Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011


"Spectral Vestiges: Constructing the Ruins of the World Trade Center" by László Munteán

László Munteán is a doctoral student in the American Studies Ph.D. program at Eötvös Loránd University, writing his dissertation on 9/11 in literature and the fine arts. Since 2004 he has been assistant professor at the Department of English at Pázmány Péter Catholic University. He teaches 20th Century American Literature and American Civilization, and Visual Culture. He also teaches Hungarian Architectural History to American students. His fields of interests include urban space and memorials, interrelations of text and image, modern and postmodern American literature, as well as architectural history and theory. Email:

When the British novelist Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins first appeared in 1953 the cataclysm of World War II was still a memory of the recent past. What pleasure would ruins offer in the aftermath of war? At a time when many of the great cities of Europe had just risen from ashes and dust, talking about the “pleasure of ruins,” we may surmise, was untimely at the least, if not outright perverse. Indeed, if it were not for the last two pages of the book, one could justly assume that Macaulay, while interested in “the various kinds of pleasure given to various people at various epochs by the spectacle of ruined buildings” (xv), was in fact oblivious to the new ruins left behind by the last war. The last two pages reveal, however, that what appears as a sign of obliviousness on Macaulay’s part is in fact a telling silence. In “A Note on New Ruins” she claims that “[n]ew ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age … [they] are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality” (453). In other words, the temporal proximity of destruction so evident in these ruins left no time for the pain to trickle out of them, foreclosing any possibility of pleasure and nostalgic longing.

For the pleasure that Macaulay seeks to find throughout her grand tour of ruins is rooted in nostalgia, an insatiable desire to return to a lost home, which is a place of other ruins—ruins that are more “homely” than the ones at hand.

But Ruinenlust has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at a remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Claude, Monsù Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminutae sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt, and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all. (454-455)

By way of attributing beauty to the ruin “softened by art” or “centuries of time,” Macaulay construes it as an embodiment of “wholeness”—a term that invokes Georg Simmel’s use of the term Einheit in his 1911 essay on ruin aesthetics. Einheit is a quality of the ruin that arises from the dialectics of Geist and Natur, a process of disintegration in which the man-made succumbs to the forces of nature. Sites of violence, in Simmel’s view, cannot cater pleasure because they bear the marks of human destruction (Simmel 156). Macaulay’s judgment on the ruins “before us” parallels Simmel’s aesthetics. Applying St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae to new ruins, she dismisses them as fragments that embody nothing but dismemberment (diminutae) and, as such, they are nothing but repulsive (turpia). At stake here is an aesthetic hierarchy of fragments in which the fragment mediated by art and enfolded by the patina of time is privileged over the one that is “vegetationless” and infused with the memory of destruction.

The last sentence of the book, however, gives a deeply poignant edge to this hierarchy: “But such wholesome hankerings are, it seems likely, merely a phase of our fearful and fragmented age” (455). With such a self-reflexive gesture Macaulay renders modern ruins a catalyst of nostalgic longing for those other ruins that she explores in her book.

Many of the ruins from which Macaulay would have averted her eyes in the 1950s, have since been appropriated as objects of nostalgia. The Internet yields a plethora of sites featuring images of abandoned industrial buildings framed as objects of aesthetic pleasure in Macaulay’s sense. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s collection of photographs of the ruins of Detroit is a case in point. In the photographs Detroit comes across as a forsaken place where nature will sooner or later have the upper hand and subject the grandiose structures of the once prosperous city to a Simmelian dialectics. Even though many of these disheveled buildings are inhabited by the homeless and are sites of crime as well as a host of other problems burdening the city, these undercurrents are rendered invisible in Marchand and Meffre’s photographic still lifes. The gaze of Simmel and Macaulay acquires performative force in these images. For, by way of perceiving the ruins of Detroit as “splendid decaying monuments” that are “no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens,” as their statement reads on their website (Marchand and Meffre), the photographers construct them as such in both text and image.

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel, “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005-2010) http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/index.html

If the urban blight of Detroit is transformed into a spectacle that activates a Simmelian aesthetics, can a sense of Einheit emanate from such a site of violence as Ground Zero? Even though the ruins of the World Trade Center had been removed from the site shortly after 9/11, their construction as ruins in the discourse on 9/11 and the future of Ground Zero I would like to argue that their discursive production as ruins is still underway. In this essay I will examine how the ruins come about as discursive constructs in texts, photography, and architecture. My underlying claim is that the ruins of the World Trade Center embody an “indigestible wholeness” of corporeal remains and architectural debris, an uncanny combination imbued with a “spectral quality” (Trigg “The Place of Trauma” 98). This spectral quality arises from the ruins ambiguous status, which lends them the power of agency, the power to revert the gaze of the observer. I will demonstrate how this horror vacui is sought to be assuaged or reinforced, by various textual and visual performatives. I am using the term “performativity” in Judith Butler’s sense, as “a reiteration of a norm or set of norms” which “conceals and dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition” (12). My contention is that the norm that informs those representations that seek to absorb the spectral quality of the ruins is rooted in the tradition of what Macaulay describes as Ruinenlust—a mode of perception similar to what Marchand and Meffre activate in their photographs of Detroit.

 

Indigestible Wholeness

In her essay written shortly after the attacks Patricia Yaeger points to the uncanny materiality of the ruins of the World Trade Center. She perceives the rubble of the towers as an “archive” containing human remains, architectural debris, and poisonous residuum. While confrontation with such a scale of bodily vanishing is daunting in itself, another source of discomfort, Yaeger suggests, is the dilemma “to keep the fact of waste and its re-creation as value constantly in mind” (191). The discarded detritus of the towers—literally a refuse—thus stares back as a container of value which refuses to rest in peace: “This is dirt that bites back, that does not lend itself to the cleanliness of ceremony” (189).

When Yaeger wrote her essay Ground Zero had already been turned into a vast gaping hole, devoid of the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The materials of the World Trade Center have been coercively discarded: the remaining two-million-ton pile of debris forced us to encounter a formally built environment as its components—as lost labor, lost structure. But to think of the bodies of the dead mingling with this debris, to think of the results of the 9/11 explosions as detritus, gives one a pause. (187)

In an act of reverence, family members of the unidentified victims received urns filled with ashes and dust retrieved from the Fresh Kills site on Staten Island, where the wreckage of the towers had been transported after the cleaning up of Ground Zero. Yaeger registers an awkward discomfort in the New York Times’ description of this highly ritualized, symbolic act of separation of value and waste: “An officer scoops a large spoonful of soil into a plastic bag. The soil, brown with a slightly grayish cast, is unhealthy in appearance. It crunches slightly when the spoon is placed in it, and it is thick enough that the spoon stands on its own” (qtd. in Yaeger 189). Here, it is not simply the absence of the bodies but rather the uncanny continuum of body and building that induces a sense of discomfort. The aesthetic Einheit that Simmel locates in the dialectics of Geist and Natur morphs into an unsettling Einheit of body and building in Yaeger’s text.

Instead of offering screens for the narrative inscription of traumatic loss, the material remains of the World Trade Center refuse closure and it is precisely through this refusal that they come to embody an excess that resists integration into a narrative “wholeness.” Inasmuch as trauma manifests itself “in the collapse of its understanding” (Caruth Trauma 7), it constitutes a structuring absence in the psyche of the traumatized subject—an absence that is precisely the locus of the traumatic experience. By dint of constituting a site of uncontrolled disintegration in which formally hidden spaces are unraveled and an unexpected confluence of body and matter is confronted, the materiality of the ruin of the World Trade Center articulates traumatic dislocation. Unlike the ruins that offer an alternative realm for Macaulay to escape from her “fragmented age,” Yaeger’s “grand tour” of the ruins of the World Trade Center forecloses the possibility of narrative closure. Dylan Trigg’s words of the interrelation between memory, trauma, and ruins serve as an apt supplement to Yaeger’s description:

[T]he ruin, considered phenomenologically, gathers the nightmare of trauma through its own materiality before resituating it in the everyday world of sense and sensibility. In light of this emergence, the appearance of the site shocks the attempt at placing the past through the confluence between memory and imagination. What is experienced is less a direct fragment of a broken narrative, and more a murmur of the place where that narrative once existed.
In testimonial terms, we discover a parallel to the impossibility of witnessing trauma. Indeed, insofar as the ruin creates the necessary spatial and temporal conditions for the past to be articulated, then precisely through that gesture the same past prohibits articulation. The tension, surrounded by an aura of hauntings and spectrality, instills a threshold in the viewer: as much as we attempt to commune with this immediate environment, so there is a sense in being watched by the environment. (“The Place of Trauma” 99)

By means of housing what is essentially an “unclaimed experience” the ruin manifests itself as a trace in Derrida’s sense, which marks its referent as always already absent. It is thus not simply the presence of trauma that the ruin signifies but also the unavailability of that presence. The ruin can thus be perceived husk of absence, a liminal realm intuited in the reality of trauma but intuited always in the form of absence.

When Patricia Yaeger wrote her essay the fate of the remaining walls of the towers was still uncertain. “Should we preserve the World Trade Center’s great walls with their monumental unshapeliness?” Yaeger asks in her closing paragraph, “If we do this, will we also find space to remember the everyday world of detritus that these lost buildings, so filled with lost people, became?” (193) By formulating these questions Yaeger implies that the preservation of the emblematic walls that towered above Ground Zero for days after the disaster would not necessarily entail the preservation of the ruin as a material archive that asserts its presence as a terrain of ambiguity, uncertainty, and spectrality.

In Yaeger’s text the ruins are granted agency inasmuch they return the gaze of the viewer. In Enikő Bollobás’s terms, it is a text that enacts a “performative (88) construction of the ruins insofar as it produces them as a polyvalent, liminal entity which does not lend itself to be put in perspective, so to speak. Their “monumental unshapeliness” is indeed a discursive entity that subverts the integrity of the human body, forecloses the possibility of proper burial. If, as Albert Boime argues, media representations of the “anthropomorphized towers displaced human bodies” (199), the materiality of the ruins in Yaeger’s description, literally ruin such metaphoric substitutions by “bringing them down” to the level of metonymy. The representations that I will explore in the following three sections exhibit the effort to assuage the ruins’ spectral power through different techniques of iconographic “reconstruction.”

 

Battlefield

If photography, like language, is performative, the images that inscribe Detroit into pre-existing conventions of ruin-aesthetics constitute instances of “performance” in Bollobás’s terms. Unlike the performative, which transgresses pre-existing conventions of discourse, performance reiterates them (85).

Thomas E. Franklin (The Record), Firefighters Raise the American Flag at Ground Zero (2001)
http://stevex09.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/9-11-firefighers-and-flag-thomas-e-franklin.jpg

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of such a performance is Thomas E. Franklin’s Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of the three firemen raising the American flag in the midst of the ruins of the WTC. The photograph has been reproduced on countless occasions since 9/11 (Sturken 189-196). What is it that grants this photo such an iconic status? Most conspicuously, its iconography evokes Joe Rosenthal’s world-famous photo of three American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima—later cast in a gigantic bronze sculpture in the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. With such a historical reference Franklin’s photo contextualizes devastation and traumatic loss by activating well-embedded collectivities: imposed upon the historical narrative of the Pacific theater of World War II the ruins at Ground Zero simultaneously remind the viewer of Pearl Harbor and the battlefield of Iwo Jima, where Japanese aggression was avenged by American victory. With the firefighters transposed as soldiers and the site of destruction anchored in the collective memory of World War II, the photograph lends itself to be inscribed with a heroic narrative expedient to mobilize support for retaliation. The ruins of the towers are blurred in the background as Franklin focuses on the actual ceremony which inscribes victory (Iwo Jima) into the landscape of catastrophe (Pearl Harbor). Ground Zero is thus rendered a site for the photographic performance of a heroic narrative.

The sentiment of Franklin’s photograph is reinforced by Rudolph Giuliani’s farewell address as mayor of New York in December 2001, in which he situates the commemoration of 9/11 in the context of memorializing casualties of war: “Long after we are all gone, it’s the sacrifice of our patriots and their heroism that is going to be what this place is remembered for. This is going to be a place that is remembered 100 and 1000 years from now, like the great battlefields of Europe and the United States” (qtd. in Simpson 47). In other words, the death of civilians is not only translated into military sacrifice, but it is also inscribed into the larger context of world history. Through the simplification of this context, however, Giuliani does precisely the opposite: he isolates Ground Zero from the complexity of world politics by producing it as a battlefield on a par with those of the previous wars. In this sense Ground Zero is sacred ground not simply because of the loss of lives that took place there but because that loss is processed in the narrative of sacrifice and heroism which, as Marita Sturken says, reinforces an understanding of history as a mediated, reenacted, “cathartic experience” (9).

A similar kind of cathartic appeal seems to be at work in the decision to melt some of the wreckage into the bow of the Navy’s new battleship, the USS New York, in an act of giving meaning to the death of the victims (construed as heroes) in the trajectory of the war against terrorism—a context in which ruins are “kitschified” to justify retaliation.

 

Awful Beauty

In his New York Times article written two months after the attacks architectural critic Herbert Muschamp calls attention to the aesthetic value of the towers’ ruins: “If you believe that beauty begins in terror, then it is not sacrilege to speak of the beauty of the remaining walls” (Muschamp). By claiming that Piranesi’s engravings should be “required study for those now gazing on ground zero” Muschamp, like the photographers of Detroit, transfigures the ruins into a disembodied architectural form that offers itself for aesthetic judgment. However, the aesthetic appeal of the ruins is not the sole reason for Muschamp’s call for their preservation. In the article he perceives the wreckage as a “piece of our own place and time” that ought to be preserved as a document of history. It is by this rationale that he takes sides in the conflict that ensued between the police, who regarded the ruins as “cartage,” and the firefighters, for whom the site was “sacred space” containing the victims’ remains.

Written as an indictment against the hasty removal of the ruins from Ground Zero Muschamp’s article activates three different value systems: aesthetics, historical heritage, and the recognition of the site as a burial ground. But how can aesthetic concerns be reconciled with the horror of recent catastrophe? Susan Sontag probes this taboo by claiming that

… the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins. To acknowledge the beauty of photographs of the World Trade Center ruins in the months following the attack seemed frivolous, sacrilegious. The most people dared say was that the photographs were ’surreal’, a hectic euphemism behind which the disgraced notion of beauty cowered. But they were beautiful, many of them… (67)

Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs of the ruins were among the many to which Sontag refers. A selection of his 8000 frames became part of a traveling exhibit shown in 64 countries in 2002. In addition, his photos of the site were collected in an album entitled Aftermath (2006). How do his photographs construct the ruins of the towers and what accounts for their outstanding popularity?

Joel Meyerowitz, The North Wall (2001)
http://rcodaphotography.blogspot.com/2009/09/inspirations-15-joel-meyerowitz.html

In contrast with the heroic sentiment of the Franklin-photo, art historian Albert Boime sees Meyerowitz’s immense archive of large-format photographs as “the antithesis of the image-monument that distances viewers through its self-sufficiency; as comments by visitors to Meyerowitz’s exhibitions demonstrate, it makes them feeling participants in the event, vicarious sufferers of the devastation” (200). True, Meyerowitz’s frames are rich in documentary detail and offer insights into the ruins that no other photographer could capture. Yet even if these depictions seem to be exempt from “heroic gestures,” as Boime suggests (199), I would argue that the very same compositional elements that pull the viewer into the sheer details of devastation also keep them at a remove by conforming to romantic conventions of representing ruins.

While the iconography of Franklin’s photograph of the three firemen resonates with Rosenthal’s iconic image which grounds the reading of 9/11 into the history of World War II, the iconic power of Meyerowitz’s compositions seems to lie elsewhere. Many critics have observed that his photos draw a lot on the long tradition of Romantic imagery of ruins (Sturken 196, Orvell 214) to which Meyerowitz also admits in an interview with Lawrence Weschler (Weschler 74-75). Of an image in which Weschler finds an echo of Piranesi’s Carceri Meyerowitz says:

I stood there and I thought, well, not so much of Piranesi as of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, those huge vaulted ruins, how they must have looked to people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then later, all the ancient ruins, those great collapsed structures in the landscape. And I felt like a visitor in that romantic moment, but here it was this horror. (75)

A juxtaposition of two paradigms of representation, not unlike the photographs of the interior spaces of the United Artists Theater in Detroit, surfaces in Meyerowitz’s words: one is of the modern, (post-)industrial ruin of steel and concrete mutilated by the force of total destruction and replete with human remains, the other is a romantic evocation of bygone splendor which inscribes steel and concrete with the sublime aura of classical ruins. “It’s hard to come to terms with the awful beauty of a place like this,” Meyerowitz writes elsewhere, “[a]nd yet the demolition at Ground Zero was also a spectacle with a cast of thousands, lit by a master lighter and played out on a stage of immense proportions” (qtd. in Sturken 196). His zealous effort to document the ruins and create an “archive,” as Meyerowitz refers to his collection, is also informed by an aesthetic stance whereby the very details that it documents are projected into the realm of the abstract.

Even if Meyerowitz’s original purpose to set up a team for the documentation of the site in the spirit of Walker Evans’ and Dorothea Lange’s work during the Great Depression was not realized, certain similarities between his and Evans’ work can be traced. In his analysis of Evans’s photographs Peter Schneck traces how the compositions allow the aesthetic field to absorb that of the documentary, which provides for a “story” to evolve to which viewers can relate. Despite the deplorable conditions of the sharecropper family that the photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men depict,

… here we see the family united in religious activity, devoted to reading and singing praise—an activity, in short, that most of the visitors of the exhibition could easily relate to even if they had absolutely no knowledge about tenant farming and the inhumanity of sharecropping. Familiarity and recognition thus obscures the social and economic difference of experience between existential conditions in the South and cultural conditions in the North. (158)

Although dissenting from the heroic narrative of Franklin’s photograph, Meyerowitz’s depictions of the workers at Ground Zero bear similarities to Evans’s superimposition of purity over poverty in his documentation of the sharecroppers’ plight in Oklahoma. Exhausted and dirty, the faces of the workers in Meyerowitz’s high resolution images are rich in detail, yet they exude a sense of purity which manifests itself in the universal value of resilience as a master-narrative, constructing an imagined community between the workers and the viewers of the photographs. By unconsciously becoming members of this community one may feel, as Albert Boime does, like “feeling participants in the event.” From what they see, however, the viewer of the photographs is kept at a remove (Kennedy 321-322). Instead, like Evans’s iconic portraits of the sharecropper family, we are left with the eyes of the workers looking back at us enigmatically, offering a wide range of potential readings. On the one hand the photographs are rich in documentary detail but this richness of detail also gives way to a representation of the ruins as an awesome spectacle which keeps their corporeality at a distance from the viewer.

Joel Meyerowitz, The Winter Garden, World Financial Center (2001)
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:State_Department_Images_WTC_9-11_The_Winter_Garden,_World_Financial_Center.jpg

Meyerowitz’s depictions of the ruins feed on visual conventions similar to those informing Evans’s photographs insofar as the specificity of their detail in high resolution “dissolves” in the aesthetics of composition. Images captioned “Firemen and Cloud,” “Twilight,” “The Wintergarden, World Financial Center,” “Smoke Rising Through Sunlight” and “Five More Found” are only a few of those photographs in which the ruins are enfolded in natural or artificial light which invests them with dimensions that dwarf the workers in their midst. Documentary detail is thus filtered through an aura of the sublime. It is exactly within the holographic interplay of the ruin as archive and the ruin as sublime fantasy that it becomes a screen for nostalgic longing where the object of desire manifests itself in a narcissistic classicization of American modernity as a ruin. By means of supporting an inscription of a Romantic imaginary on the ruins of the World Trade Center Meyerowitz’s compositions project them into a mythologized time. Dylan Trigg demonstrates the persistence of the nostalgic gaze in search of ideological reference points:

Despite the traumas of the 20th century and the continued violence in the current century, old beacons signaling the promise of a better life to come endure. The enigmatic seduction of “reason” continues to thrive. And the reason for this seems to be linked with the past, in its power to define the present to secure particular ends. This is the strange power of collective nostalgia: through it, the past changes form in order to give a unity to the still unfolding and precarious present. (“Architecture and Nostalgia” 8)

Therein lies the nostalgic appeal of Meyerowitz’s photographs: counterpointing the “rubble as archive” in Yaeger’s sense, Meyerowitz’s “photographic archive” downplays uncertainty and affirms the promise of an “alternative future” (Huyssen 8). The framing of the towers’ ruins in the photographs renders them synecdochic traces of an unattainable past that promises a “wholeness” in Macaulay’s sense. At work here is a nostalgia for the future manifested in the sublime vision of a magnificent past that gives meaning to the present. The illusion of temporal distance generated by the compositional elements of Meyerowitz’s images thus renders particularity subordinate to the universal, undercutting the ruin’s potential to unfold as an archive in Yaeger’s sense.

Inasmuch as the Gothicizing arcades of the World Trade Center are undoubtedly evocative of the ruins of medieval churches, Meyerowitz’s depictions juxtapose the melancholia of such paintings as Caspar David Friedrich’s “Cloister Cemetery in the Snow” with an affirmation of human resilience in the face of devastation. The sublime power of his imagery derives less from a cathartic acquiescence in the irreversibility of decay and more from his depiction of the ruins as spatially and temporally remote and inaccessible.

 

Erasure

In the previous sections we have seen how the ruins of the World Trade Center are constructed in verbal and “photographic discourse,” to use Victor Burgin’s term (131). In his article Herbert Muschamp describes the remaining walls of the World Trade Center as the most “eloquent reminders” of the catastrophe in that they do not “spin the forms into a limited framework of meaning. Rather, like the void left by the collapse of the twin towers, the Walls invites an infinite number of projected associations” (Muschamp). Perceived as such, the Walls may as well subscribe to James Young’s definition of the counter-monument which embodies the “perpetual irresolution” of memory and reverts “the burden of memory to those who come looking for it” (“Memory and Counter-Memory” 2, 9). Young traces the evolution of the counter-monument in Germany’s effort to memorialize the Holocaust in such a way that the prospective memorials would not instigate the practice of Wiedergutmachung (“The Counter-Monument” 272) endorsed by the practice of erecting traditional monuments but instigate open-ended dialogues instead. By functioning as a “dislocated sign” the counter-monument constitutes a self-reflective performance of memory whereby memorialization is rendered an unfinished process. Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s Monument against Fascism in Hamburg, which consists of a sinking column that invites visitors to inscribe it with whatever they see fit, as well as Horst Hoheisel’s negative-form monument to the Aschrott-Brunnen in Kassel exemplify memorial practices in which the monument literally cannibalizes itself by inhabiting a negative spatiality (Young Texture 27-48). In the United States, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC subscribes to the mechanics of the counter-monument as a negative form of black granite, countering the white marble of the Mall’s monuments.

If the ruins of the World Trade Center are able, as Muschamp believes, to invite multiple readings without putting a cap on the memorialization process, they indeed resonate with Young’s definition of the counter-monument. While it seems reasonable to assume that Young would advocate the preservation of the Walls, he actually argues for just the opposite. In the same volume of essays that includes Patricia Yaeger’s meditation on the “rubble as archive” Young takes a clear stance against the preservation of the ruins:

All cultures preserve bits of relics and ruins as reminders of the past; nearly all cultures remember terrible destructions with the remnants of such destruction. But Americans have never made ruins their home or allowed ruins to define—and thereby shape—their future. The power of ruins is undeniable, and while it may be fitting to preserve a shard or a piece of the towers’ façade as a gesture to the moment of destruction, it would be a mistake to stop with such a gesture and allow it alone to stand for all those rich and varied lives that were lost. For by itself, such a remnant (no matter how aesthetically pleasing) would recall—and thereby reduce—all this rich life to the terrible moment of destruction, just as the terrorists themselves would have us remember their victims. (“Remember Life with Life” 217)

Although Young’s claims against the preservation of the remains reverberate American culture’s time-honored intolerance towards ruins, the second half of his argument, in which the role of ruins is criticized in relation to memorialization, goes beyond this stereotype.

Young believes that the presence of the ruins would be counterproductive because they signify destruction and therefore simplify the interpretation of 9/11. In this sense, the preservation of the ruins would entail surrender to the terrorists, an argument in which Young posits rebuilding and the preservation as a binary opposition and renders memorialization an act of reprisal:

Instead of consecrating this site as a graveyard only, one forced upon us by the killers, let’s dedicate the New World Trade Center complex to everything the terrorists abhor: our modernity, our tolerance, our diversity, our egalitarianism. If they hate our buildings, let’s rebuild them here; if they hate our lives, let’s live them here; if they hate our culture, let’s celebrate it here; if they hate our prosperity, let’s prosper here. (221-222)

Young’s sonorous rhetoric presents the issue reduced to a series of overarching binary oppositions loaded with metaphoric entailments: life vs. death, modern vs. antimodern, destruction vs. building, tolerance vs. fundamentalism. Here, Young obviously identifies modernity with progress, openness, tolerance, disregarding many of the less positive features that left their mark on twentieth century history and city planning as achievements of modernity. This reductionist view ominously echoes the ambitious words of the towers’ designer, Minoru Yamasaki: “What I decided to do, the only thing I would get fun out of doing, was the beautiful thing; beauty through structure and technology, because that’s our culture.” [italics and emphasis in original] (qtd. in Darton 122).

Once exposed to these binaries, one is compelled to take a stance between two sides where choice is always reduced to one of the extremes. The preservation of the ruins would constitute an act of acceptance of defeat and, metaphorically, the fragility of the values Young deploys in his list of binary oppositions. But even more subversive and therefore dangerous, the ruins would open up a space of contemplation as a continuum between the opposite poles of the binaries. Such an indeterminate, contemplative stance is counterproductive to the meaning-making machinery Young wishes to activate: “… we will come to regard the New World Trade Center as the ground zero of a renewal and the ultimate expression of modernity so abhorred by the terrorists” (“Remember Life with Life” 216). In the rhetorical tradition of the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln performatively hollows the ground of the battlefield by claiming that he cannot do so, Young legitimizes something that he claims is already there, namely that the presence of ruins would reduce the interpretation of 9/11 to the experience of loss (therefore defeat). By saying this, he implies that doing the opposite, that is erasing the ruins, would open up the field of interpretation. At the same time, his rhetoric works just against that openness: remembering life with life compels us to take democracy’s side and thus engage in a reductionist reading of the complexity of 9/11.

 

Spectral Vestiges

Be it the ruins’ ceremonious incorporation into a battleship or their photographic representation as an awesome spectacle, or their perception as an anomaly that would reduce the meaning of 9/11 to the moment of defeat, the idea of progress manifests itself as a recurring theme in the discourses that I have examined so far. The actual fate of the ruins, however, gives an uncanny edge to the term “progress.” When Patricia Yaeger observed that the ruins “have been coercively discarded” (187), she did not know that what she described as waste inseparable from the remains of human bodies would actually be recycled as value once the wreckage was sold for scrap in Asia—primarily to China and India. It is thus not simply the confluence of debris and human carnage that is imbued with the power of the uncanny but the recycling of this abject material as a commodity in the Capitalist system of exchange—the same system that underpinned the construction of the World Trade Center in the first place. In this sense, the ruin emerges as a material not at all antagonistic to progress, as Young’s argument against their preservation implies, but rather an integral part of it.

It is in this sense that the ongoing construction of the memorial and the new tower establishes a peculiar nexus between Ground Zero as a site of trauma and Ground Zero as a construction site. At the intersection of these two applications of the term “site” it is not the ruins per se but their very absence from the site that quakes with the power of the uncanny. The various forms of dissemination of the ruins—the handing out of urns to family members of the dead, parts of the wreckage’s incorporation into the USS New York, and as scrap metal sold in Asia—constitute a palimpsest which complicates the relation between ruin and progress. Land artist Robert Smithson’s term “ruins in reverse” is fitting to throw this relation into new light. In a 1967 essay Smithson describes one of his tours in the bleak terrains of suburban sprawl in Passaic, New Jersey. What stretches out before his eyes is a landscape interspersed with monuments of a “prehistoric Machine Age;” a set of pipes, pumping derricks, a parking lot, a sandbox, a highway under construction and rows of suburban houses.

Actually, the landscape was no landscape, but “a particular kind of heliotypy” (Nabokov), a kind of self-destroying postcard world of failed immortality and oppressive grandeur. […] That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scene suggests the discredited idea of time and many other “out of date” things. (72)

In much the same way the gaze of Walter Benjamin’s flaneur transforms the arcades of Paris into a “colportage phenomenon of space” (418) Smithson perceives these objects as monuments to a place devoid of history. Such frivolous captions as “The Great Pipe Monument” and “The Fountain Monument: Bird’s Eye View” work to defamiliarize the banal objects of the suburban wasteland as anti-monuments. But even more importantly, Smithson’s mise-en-scene renders these monuments landmarks of an entropic process in which the dialectical forces of construction and destruction level out in equilibrium.

What Smithson perceives as a “zero panorama” of the Passaic seems uncannily pertinent to the ongoing construction at Ground Zero. Once complete, the site is going to be defined by two negative spaces signifying the towers’ footprints and a massive skyscraper reaching a symbolic height of 1776 feet in an effort to spatialize the Declaration of Independence, which the tower seeks to monumentalize. The perimeters of the footprints will be defined by waterfalls, with a symbolic gravesite containing ashes and dust located underneath. Apart from its traditional use as a symbolic expression of grief, the columns trickling water may as well recall the dazzling verticality of the towers, if not the verticality of their implosion. This echo will be accentuated by the fact that the water will fall into the negative space of the memorial, which turns the façade of the towers that it evokes inside out. Designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker the memorial draws on a minimalist aesthetics that, paradoxically, evokes both the minimalism of the World Trade Center towers and such counter-monuments as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In the selection of the winning design for the memorial some critics have sensed James Young and Maya Lin’s influential presence in the jury. The negative space of the memorial will cast the shadow of the past on the new tower while the new tower will serve to heal the open wound without suturing it.

Bombproof Grid, 7 World Trade Center
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/06/03/carpenter/source/3.htm

The tension between negative and positive space, which the ruin would embody by its liminal spatiality, is most lucidly expressed in a particular architectural detail that evokes Smithson’s notion of “ruins in reverse.” The tower “will sit on a 200-foot-high concrete base wrapped in a shimmering stainless steel and titanium skin – designed to protect from explosions” (CBC). Such an armor is already visible on the new skyscraper of 7 World Trade Center. I would like to argue that in this fortified podium the ruin is implicitly manifest in a reverse fashion, as a potential scenario of the future informed by the destruction of the Twin Towers. At the intersection of positive and negative space, at the point where the two gaping holes of the memorial will give way to the rising obelisk of the new 1 World Trade Center, an architecture of anxiety takes shape. The bunker-like base speaks to the future by positing catastrophe as a foundation of progress and gestures toward the past, which it embodies as an architecture of paranoia. Insofar as the new tower, as Anthony Vidler suggests, construes architecture as a “form of reply to the attackers” (30), its base simultaneously supports the new World Trade Center and evokes the fate of the old one.

Although the fortified base of the new 1 World Trade Center is constitutive of the monumental size of the new skyscraper, it is at once a counter-monument which, by means of eliciting the ominous possibility of a new attack, endows the ruins with a sense of agency. This agency, which comes to the fore in Yaeger’s text and surfaces as a signifier of defeat that needs to be avenged in Young’s rhetoric, is absorbed by Franklin and Meyerowitz’s photographic performances even if their photographs operate by different iconographic conventions. While Yaeger’s text, as well as the sinister walls of the new building’s fortified base gesture toward a wholeness that constitutes “dismemberment” in Macaulay’s sense, the photographs inscribe the ruins into narratives that keep their spectral quality at bay. It remains to be seen how the preserved relics of the old towers, as well as the other remains of 9/11 now stored in hangar 17 at JFK Airport, will function in the context of Ground Zero once it is completed.

 

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