The architectural consequences of 9/11 are not what was expected...
13 September 2021, Paul Finch
It was Charles Jencks and Rem Koolhaas who almost instantly provided the most telling architectural comments about 9/11.
Koolhaas noted that what was truly shocking about the deadly spectacle was ‘the unexpected conjunction of two of the most powerful symbols of the 20th century: the aeroplane and the skyscraper’.
Jencks (RIP) noted the bizarre coincidence of the twin towers having been designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki, who created the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St Louis, which were demolished in the mid-1970s, prompting Charlie to announce that this had represented the ‘death of modernism’.
There was, of course, no shortage of opinion and prediction about the likely architectural consequences of the terrorist destruction of the twin towers. Most of the predictions were either irrelevant or simply wrong. The argument that people would be reluctant to work in tall buildings and therefore developers would stop building them always sounded fanciful, not least because of the resilient spirit of New Yorkers.
The immediate commitment to rebuild on the site of Ground Zero made clear that the world of high-rise would continue unabated, though ownership and control of the site was often ignored, not least by the international architects who took part in what turned out to be a meaningless competition, won by Daniel Libeskind. His design, symbolically resonant at 1,776 ft, was not built because the organizers of the competition were not the ultimate decision-makers, the key individual being the doyen of New York property developers, Larry Silverstein.
In the end, the SOM design which was finally commissioned, complete with its odd mast, acknowledges security concerns with the almost medieval fortress-like lower floors, the 21st century equivalent of battered walls. But it reaffirms New York’s image as a high-rise metropolis – and the continuing key role of SOM in the post-1945 history of the city.
You could argue that the commissions given to small group of international architects who also designed towers for the site, including Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki, marked a new willingness to acknowledge and welcome the contribution that could be made by overseas designers, a feature of architecture in the city that continues to this day. The downtown transport facilities designed by Calatrava, and Grimshaw/Arup are significant. The BIG project to protect Manhattan from hurricanes and flooding is impressive. Maki’s tower is a brilliant exercise which outguns SOM.
Psychologically, the rallying-round of the world to New York’s tragedy has made the city more open rather than more insular. It is a better city to visit than 20 years ago.
At the time, there were suggestions that not only would high-rise towers be a thing of the past, but that below-ground parking would be abolished. That didn’t happen, perhaps surprisingly, given the under-reported pre-9/11 attempt to destroy one of the twin towers by blowing up its foundations. Nor is it necessary in most buildings for visitors to undergoing airport-style security checks.
This may be something to do with the likelihood of terrorist attacks taking place in public buildings or public spaces, rather than private offices or residential towers; it may be a rational assessment of risk; and it may be underscored by a belief that the real defence against terrorism lies in the performance of intelligence and security services operating at a national level, and in the Israeli-style computer monitoring of crowds using technology to identify suspicious behaviour. That technology is now in use across the world, whether or not it is always stated.
In respect of security, the impact of Covid-19 on our occupation of buildings, the city, working habits and urban design appears to be of far greater importance than 9/11 (and of course the number of victims is infinitely greater). Security is now about social distancing, vaccination and hygiene rather than whether you might be carrying a bomb in your rucksack, though it must be said that the free-and-easy use of quasi-public space in building lobbies has diminished and continues to do so as a result of both.
Memories of 9/11, triggered by its 20th anniversary, include the continuing paranoid conspiracy theories about ‘what really happened’, promoted by people who, for whatever reason, cannot accept exhaustive analysis, including the identification of cultural failures which contributed to inadequate co-ordination of the different intelligence and security services.
This brings to mind the greatest architectural history of New York, at least in the 20th century, the 1978 book by Rem Koolhaas which made him famous: ‘Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan’. It is an uncanny read it in the light of 9/11, because it contains many references to impending disaster, of the sort which saw the (accidental) burning down of the Coney Island fairground complex in 1911.
I once asked Rem if he would produce a new edition of his book, taking into account 9/11 and its aftermath, including the very New York saga of failed competitions. He had no plans to do so, but it is not too late to consider.