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After a year and a half, it remains the ground of murder. And the elegant stilts of steel, the extended wings of gossamer glass with which Daniel Libeskind proposes to sculpt a new Babylon above Ground Zero do not alter this truth. It is not that Libeskind is not a fine sculptor; it is that sculpture is too fine for the site.
I do not complain because I doubt Libeskind. In making its decision on what should replace the twinned frailties of emptiness and memory which confront us in the void where the Twin Towers stood, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) has surely chosen the lesser evil. It is fitting that the garish skeletal frames of the towers that the THINK team proposed have been dismissed. They were a foolish piece of constructivist hyperbole—an ecstatic vertical jungle gym obscuring their funereal base.
Indeed, I am certain that Libeskind’s design is aesthetically superior to that of the other finalist. In his preservation of the sunken pit at the base of the towers’ foundation, where the deep slurry walls still hold back the Hudson, there is at least his concession to the incapacity of architectural addition. The most powerful part of his design is that in which he has done nothing. In the pit, there are few flourishes. There is only Libeskind’s realization that the solemn ruins of death are made banal by calling attention to their architecture.
But the correct moral decision is not always the correct aesthetic decision. And in Libeskind’s blueprints for new buildings above the place of slaughter, the second has been mistaken for the first. Libeskind has said the site was “a place of mourning, a place of sadness, where so many people were murdered and died.” He is exactly right. He has also said that he wanted his design for the WTC site to be “something that is outward, forward-looking, optimistic, exciting.” He is exactly wrong.
The danger of rebuilding on the ground at Ground Zero is to forget that it is not ground. As Leon Wieseltier describes it, “There was no soil in this place. What they were moving was the substance that was formed out of the dissolution of everything and everybody that had been crushed and incinerated: a deathloam.” Creating a beautiful, used, lived-in building over Ground Zero is more than a physical erasure of the tragedy, it is an erasure of our public memory. It veneers over death. It treats the “deathloam” as soil for a new foundation.
Again, it is not that Libeskind’s design is not masterful. He has fulfilled his commitment to optimism. The hope with which his design reaches upwards, sitting like the curled hand of God around the footprint of the two towers, its index finger stretching towards the sky—taller, indeed, than any building in the world, save a few telecommunication towers—is important, even necessary in what is to be our revisioning of Manhattan. It is as much an immigrant’s vision of the endless possibility that marks our most American of American cities as it is an American vision of that city’s determined continuity. In another place Libeskind’s design would be truly a Yad Vashem, a memorial and a monument. But it is toweringly inappropriate in its current location.
Libeskind, who is best known for his haunting design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, should have known better. The Jewish Museum is composed of a labyrinth of angular corridors and startling voids—spaces at the heart of the building, visible but inaccessible to museum-goers. The effect is deeply unsettling. It speaks volumes about our inability to dwell in the wake of death without in some way internalizing its final nullity. This is not art struck dumb, but art realizing its limitations, its profound humanness. Sometimes what we cannot say is all we can.
Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, too, is tied to the stilled remnants of the German Jewish community. He did not hazard the baseness of memorializing the dead at the place of their annihilation. What could a memorial at Auschwitz do but divert us from Auschwitz? There are reasons we do not place gravestones in the charnel pits.
In this way, the ground at the feet of the World Trade Center deserves so much less than Libeskind’s fiercely beautiful vision, his floating 1776-foot spire, his hanging gardens. Less ornament, less grace, less art. For people were not buried there, they were slaughtered. At the location of such a tragedy, no memorial for the victims can speak beyond the site’s capacity for speech, no monument to the heroes can be more than distraction.
Economic realities demand that there be some reconstruction of the 11.5 million square feet of office space lost when the towers were laid low. But why not a built-over West Street, or elsewhere in the large stretches of Lower Manhattan that could be redeveloped? Indeed, why it was necessary to build on the 16 acres whose very ground is death, seems to follow not the ration of the dollar, but merely the naïveté of a culture that thinks it can erase its lowest moment by illuminating its highest.
But we must recognize both. In restoring the World Trade Center site to a functional commercial space, the LMDC has guaranteed that New York will rise prominently from its ashes. In the execution of Libeskind’s design in its present location, we will be reminded of our strength, but not our loss. It will have artificially filled over the empty space that now haunts us. The hollow pit that speaks for those who were slain, that strikes us silent and huddling before the enormity of what we cannot know and cannot say, will disappear.
Jeremy B. Reff ’04 is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Eliot House.
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