Ground Zero: rebuild to the skies

New York should worry less about preserving its ashes, and concentrate on rising from them.

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

At the laying of the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower on 4 July 2004, all the talk was of New York rising again.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: ‘For the tenth time in history, the world’s tallest building will be rising in Manhattan. And a spot that has known sorrow will be rebuilt. Today we are affirming life at Ground Zero.’ Governor George Pataki commented: ‘How badly our enemies underestimated the resiliency of this city and the resolve of these United States.’ (1)

The ceremonials glossed over the tug of war that has been carrying on over Ground Zero for the past three years. The desire to rebuild the site and return it to normal use has battled with the instinct to preserve the remnants of the attacks and to retain the area as a permanent memorial. This has created a hotchpotch of a plan, which is unclear about whether this is supposed to be a place to live and work or a place to mourn. And although the cornerstone was laid amid Independence Day fanfare, the design still has yet to be firmed up.

Given that New York is a city that has always reached upwards, it is not surprising that rebuilding has begun. What is perhaps more notable is the strength of the feelings that have been keeping the towers down.

Relatives of those who died in the 9/11 attacks have seen Ground Zero as ‘sacred ground’, as invested with the spirits of their loved ones. The Coalition of 9/11 Families argued that ‘the entire site is a graveyard without tombstones’, and that ‘structural development at the site should serve the purpose of memorialising…the events of September 11th for future generations’ (2). It opposes new bus or train links passing underneath the WTC footprints, and also supports the exposure of the bedrock layer that lies some 70 feet below today’s ground level.

These views found resonance with public representatives. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani argued that Ground Zero ‘must first and foremost be a memorial’ – adding that if it was up to him he would devote the entire 16-acre site for this purpose (3). Pataki, who as governor has some say in what happens to the site, pledged that nothing should be built on the footprints of the towers.

There has also been a concerted effort to preserve the remnants of the World Trade Centre. In a hangar at Kennedy International Airport, hi-tech preservation techniques are being used to help prevent charred remains of the towers from deteriorating. Constant readings are taken of temperature and humidity, and dehumidifiers work away to halt the rust. A 58-ton column from the south tower bears a memorial inscription to police officers who died; conservators inject an adhesive resin under the paint surface to try to prevent it from peeling off (4).

Architect Daniel Libeskind’s winning design for the site preserves the memory of the attacks. At the centrepiece of his plan is the hollow pit where the towers once stood and in which fires raged for days, and the area is framed by the exposed slurry wall that holds back the waters of the River Hudson. Libeskind’s skyscrapers have jagged edges like shards, as if bearing the imprints of an explosion. He planned to mark out the paths that the rescue workers had taken on their way to the towers; and incorporated a ‘wedge of light’ that would fall without shadow at 10.28, the time that the second tower fell, on 11 September every year.

The Freedom Tower is supposed to be 1776 metres high, with a curving tip that evokes the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty. But these references to American history are mere motifs, a case of name-checking the past rather than expressing the spirit of the struggle for independence or liberty. Instead of embodying forward-looking optimism, Libeskind’s design evokes the traumatic moment of the attacks – effectively stamping a permanent reminder of 9/11 on downtown Manhattan.

It is only recently that we became so preoccupied with preserving the remnants and memory of tragedy. In the 1990s, the cultural geographer Kenneth E Foote travelled around historic sites of violence in America, and found that places where accidental or senseless death had occurred would tend to be returned to normal use or obliterated. So the site of a terrorist attack on Wall Street in 1920 that killed 30 people and injured 200 was soon rectified, leaving behind only a few stray shrapnel scars in nearby buildings (5).

According to Foote, patterns of memorialisation underwent a shift during the 1990s, when sites of senseless death began to be marked. The first memorial he could find to a mass murder was erected in 1990 in San Ysidro, California, honouring the victims of a 1984 shooting in a McDonald’s restaurant. We have become accustomed to roadside memorials stuck to lampposts or crash barriers, marking the spot where somebody was knocked down. In 1920, Wall Street wiped away the evidence of terrorist attack, but today these sites – from Ground Zero to the 1995 Oklahoma bomb site to Madrid’s Atocha railway station – routinely become shrines.

We seem reluctant to move on from tragic events, and instead seek to make them a permanent part of the landscape. There is a peculiar identification with suffering, however pointless. Libeskind’s design dwells on the experience of trauma in the raw, in the instant of shock and pain before anybody realised what was happening. Meanwhile, the winning design for the 9/11 memorial expresses pure and meaningless loss, with two fountains flowing down into holes where the trade towers once stood, as if down into a void.

The deaths of 9/11 were indeed just a senseless loss of life, rather than any kind of sacrifice for a heroic cause. But why take up four acres of Ground Zero to say this? Why not build new skyscrapers, bigger and better than the WTC towers, to help erase painful memories and lay the foundations for the future?

The Ground Zero preservers haven’t got it all their own way. Larry Silverstein, the developer who holds the lease for the WTC site and has a major say in what happens to it, has been pushing to get new office space up as quickly as possible. He has employed another more commercially minded architect, David Childs, to work with Libeskind and bash the plans into shape.

Meanwhile, local business leaders have pressured Pataki to improve the downtown area, much of which has remained blighted and barren. Thomas A Renyi, chief executive and chairman of the Bank of New York, complained of the ‘lack of clarity and the perceived loss of momentum’ in the rebuilding plans. Pataki responded by putting together a timetable for improving roads, parks and bridges in the area, and in the longer term there are plans for underground pedestrian tunnels and airport rail links (6).

Parts of Libeskind’s design have been changed. Some of the jagged edges of the buildings have reportedly been smoothed out, because of doubts that people would want to rent irregularly shaped offices. The ‘wedge of light’ feature was moved from the buildings to the roof of the train station. The 70-feet-deep pit that would reveal the slurry wall has been raised to the more sanitised level of 30-feet, after Silverstein questioned whether businesses would want to work next to a hole that reminded them of their vulnerability (7).

Many elements of the plan remain in doubt, but Ground Zero certainly won’t be ending up as a 16-acre memorial as some had wanted. There will be several million square feet of office space, shopping centres, and a modern transportation hub. A temporary PATH station has already been opened.

On the first anniversary of 9/11, one columnist wrote: ‘We must build, build, and build again.’ (8) You might expect a city like New York to respond to devastation with such creative, surging energy. But today, such idealism finds it hard to stand up on its own. At present, Silverstein and his partner, Westfield America, pay a combined $10million in rent each month for what is in part a wasteland (9). It’s the hole in their pockets that is pushing them to get life going again in the area.

But the rebuilders have been held back every step of the way by the preservationists. New York’s ambivalent response to the hole that is Ground Zero provides us with something of a cultural barometer. In the past, it was the more dynamic cities that saw opportunity in the gaps left by war or catastrophe. The 1666 Fire of London cleared away meandering unsanitary streets and wood-fronted houses, which were hurriedly replaced by wider avenues lined by brick buildings. The inscription on the monument to the fire reads: ‘Haste is seen everywhere. London rises again.’ Some cities have started again almost from scratch, such as Hiroshima or Dresden after the Second World War, or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

It has tended to be the more stagnant cities that left their scars untouched. Nicaragua’s capital Managua was flattened in a 1972 earthquake, and has never recovered. Around the city centre lie patches of abandoned wasteland that nobody has bothered to fill in. In Eastern Europe, ruins from the Second World War were often just left to fester, rather than replaced with something new.

So it is disturbing that one of the most vibrant cities in the world today is putting its energy into preserving the remnants of a terrorist attack, rather than reaching again for the skies. Let’s hope that in the tug of war over Ground Zero the rebuilders can give that one extra heave.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) ‘At ground zero, a step toward renewal’,, 5 July 2004

(2) ‘Coalition of 9/11 families’, Position on World Trade Centre Memorial

(3) ‘Getting it right at Ground Zero’, Time, 1 September 2002

(4) ‘Halting rust from devouring what 9/11 couldn’t’, New York Times, 3 April 2004

(5) Shadowed Ground: America’s landscapes of violence and tragedy, Kenneth E Foote, University of Texas Press, 1997

(6) ‘Pataki sketches a timetable for rebuilding of ground zero’, New York Times, 25 April 2003

(7) ‘Design row as cornerstone for new tower is laid at Ground Zero’, Independent, 5 July 2004

(8) ‘The city is the monument’, City Journal, 11 September 2002

(9) ‘A memorial, yes, but battle lines form for everything else’, New York Times, 27 February 2003

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Topics Culture


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