The near-unanimous revulsion that the six original proposals for the former World Trade Center site provoked among New Yorkers was one of the most hopeful developments since the initial wave of solidarity washed through the city after the September 11 attacks. Once the proposals became public, it was evident that planners had badly misjudged the city’s needs and desires. People searching for commemoration, healing and civic inspiration found instead interchangeable plans for an office mall in lower Manhattan. Real estate pressures trumped all other considerations, except for the political need to appease survivors and family members who demanded that the Twin Towers’ “footprints” remain untouched “sacred ground.” I know I was not the only critic of the original WTC who shook my head in frustration at the mediocrity on display and decided it would be far better to rebuild the original towers instead. A friend confessed his fantasy of a single, 200-story skyscraper–a giant finger pointed at the killers. At least that would speak to something honest in the city’s soul.
The reluctant admission that we New Yorkers miss the towers, that we came to love them in spite of themselves, has become a cliché in post-9/11 journalism. Their destruction coincided with a moment when Modernism–after years of derision in academic and architectural circles–seemed again all the rage, though in this case an appreciation for clean, Modernist design was neatly severed from the social progressivism that inspired many of its adherents almost a century ago. In the fall of 2001, Modernism was again on the scene as a “style,” not as a “movement,” and the coffee-table books and magazines lavishly illustrated with images of Modernist icons carried only the slightest reference to the confident hope that many architects and planners had once held for satisfying popular demands for adequate housing and sanitary living conditions. In fact, by the time both towers were completed in 1973, the entire Modernist program for social reconstruction and urban renewal was in intellectual and political crisis, thanks to the work of critics such as Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, Robert Venturi and William H. Whyte, and to the activism of those citizens who blocked bulldozers and made preservation and context the watchwords of a new historicist approach to urbanism. Whatever nostalgia may now exist for the Trade Center seems to be a longing for a bold New York skyline, shaped more by daring than by death, and not for Modernism in its fuller, more expansive vision.
The World Trade Center had an ambiguous place in the history of Modernism, in any case. Ada Louise Huxtable noted as early as 1962 that architect Minoru Yamasaki’s design displayed an “ornamental style and a conscious historicism” at odds with the spare functionalism of reigning Modernist orthodoxy. In a perceptive essay in last November’s College Art Association newsletter, CAA News, Ned Kaufman quoted Huxtable’s comments in an analysis that juxtaposed the failure of the WTC’s vast Modernist plaza with the “vaguely Venetian arcades on which the towers stood.” “What did the towers stand for, anyway?” Kaufman asked, if they were not examples of an unalloyed Modernist architectural vision. His answer was that they stood for the bureaucratic state. “The WTC was not an expression of free enterprise,” he wrote: “It was built by Big Government, was roundly criticized for that, and in market terms could not have been called a good investment…. In symbol and substance, it was government projecting a design.”
In this context, the ambivalence that so many New Yorkers had about the towers before September 11 may have reflected a much deeper uncertainty about Big Government and, more precisely, about the arrogant, top-down urban liberalism associated with Robert Moses and other master builders in the middle years of the past century. That liberalism was in retreat by the early 1970s, repudiated as much by liberals as by neoconservatives and others appalled at the fiscal crisis, crime and physical decay that followed on the upheavals of the 1960s. The Twin Towers arose out of the wreckage of urban liberalism like tombstones for Big Government, evoking memories of the promise of visionary planning on a grand scale and the utter failure of that vision in practice. No wonder they proved such an embarrassment. They were like the 1970s remake of King Kong filmed at the towers: an utterly graceless coda to the dazzling Modernist culture that had once given us the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, Fay Wray and Fiorello La Guardia.