Shane Reiner-Roth

The World Trade Center Proposals and the Activation of the Event-Site

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A life which does not give the preference to

any other life, of any previous period, which

therefore prefers its own existence, can in

all seriousness be called decadent.”1

–  Jose Ortega y Gasset

Inevitably, most of the buildings that don the skyline are analogous to the life Ortega y Gasset describes for that which is not decadent. Most buildings, through their creator’s indulgent self-interest, negate their site’s history in favor of their own vision of contemporaneity. They in essence smooth out the dirt, start anew, and stand tall as if nothing happened. The consideration and solution to this fact is found in Heidegger’s writing, which soon led to critical regionalism as coined by Alexander Tzonis. Spectacularly, if not unwittingly, the search for a new plan for the World Trade Center site and the competition that followed not only adopted, in part, critical regionalism’s paradigm, but also made the need for critical regionalism shockingly clear to a public audience. The cultural need to recognize the site both anew and awash in history became evident in that instance of extreme historical tension. While in this analysis I am replacing geographical history, traditionally the generator of critical regionalist architecture, with cultural or architectural history, the claim that the World Trade Center Competition phase was a grand and public display of critical regionalism is hard to deny. However, the opposition to this statement would lie in the fact that while most of the proposals were generated by site analysis and data, they all neglected to actually build on the site in question, choosing instead to demarcate it or subtract from it. As Robert A. Ivy wrote, “The erasure of the World Trade center demanded an answer: what should replace it?”2 Since all of the proposals reveal insecurity, and, say, cowardice, by building near or around the site, rather than creating a dialogue between the old and the new, none of them can give a straight response to Ivy’s concern. The subject of this essay, then, will be a select number of proposals that either illustrate this point, appear as the need to build completely anew, and everything in between.

The proposal by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, entitled Reflected Absence, is essentially an underground memorial. Accessible via a ramp on the side of the site, the memorial is a large empty space, in which the only light sources derive from the large gaping squares that designate the sites of the two towers. The main elements, which equally appear as two austere canyons without vertical continuity, indicate only a subtraction from the sacred squares, for there is literally no matter which replaces what used to stand in those sites. Certainly, there is a lot of material added along the perimeter of the two squares, yet because there is nothing physical in the sites themselves, the removal of the elements as they existed in their sites deny their general yet significant function of “letting-be.” As Heidegger writes, “Because all modes of human behavior are, each in its own way, overt and always relate to that which they must, it follows that the restraint of “letting things be,” i.e. freedom, must necessarily have given man an inner directive to approximate his ideas to what-is at any moment…”3 In other words, Arad and Walker’s proposal, by neither adding nor letting-be, they did not follow any “inner directive” to create something specific to the site, since their proposal was to leave as little material effacement on the specific sites as possible.

The proposal by United Architects similarly treats the sites of the WTC towers subtractively. The building that constitutes the design strategy keeps a safe distance from the two squares, as the squares themselves are leveled and painted stark white. No doubt, there would be a daily maintenance crew surveying and cleaning these white squares, leaving as much history behind as possible. Interestingly, while the treatment of the sites appears respectful to those sites’ history, the white squares are essentially flat buildings, representing themselves just as much as a new building totally ignoring the sites’ history would. In other words, to reference Heidegger, this proposal appears to activate the “letting-be” of the site, yet falls short in its own self-referential non-history. Just like Arad and Walker’s proposal, United Architects attempt to erase all information from the sacred squares, and while the former proposal suggests creating an implied void, the latter proposes a perceptual void.

This is a curious strategy that both proposals attempt for it can easily imply the terrorists’ success, since it was their aspiration to destroy the image of the WTC towers. These proposals, in analysis, could appear to be sympathetic to their cause, because they equally reduce the towers’ existence to voids. The true implications of these voids, of course, is clearly the respect given to the history of these sites and the refusal to add anything that could hardly appear comparably sacred, yet there should be proposals which dare to add to the revered sites in a grand statement of overcoming. To take a Heideggerian stance, the proposal, as to act either observant or triumphant, should either practice “letting-be” or a dialogue between the old and the new. As Neil Leach writes, “For Heidegger a building should be on an of the soil, of the location on which it is built. He illustrates this with the example of a Greek temple, which sits so naturally within its setting it is as though it has been ‘brought forth’ by its setting.”4 If one were to suggest that Heidegger’s suggested critical regionalism is both respectful and triumphant (or, in other words, reflective of both history or contemporaneity), then the weakness laden in these two proposals, at least, becomes apparent.

Since, as has been said before, the site of the World Trade Center had been flattened for construction long ago, there was no opportunity for any of the architects to take a strictly Heideggerian approach to the competition. As Norberg Schulz writes, “On the urban level we find structures which are mostly determined by man’s activities, that is, by his interaction with a manmade environment. On this level, therefore, the basic form is what could be called ‘our place.’”5 Therefore, rather than base their proposals on the fundamental, timeless nature of the site, a few architects, in the spirit of critical regionalism, chose instead to purely base their designs on the data received from the day of the event, 9/11. Eric Owen Moss, for instance, proposed the “maintenance of a series of four shadows within a sunken stone park. Two shadows represent the impacts of the planes, and two the collapse of the towers.”6 In a similar vain, Raimund Abraham proposed a monument to the times relevant to the event, rather than the actual buildings that occupied the site. In his words, “Central to my proposal are the times of the attacks and the collapse of the towers – 8:46, 9:02, 9:59, and 10:28 A.M. – which are commemorated by three monolithic concrete slabs. They offer no habitable space, but are bisected at angles that are oriented to the morning sun as a natural memorial to the events of September 11, 2001.”7

Do these proposals acknowledge the genius loci of the site? Since this would evidently be the aspiration of these proposals, in their respect of the site and its tragic event, it would be beneficial to compare their attempt to appeal to genius loci with the writer most affiliated with the term, Christian Norberg-Schulz. Norberg Schulz writes that a building which demonstrates genius loci is one which “demonstrates human understanding of nature and self by translating that understanding onto built form.”8 These two proposals utilize the data of the event symbolically, yet they also make physical what could never have been seen, and therefore not acknowledged: Moss’ proposal highlights the arbitrary positions of the shadows of the two towers at the time of both their impacts and their collapses, and Abraham’s proposal captures the sunlight accompanying the times of the event. While it is arguable that these proposals reflect a desire to bridge a gap between the proposal, the sun, the spectators, and the revered, or, as Heidegger put it, “The Fourfold,”9 these figures cannot both be physically actualized and perceptually impactful, for they are in actuality arbitrary times only made significant by the event made sacred. Further still, the shadows of the buildings and the specific time of day went largely ignored when the actual event took place. These proposals, close to a Heideggerian approach to the site, fall short of critical regionalism. While they perform a similar function to the bridge in Heidegger’s example by “gather[ing] to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals,”10 they intrude on the site’s presence, and therefore, unlike Heidegger’s bridge, which “lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mortals so that they may come and go from shore to shore,”11 these proposals do not rest comfortably on their site, nor do they allow for perceptual or physical opposition if one so chooses to entertain an opposition. What’s more, they stand in objectivity, and therefore are not successful in “protecting and conserving the genius loci, which means interpreting [the site] in ever new ways.”12

We have thus far examined proposals that lie in an imperfect relation with either Heidegger’s philosophy of “letting-be,” his equally respectful yet opposite philosophy of “the Greek temple in the soil,” and the “fourfold.” In the myriad of proposals, there are few that come close to executing a Heideggerian stance to the site. There is one in recollection, however, which appears to demonstrate several Heideggerian concepts without contradiction: Freedom Tower. Its conception, as orchestrated by Daniel Libeskind, was at first derived from a rational understanding: “Their destruction, along with the ruin and damage to surrounding buildings and the transportation infrastructure, has been crippling to New York’s economy, not to mention the basic comfort of those working, living, and visiting downtown. But in urbanistic terms, the superblock on which the Twin Towers sat had done much to damage the interconnection between the various streets around the towers, isolating the area from the smaller-grained texture of lower Manhattan. Now that reconstruction was needed, the opportunity presented itself to correct urbanistic problems.”13 This approach to the site can be compared to another one addressed in a separate press review: “The great slurry wall is the most dramatic element which survived the attack, an engineering wonder constructed on bedrock foundations and designed to hold back the Hudson River. The foundations withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction and stand as eloquent as the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and the value of individual life.”14 Along with this statement, Libeskind proposed that the sites of the Twin Towers be minimally cleaned and exhibited as they are. This respect for the site can be used to exemplify another one of Heidegger’s view towards “letting-be.” Heidegger writes, “We usually talk of “letting be” when, for instance, we stand off from some undertaking we have planned. “We let it be” means: not touching it again, not having anything more to do with it. “Letting be” here has the negative sense of disregarding something, renouncing something, of indifference and even neglect. “letting-be,” does not, however, refer to indifference and neglect, but to the very opposite of them. To let something be is in fact to have something to do with it. To let what-is be what it is means participating in something overt and its overtness, in which everything that “is” takes up its position and which entails such overtness.”15 In other words, Libeskind’s decision to keep the slurry walls intact is unlike all other proposals in that it genuinely does not add or subtract to the site, and for this reason it is letting the site be, without any contemporary architectural imposition or self-indulgent design. By letting the slurry walls be, Libeskind’s proposal is participating in the “overtness” of the site, and the approach is arguably more dramatic than any other proposal, in its sheer and brutal honesty. In one of his proposals, the tip of Freedom tower beams a light upward at 8:46, 9:02, 9:59, and 10:28 A.M. every day, and in so doing recollect Heidegger’s fourfold, in the symbolic dialogue exchanged between the Earth and the Sky. In another proposal, as he writes, 
”Those who were lost have become heroes. To commemorate those lost lives, I created two large public places, the Park of Heroes and the Wedge of Light. Each year on September 11th between the hours of 8:46 a.m., when the first airplane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage.”16 These two appropriations of the significant times of the event are dissimilar to that of most of the others, since their activations are both alarming and noticeably significant, unlike the static monuments Moss and Abraham proposed. However, Libeskind’s design falls short of being critically regionalist by making several vague references to elements that represent Americanism (For example, “the glass-clad tower’s asymmetrical form would have alluded structurally to the nearby Statue of Liberty. In particular, the offset spire rising 400ft above the tower would have mirrored the statue’s raised Torch of Freedom.”17 More famously, freedom tower was designed to be 1,776 feet tall, which is, in my opinion, a childish tribute to Americanism).

It is admittedly difficult to choose a Heideggerian approach to such a significant site, yet it is equally appropriate to look to him for guidance in such a cautious situation. But the most difficult task, in actuality, is to demonstrate an architectural proposal for the World Trade Center site that would thoroughly satisfy and be in accord with all of Heidegger’s writing. Therefore, all one can do is consider which of all of the proposals comes closest, yet inevitably so far, to proposing not just a critically regionalist skyscraper, but one which can be acclaimed as ‘Heideggerian.’ The research of this analysis indicates that Libeskind’s proposal is the closest, though there are several concepts which could have either been initiated or appropriated differently. One square could have been used for “letting-be,” while the other one could have taken cues from Heidegger’s “Greek temple in the soil.” It could have been this duality which reflected the complexity of not only Heidegger’s writings, but the complexity of the response and physical manifestation of sensitivity necessary for such a significant event.


1 Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses 1936, p. 35

2 Robert A. Ivy, Imagining Ground Zero 2004, p. 10

3 Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being 1949, p. 306

4 Neil Leach, What is Architecture 2002, p. 88

5 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and Architecture 1971, p. 29

6 Eric Owen Moss, Imagining Ground Zero 2004, p. 151

7 Raimund Abraham, ibid, p. 155

8 Christian Norberg Schulz, Genius Loci 1980, p. 17

9 Martin Heidegger, Building Dwelling Thinking 1971, p. 3

10 Ibid, p. 5

11 Ibid.

12 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci 1980, p. 18

13 Daniel Libeskind, Imagining Ground Zero 2004, p. 26


15 Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being 1949, p. 306


17 Ibid.


Written by differance

August 17, 2010 at 6:57 AM

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