As both an architect and architectural historian–that is, as someone who cares about buildings nearly as much as I care about my friends and family–I felt like I lost an old friend on September 11 when the towers of the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground. While the nation mourned the thousands of people who died that day, I also mourned for the two buildings that died that day.
I could not write about rebuilding the towers until the site was completely cleared; one would never discuss settling the estate until after the funeral. But now that the Port Authority has announced its diminutive plans for the WTC site–none of the proposals calls for a tower at anything near the original height of the twin towers–I must shout to every American: “Don’t do it, it doesn’t have to end this way.” It is the same cry you would shout to stop a suicide.
Anything less than a new tower at the same height–or higher–is demonstrating to those who hate us that we intend to cut back, roll over, and give up. It is not the quick, violent suicide of putting a gun to your head, but the slow suicide of a man who has given up trying to live.
Throughout history, many great buildings have been damaged and destroyed in war. What a society does to rebuild afterward is an omen for its future survival.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, a marauding Persian army sacked the Greek city of Athens and burned the Parthenon, the city’s most important temple. What did the ancient Athenians do? They didn’t decide they should make a smaller temple so that it would be less of a target in the future. They didn’t decide that they were guilty of offending the enemy with their wealth and success. They didn’t leave a barren plateau to commemorate the men who died fighting the Persians. Instead, after they roundly defeated the enemy, they rebuilt bigger and better. The old Parthenon had been built of limestone. The new Parthenon was built of the finest material the Athenians could find–white marble–and decorated with inspiring sculptures of heroes. It was the greatest Greek temple ever built and marked the beginning of the Athenian Golden Age.
Or consider America’s history. During the war of 1812, when the British burned the Presidential Mansion, what did we do? We rebuilt the mansion, repainted the charred exterior, and called it the White House.
In the 1850s, when a fire burned the Capitol building, plans were made to rebuild it, but soon the country was split apart by the Civil War. Yet it was during the war, with limited funds and limited workers, that the Capitol was rebuilt and enlarged using the latest modern materials. During a conflict that threatened to rip the nation in two, the rebuilding of the Capitol demonstrated Lincoln’s confidence that we would succeed in preserving the Union.
Today, however, America’s reaction is increasingly one of passivity and resignation. We flounder in a half-hearted war because we’re afraid we might suffer casualties–or worse, we’re afraid we might inflict them on the enemy. We plead with our allies and our enemies for permission to invade Iraq. And when the World Trade Center site is cleared, we propose a half-hearted building campaign. We accept a slow suicide.
Yes, the new World Trade Center site should include a memorial to the American civilians who were killed in this war. The 16-acre site has plenty of room to accommodate such a memorial. But the demands to make the whole site into a giant mausoleum are perverse.
Some say that the WTC site is sacred ground. But in my view, all of Manhattan is sacred ground–not because people died there, but because its bridges and skyscrapers are monuments to human life. They are monuments to the human aspiration to build and to create. This is what was attacked on September 11: our wealth, our success, the global reach of our commerce and culture. The best way to commemorate those achievements is through a new skyscraper, bigger, better, and more beautiful than the ones we have lost.
This would be our declaration that we, the American people, have chosen to keep building–that we have chosen, not to give up, but to go on to even greater heights.
Anything less would be suicide.