9/11: Peering into the abyss

90 West St., circa 1995, from rooftop garden of my cousin’s building in Battery Park City.

My last post quoted briefly my Oct. 4, 2001, column in the Providence Journal called “Peering into the towering abyss,” but the link seems to take readers to a sign-up sheet for the Journal archives instead of the text of the column. That’s what I found when I clicked the link on my iPhone, but when I clicked the same link on my iMac, it took me directly to the text. So I have no idea how this will work out for readers on other platforms. Therefore, I reprint the column in its entirety:

***

Peering into the towering abyss

LOWER MANHATTAN
I am close enough to the ruins of the World Trade Center to know I should be glad I cannot get closer. Pictures hardly prepare you for the magnitude of the wreckage, which smolders still, not to mention the acrid stench that comes and goes but stays with you. A few people outside the no-go zone still wear air filters or hold handkerchiefs up to their noses. They are probably the ones who can’t stop thinking about what they are smelling.

The photograph above was taken in happier days, from the roof garden of my cousin’s building in Battery Park City. The towers loom up, dwarfing the building that engaged my attention even more than the two towers, a lovely old building. The towers were there, for better or worse, and, for all I knew, always would be. Late that night, I went back up to shoot the old building again. The soft lights transformed its ornate roofscape into a golden jewel. In the dark beyond, you could barely see the towers.

The towers were the world’s tallest for only a couple of years, until Chicago’s Sears Tower opened, in 1974. Actually, one of the twin towers was six feet taller than the other. Their architect, Minoru Ya-masaki, stood an inch above five feet.

After the terrorists destroyed the towers, and after the fog of horror cleared a bit from my mind, I thought of that old building so close by. Did it still exist? No photographs or footage had revealed its fate, at least none I’d seen. I mourn the lost towers and the lost lives, but when I visited New York, I had to find out what had become of that old building.

I found a room Sunday at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I went out into the rain, had lunch nearby, returned, tried to arrange dinner with the sister of a friend, and ended up seeing an off-Broadway play, Woman Killer, and, later, saw comic routines at the New York Comedy Club. (“The more Arab the driver, the bigger his flag.” “Instead of rebuilding two buildings with 110 stories each, how about eight buildings with 25 stories each? Call it the Manhattan Projects.”)

The next morning, after checking out, I headed south. I walked, puttering around, marveling at the Beaux Arts municipal district, City Hall Park, the Woolworth Building, etc. Procrastinating.

Finally, just before noon, I reached the edge of the no-go zone, and accepted without protest the assurances of a couple of police officers that there was no way I’d ever get anything like close to “ground zero.” I was directed down Chambers Street to construction headquarters for damage information, but could speak with no officials. They were very busy.

But near the end of Chambers, from a pedestrian bridge, I finally saw my old building. Its address turns out to be 90 West St. It was built in 1905. In the photo at the right, taken with a zoom from the footbridge over West Street, it stands just left of the white crane battered and bruised, but alive. At its foot is the debris of 2 World Trade Center. Between them was tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in the 1830s. It was obliterated.

I gaze upon this distressing scene, shoot a few pictures and move on. Back on Broadway, I again head south, peering west toward ground zero at every intersection. First Fulton, then Dey, then Cortland, then Liberty. With the crowds I linger, spellbound, taking pictures of ground zero. We continue to walk only after police lose patience, shouting, “Move along!” and threatening to confiscate cameras.

Thoroughly depressed, I wander toward Battery Park, then take a subway to the Port Authority Terminal (owner of the World Trade Center) and a bus for Providence, where the tallest buildings are less than a quarter the height of the late twin towers.

How curious that so many well-known architects and critics, even after the towers’ demise, can find so little good to say of their aesthetic charms. Powerful symbols, sure, no denying that. Even Ada Louise Huxtable, who in 1972 wrote that “these are big buildings, but they are not great architecture,” held firmly to that stance in writing their epitaph.

Perhaps buildings, like people, can attain greatness if not beauty in death. Many people shrink from the idea of building tall again. I do not know whether the towers should be rebuilt. A colleague says that would be to court a repeat disaster: Imagine two buildings each with 110 13th floors. Only a lunatic would rent space or take a job there.

Well, I’m not sure I agree. Maybe the murder of these two buildings, and their thousands of occupants and hundreds of rescuing heroes, can generate enough unity and strength of purpose in the civilized world to vanquish terrorism. Maybe then we can rest easy, build big, live large and watch the spirit of two buildings rise from tallness to greatness. Abraham Lincoln was no beauty, either.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to 9/11: Peering into the abyss

  1. LazyReader says:

    thought provoking yes.
    People don’t realize the skyscraper is obsolete, they’re not built to accommodate the boom and bust cycles of real estate. This is best summed up in places like Dubai where highrise construction has broke record pace, I’ve seen them many of them are virtually empty. What do you expect when the heat where it costs as much as 1,000 a month just to air condition your condo and they’ve saturated the market with too many highrises. Burj Khalifa is half empty. rents in the Burj Khalifa plummeted 40% some ten months after its opening. Out of 900 apartments in the tower, 825 were still empty at that time. China is building whole cities for a populace that cant afford them, cause a third of their economy is state sponsored construction which is ridiculous even thou China has a billion people their population density is not high, prior to 2000 they were still very rural people. All this construction is resource use for resource use sake. For thousands of years the pyramids at Giza, Egypt were the tallest man made structure in the world; So I guess the Middle east is building glittering highrises to recapture that glory and to hopefully attract people to reassure them not to fear the hazards of radical Islam. And China is doing it cause to not to means sending millions of Chinese either back to the collectivist farms or the Nike factories.

    Density–bunching up–makes us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It makes us more vulnerable to novel diseases. It also makes us more vulnerable to crime, invasions of privacy, and traffic accidents. It makes us waste more time in congestion. Contrary to planners’ claims, people living in dense areas also pay higher taxes.

    Densities and transit-dependence also makes us more vulnerable to natural disasters…. and man made ones.
    Today’s modern highrises are fairly safe…. its the hyper talls that invoke sense of worry

    Like

  2. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    Just a wonderful piece, in my eyes reading I was with you, I know New York, thank you

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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