Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From the ground up

The WTC site in 2008. Photo by Mike Roberts, courtesy of Flickr and Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of nycsubway.org
The news of the grand reopening of New York City's World Trade Center–Cortlandt subway station on Sept. 8, 17 years after the collapsing Twin Towers crushed it down to crawlspace stature in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, provoked my reflections on how well the WTC site has been upward bound from the Ground Zero grave in general.
Photo by The All-Nite Images, courtesy of Flickr and Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Sebastian Sinisterra, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of the MTA
Well, the station itself has rebounded nicely. For one, it sports the spotlessness it yearned for when graffiti displaced mosaics as public art. Also, it reinvents the mosaic with Ann Hamilton's interweaving of marble tesserae mosaic tiles with bits of the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Photo by Hu Totya, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This white marble tapestry boldly reaffirms the unshakeable freedoms that were under siege on that fateful day (as the wall's rough texture conveys, alluding to the jagged remains of the Towers' concrete basements in the aftermath of the attacks). Yet one notices the chosen font's similarity to that on Maya Lin's 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (right)

The reuse of this subdued but straightforward font may give the subway a fitting "memorial" quality in its provocation of serene remembrance of the fallen. Yet it deprives the newer work of true originality, as an example of the imitators Lin's groundbreaking design spawned.
Photo by Edgar El, courtesy of Panoramio and Wikimedia Commons
Ditto for the 9/11 Memorial, the least successful element of the WTC's reboot. My visit there on Sept. 11, 2016, was met with disillusion at the site's sacred centerpiece. Michael Arad's attempt to consecrate the Twin Towers' footprints in remembrance of the victims is an obvious emulation of the solemnity of Lin's black granite wall of names—and a less effective one at that.
Photo by Luigi Novi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
As their gilding shows, this is also a crass commercialization of the tragedy in the name of the real-estate polish that revived the site's "trade" side. The waterfall fountains resemble those in office-building plazas and parks, and would have benefited from integration of the rugged remains of the Towers' concrete wall basements into the memorial rather than putting one of them in the museum. 
Photo by Billy Hathorn, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Waterfalls gushing down these roughened edifices would have imbued the pools with the naturalistic effect of real waterfalls and breaking ocean waves cascading and clashing on craggy rocks. Such a "ruins" effect would have given the pools a truly remember-the-dead quality, akin to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's ode to his late friend Arthur Hallam:
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.
Photo by Cadiomals, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Az1568, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Nor are the bases of the pools convincing as memorials. The rectangular holes in their centers are nothing but grill-less catchbasins for the falling water, more functional than evocative. A stronger element would have been a stepped descending shaft in the form of an inverted, inside-out ziggurat for the water to cascade downward to the central drain below. This would have fittingly recalled Egyptian burial rites, evoked the scary uncertainty of dropping downward into an abyss, and alluded to the Survivors' Staircase, the remnant of the Towers' original escape route now monumentalized in the museum (right). As it stands, the 9/11 Memorial's theme of "Reflecting Absence" conveys that concept too literally, neutralizing the tragedy into a slick lunchtime oasis of polished, gold-lettered granite like a typical office-park branding embellishment, thereby leaving us absent of much emotional connection to the victims.

Photo by Luigi Novi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The 9/11 Museum connects us more to the event by virtue of its gridded, erratically angled metallic envelope and slanted stature. This evokes both the fall of the vertically gridded Towers and the sinking of ships like the Titanic, as a monument to common characteristics of these disasters: human vulnerability in the trap of technological fallacy, and caged confinement in the envelopment of man-made mortality.

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