September 16, 2001 NY TIMES

In a Changing Skyline, a Sudden, Glaring Void
By MICHAEL J. LEWIS



Angel Franco/The New York Times
From New Jersey in February 2001, New York's famous skyline



The World Trade Center towers never inspired the loyalty and affection of New York's great skyscrapers of the
past. A spectacular site but a lackluster performance, at best a colossal piece of minimalist sculpture — so
ran the consensus. If anyone derived aesthetic pleasure from them, it was offset by the pity they aroused for
having been built during the early 1970's, that low-water mark of architectural modernism.

But in imagination and memory they now occupy a site greater than the prow of Manhattan. With their cheeky
brashness, standing pugnaciously apart from the gregarious huddle of skyscrapers at Midtown, they were the
apotheosis of American capitalism. In them, all the elements of American skyscraper tradition converged:
colossal ambition and ego, the eager embrace of the newest technology, the inspired real estate gambit, and
the frank recognition that a skyscraper is not so much a work of art as a work of advertising.

Like advertising, alas, buildings come and go. Such is the nature of the American city. The skyline may look like
an exquisite stroke of calligraphy but it is more akin to the jagged mark of a seismograph, which testifies to
deeper upheavals and turbulence below. Convulsive changes in property values, staggering building
undertakings, colossal bankruptcies, the reciprocal action of destruction and construction: this is the normal
metabolism of a healthy and living city. We are hardened to it, treating our commercial buildings as disposable
artifacts. We accept the demolitions and the implosions, those great urban erasures, and even the collective
howl of anguish that arises from time to time, say over the loss of Penn Station, soon subsides.

But the loss of the World Trade Center is something far different. It is an instantaneous and convulsive change
in the city's topography, transforming the physical landscape violently and definitively, in a way we associate
with the greatest of natural disasters, like those volcanoes that explode and vanish. It has let loose feelings far
deeper — more primitive and instinctive — than mere architectural nostalgia. It is the terror at the presence of
uncontrollable natural forces, usually kept safely at a submerged level of human consciousness.

It is now clear that the World Trade Center towers occupied a far greater position in the physical and
psychological landscape of New York than anyone realized. They have now become what much of the world
could plainly see (and which New Yorkers could only belatedly see): the city's most conspicuous and
symbolically freighted civic monument.

Civic monuments require spacious vistas and open plazas from which they can be seen, and approached, and
this few skyscrapers achieve — or maintain. Most successful ones invariably carry a train of imitators in their
wake, crowding about them and masking them. Not so the World Trade Center towers, which stood in defiant
isolation as the first skyscrapers once did.

Here was a pair of buildings in the spirit of Louis Sullivan, the inventor of the skyscraper. Sullivan served hard-
boiled Chicago businessmen, but he spoke the language of transcendentalism, an exhilarating cocktail of
Emerson and Whitman. For him the skyscraper must be "every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer
exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." Sullivan would have appreciated
the World Trade Center, admired its arrogance.

It is not only the site in space that made the World Trade Center towers a monument, but their site in time. They
stood near the historical epicenter of American capitalism, just outside the wall that contained the Dutch colony
of New Amsterdam. This was the one great American city dating from the 17th century not founded as a haven
from religious persecution; it was based on profit rather than salvation. Though conquered by the English in
1664, it maintained its vaunting commercial energy, nurtured within families whose names — Vanderbilt,
Rockefeller, Morgan — form a roster of American capitalism.

But the site had more to it than nostalgia value. Once enterprising New Yorkers built the Erie Canal,
establishing a link to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, the port was linked to the interior. The wealth of the
continent was collected, as if in a giant funnel, which channeled its goods along the Hudson River. For the first
time there was a national market, and a national economy; that the World Trade Center arose at that spot —
the very spout of the funnel — is symbolism of the highest order.

As in Edgar Allen Poe's "Purloined Letter," this was always there, in plain sight. But the World Trade Center
towers — unloved, disregarded, unnoticed Leviathans — were never accorded the mythic status they
deserved. No one seems to have seen them as clearly as the men who destroyed them.

In their absence, the World Trade Center towers are more a monument than ever. The physical void they leave
is itself a poignant memorial, an aching emptiness that is the architectural counterpart to a human loss. Unlike
the victims of our disposable architectural culture, they need not fear being dislodged or overtaken. They now
stand among the great and vanished monuments of the past. Like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World —
the Colossus of Rhodes or the mighty Lighthouse of Alexandria — they have reached their apotheosis through
destruction.
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