly denied to innocent people. New York's nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial architecture is truly a marvel of building craft. Perhaps New Yorkers have found in the PBS documentary films of Ric Burns the "Stones of Venice" needed to explicate the meaning of their city. (So often, by the way, New York used to be called the New Venice, a maritime democracy built in defiance of nature. The Trade Center plaza was indeed consciously modeled on the Piazza San Marco.) But to return to the shameless cocky decorative eclecticism of earlier, beaux-arts and deco style 'scrapers, is to behold a pulsating emblem of burgeoning American capitalism. The stylistic multiculturalism of the new American architecture, its shameless fusion of a myriad of orders and styles with the new high-rise technology, was, surely, a kind of equivalent to the diversity of people who gather here, as ever, to trade, to shop, to create, to recreate?

The World Trade Center was the last great gasp of the high modernist aesthetic. Less is more, and lots of it, please! At the same time, the Twin Towers actually reflect the subversion of certain modernist principles: the verticality of the structures was pure international style, for sure, but the distinctive steel ribbons and the stingy-seeming ceiling heights (immortalized in their weirdness in Rackstraw Downes's painted depictions of vacant floors) denied the kind of transparency that one gets in, say, a Mies tower. I once spent a couple of weeks on the 92nd Floor as a visiting critic at the Triangle Workshop. The windows on the world - it sounds such a kitschy name for a restaurant, but that's exactly what they were - suddenly made sense. Frustration at not getting a panorama very quickly gave way to the pleasures of unexpected cropping. It suddenly struck me: each window is like a Japanese pillar-print. And this was before I learned [a] that the architect was Japanese-American, and [b] that Mr. Yamasaki was scared of heights and had never previously built anything more than a few stories high and that he deliberately wanted to spare inhabitants from vertigo with his narrow windows. The pillar-print windows on the world were the perfect foil to the extraordinary sensation, up there, of a view that imploded the opposition of vertical and horizontal. The English abstract painter Sarah Medway made superb and, for her, uncharacteristically referential drawings of the view, one of which she "traded" for a feeble scribble I produced one day. Capitalism at its most exploitative, really it was her gift.

New York - Day by Sarah Medway New York - Night by Sarah Medway

New York - Day
Oil on Linen, 1998 5ft x 5ft

New York - Night
Oil on Linen, 1998 5ft x 5ft

* * *

When an object is destroyed, memory of it changes, too. Not only are the Twin Towers gone, but the very idea of the Towers is twisted out of shape. Or rather, into an entirely novel shape. Their new monumentalism in humane consciousness dwarfs their once gargantuan presence in physical space. Where they used to spell optimism, indomitability, faith in technology, they are now a symbol of the vulnerability of civilization, the more pathetic for once having been so proud. But let's remember this: even in the miserable moments of their transition from one symbol to another, from a major key fanfare to capitalism at its most audacious, spunky, and muscular, to a minor key pavane to the American values of openness and enterprise, these towers were a credit to the genius of their construction. With the severity of the blows they sustained, they stood up long enough for many people to escape who might not have, otherwise, and when they buckled they kept their shape with a surreal elegance it shames one to have noticed, but which should none the less be noted because a lesser design would have toppled and inflicted much greater mayhem. They were heroic even in their demise.

I look back on my personal conduct over the last week with certain bewilderment, even guilt. My way of coping was to try and carry on, business as normal, even walking down Fifth Avenue as the towers burned to get to work and make some "important" international calls. At 25th Street I was able to marvel at the buildings' still standing (what an ability the mind has to compartmentalize) even while sickened and angry and fearful for the trapped. At 23rd I watched the first crumble, and yet still carried on. I think I was just in some kind of trance. (Naturally, one prefers to be temporarily insane than permanently so.) But this morning, listening to NPR, the world gradually feels safe for optimists and aesthetes. Fran Lebowitz spoke of the need, now, for a new sense of creativity and use of language. The last two decades, she notes, have been totally retro, and that simply will not do for the world post-September 11. Bravo to that. I've long been despondent about the current architecture of our city. How could the New York that gave the world wonders from Grand Central station to the World Trade Center put up with the brick rubbish and gormless boxes that pass these days for architecture? Well, let's start thinking already about what to build next. And hear-hear to another speaker on NPR this morning who called for a new tower that says to the world "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

I don't propose a replica of Mr. Yamasaki's spires: pastiche is no tribute to him, no memorial to our lost ones who were, at their moment of peril, busy with life and plans and deals, let's recall, and no positive statement about the American spirit. My two-cents worth is that we should have a park where the Trade Center was, and then a marina-tower 100 stories high plonk in the water, south of South Ferry where the two rivers join the ocean, like the one Norman Foster designed for Tokyo but which the Japanese have bottled out of building. Name it the William Feehan Tower: every New Yorker will know why. I'm thinking way ahead, of course. There are tens of thousands of broken lives to patch up, and a major war to win. But still, there's no harm in planning. This is New York, after all, the city of the world's dreams.

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