Mourning and Modernism After 9/11

Mourning and Modernism After 9/11

Can function follow form?


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.

For an intellectual left sliding into the dark pessimism of the mid- and late 1970s under the influence of the Frankfurt School and other sources, the WTC towers were the perfect embodiment of a Promethean will to mastery that trapped human life in Max Weber’s “iron cage” of bureaucracy and technical control. Modern architecture, in this view, was the accomplice of a capitalist modernization that had gutted cities of their historical centers and popular folkways in the name of progress. Long before the completion of the towers, Lewis Mumford had described the skyscraper as “a human filing cabinet” and decried the destruction of urban sociability by the highway, the downtown skyscraper and the suburb. Was not the erection of these gargantuan buildings that dwarfed the landscape and deprived office workers of easy access to air and light a sign that the Enlightenment project had ended in an inhuman cult of power? Mumford had by the 1960s already come to view the modern industrial city as an immense “necropolis.” One imagines that he would have seen the strikes on the towers, and the horrific losses they produced, as somehow in keeping with an urbanism that sacrificed human needs to gigantic totems of technological and bureaucratic power. The Twin Towers, in this grim logic, were symbolic tombs for urban life long before Al Qaeda’s murderers boarded their flights that terrible morning.

Whatever its implication in such narratives of progressive doom, the history of modern architecture and urban planning is more and other than a history of a failed liberal project, more and other than the nightmare of an Enlightenment rationality turned Frankenstein monster. Such accounts neglect the deep concern within the Modern movement for the demands of billions for civic dignity and a decent standard of living. The rebuilding of lower Manhattan provides an opportunity to move beyond a complacent confession of progressive failure and take stock of the resources still available to us from both the Modern movement and the social democratic reformism that was its lifeblood. As Kaufman shrewdly noted, “In its destruction the WTC put government back at the center of our consciousness: it is to government that injured people and businesses have reflexively turned for help–each level of government looking expectantly to the next–and it is government at the highest level that is now redesigning lives and deaths through decisions that affect us at every level–military deployments, homeland security, and much more.” If the market fundamentalism of the past quarter-century is slowly giving way to an inchoate social liberalism, then perhaps it is also time to revisit the history of the Modern movement in architecture and planning as something more than an effort at social control or an episode in chic design.

One way to reapproach that history is to examine the way in which Modernism–as a truly “International Style”–has successfully created sites for grief and mourning. Modernism has at its best served those working through the traumatic history of the past century by combining a utopian sense of possibility with a heightened awareness of human limitation and loss. Americans would do well, as they contemplate their own tragedy, to consider the example of the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park erected at the site of the first dropping of the atomic bomb by the United States on August 6, 1945. That Ground Zero–the first Ground Zero–has been much on my mind in recent months, as I have considered how New Yorkers and others have engaged in public practices of mourning those killed on September 11.

The Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park is a classic example of postwar architectural Modernism of the sort that passed out of fashion in the 1970s and ’80s. The stark geometry of its plan, the austere and uninviting design of its museum buildings and the vast emptiness of its central spaces remind us of other Modernist plazas that now seem relics of some previous civilization. Whether we are looking at the memorial park in Hiroshima, the center of Brasília, the windswept center of Nelson Rockefeller’s Albany, New York, or photographs of the original WTC plaza, we are in the presence of an International Style vision of orderly, utopian planning that now strikes many as sterile and lifeless.

The Peace Park in Hiroshima certainly opens itself up to such criticisms, as well as to the charge that mid-twentieth-century architectural Modernism imposed a blanket universalism on landscapes at the expense of difference and the particularities of local culture. The revisions of the Hiroshima landscape in the years since its design in the 1950s bear some resemblance to reactions in the United States and Europe against the universalist claims of urban Modernism. Protests against the exclusion of any reference to the tens of thousands of forced Korean laborers who died in Hiroshima led first to the erection in 1970 of a Korean memorial outside the perimeter of the park and then to the movement of that memorial inside the park itself in 1999. Likewise, the Peace Memorial Museum has had to revise the story it tells about the war and the events of August 6 in ways that promote a more critical, multiperspectival reading of Japan’s actions in World War II. Such revisions resemble the public rescripting of US history in recent years to include the stories of excluded groups, and they have provoked controversies familiar to those who have watched the battles over recent exhibitions at the Smithsonian.

What surprised me, when I visited the Peace Park in June 1999, was the way it revealed how Modernism provided people around the world with an urban language and public places for mourning in the years after the war. Perhaps the plain, geometrical design of the Peace Park appealed to visitors as an appropriate response to trauma, and not simply as an image of a streamlined urban modernity for a war-ravaged world. By creating clean, open spaces for reflection and self-contemplation, and by offering an uncluttered stage for rituals of mourning and commemoration, such design may have served psychological needs that we have not fully acknowledged. From the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the two pillars of light that pierced the night sky this past spring in lower Manhattan, an austere, reserved aesthetic has been more effective as a vehicle for mourning than most critics of Modernism would care to admit.

Also on display at the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park is another aesthetic of mourning that has likewise become an “international style” of a different sort. The story of the paper cranes made by Sadako has inspired children and adults around the globe. As most small children now know, Sadako was the young Hiroshima girl who was exposed to radiation at age 2, developed leukemia at 12 and then died before she could finish folding the 1,000 origami cranes she imagined would save her life. When I visited Hiroshima, the park was blanketed with colorful paper cranes, which were heaped by the thousands on park benches and on the sides of buildings and draped on and across sculptures. Unbeknownst to me, an international peace campaign had enlisted people from around the world to send more than a million cranes to Hiroshima between 1996 and 2000. Against the hard, gray-and-white block buildings of the memorial, the brightly colored cranes bore the imprint of children’s hands and spoke to a hope for a peaceful world emerging from the ashes of atomic ruin. As I walked around the site, I came across a pile of cranes sent by middle school kids from Littleton, Colorado, the site of the Columbine High School massacre only a few weeks before.

The use of an atomic weapon against Hiroshima marks a turning point in the history of warfare, the transition from wars that took their toll primarily on soldiers to those that routinely ravage civilian populations. Sociologist Charles Tilly has recently argued (in the summer issue of Boston Review) that the great, terrible story of twentieth-century violence is the radical increase of civilian death as a percentage of wartime victims. “Over the century as a whole,” Tilly writes, “the proportion of war deaths suffered by civilians rose startlingly: according to one estimate, they rose from 5 percent in World War I to 50 percent in World War II, all the way to 90 percent in wars of the 1990s.” August 6, 1945, was not the start of this monstrous trend: It had its precursors in the attacks on Guernica, Nanking, Dresden and Tokyo, and in the Nazis’ genocidal war against European Jewry. But Hiroshima made it clear for all to see that humanity had entered a new era of mass killing and civilian suffering–an era that continued through the horrors of Rwanda and Kosovo, the era in which we still live today.

In late September and early October of 2001, I joined other mourners in visits to the makeshift memorials to the WTC attack victims erected in New York’s Union Square. The fellow feeling that ennobled human relations in the city immediately after the attacks found expression in that historic space of politics and civic ritual. Flags and patriotic songs, antiwar and antiracist banners, signs demanding vengeance and signs imploring forgiveness, prayer cards, poems and letters written to loved ones and strangers alike, handmade models for monuments, heartbreaking “missing” posters, the intense perfume of scented candles, incense and mounds of flowers, rhythmic drumming by Buddhist monks, performances by Juilliard cellists and the sounds of quiet weeping briefly claimed the park as a site for collective grief and reflection. Everywhere were images and small-scale replicas of the towers, many sent from the other side of the globe–a fitting tribute to a center for international trade in which citizens of so many countries worked and died. These towers were gifts to a wounded city from people who also knew war and suffering. None were ironic or restrained, none spoke to ambivalence about the towers’ design or outlandish scale, none betrayed unease with the government muscle that created them. The buildings stood now as heroic symbols of human resolve, of life against death. Alongside the monuments to this last gesture of Modernist ambition were relics of another kind. The trauma that the loss of the WTC provoked led mourners last fall back to a practice I recognized from Hiroshima. There, amid the xeroxed photos of loved ones, burning incense, poems and prayers, were Sadako’s cranes, hundreds and maybe thousands of them–a peace garland laced lovingly across tree branches and through the chain-link fences of the park.

Civic spaces can begin with mourning, often associated with the efforts of states to enlist the memory of the dead in a national cause. That mobilization of private grief for a national mission continues today: Witness the government’s rush to colonize the Washington Mall with a neoclassical World War II memorial that recalls the official architecture of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Witness, for that matter, the transformation of Washington itself into an armed camp in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, as huge flags, blocked streets, armed troops and concrete-and-steel barricades turned the center of that city into a war capital. Such mobilization was at odds with the openness and improvisation that reigned briefly in Manhattan’s parks and plazas last fall, when the claims of the brokenhearted took precedence over the market and the military. By Thanksgiving, those spaces were cleaned up, their artifacts packed away for safekeeping in archives and museums, and city officials rushed to reassure tourists that New York was again “open for business.” The war effort has subsequently seized upon the towers as images of US nationalism, with their silhouette routinely imprinted over the flag in countless posters and bumper stickers. President George W. Bush and other politicians have turned the massacre site into a place for patriotic ceremony and photo-ops. And the tattered flag famously raised from the rubble after the attacks has itself gone on tour to the Olympics and on the space shuttle as an icon of American endurance. The heart of the “I * NY” sticker has been colored red, white and blue, with the nation’s embrace of New York threatening to obscure the local and international significance of the tragedy.

But if the recent history of the two Ground Zeros reveals anything, it is that popular mourning in public spaces increasingly reaches across national borders for gestures and rituals resonant with personal and collective meaning. With its austere internationalism, Modernist design may enable such shared mourning and reflection in ways that have eluded both the knee-jerk critics of the Modern movement and its upscale revivalists. Public fascination with the huge fragments of twisted aluminum lying atop the WTC rubble, the temporary “Tribute in Light” memorial and the battered centerpiece of the former WTC plaza, Fritz Koenig’s Sphere (now relocated to Battery Park), speaks, in part, to the enduring power of abstract form as a shared vocabulary of loss and grieving. The human hand and human heart become visible at such places, where the idealism of abstract art confronts the brokenness born of trauma. We have become so accustomed to the critique of Modernist aesthetics as a false universalism that we have forgotten the spiritual rewards of a stark simplicity. There are times when a common visual language is a necessary resource for a cosmopolitan population drawn from every part of the world, and when a spare, legible landscape is the ideal setting for informal practices that find no home in more identifiably “local” spaces. The mourning of civilians slaughtered in Hiroshima left a legacy that New Yorkers drew on last fall to mourn their own dead. Against the backdrop of two Ground Zeros, Japanese and Americans were united across the decades by the handiwork of children–tiny, fragile birds opening their wings in defiance of horror.

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