A Tale of Two Symbols: Ground Zero and the Battle for America’s Soul

A peculiar and noteworthy feature of mankind can be observed in the importance we lend to certain pieces of matter. Consider the perilous quests on which men have launched, both mythical and historical, in pursuit of certain objects–like a wooden cup (the “Holy Grail”) and a sheep’s skin (“Golden Fleece”) and tree branches (consecrating our honor through laurel wreathes, our love through red roses) and rectangles of colored cloth (ranging from a victorious blue ribbon to a nation’s billowing flag).

This distinctly human function, of imbuing concrete objects with abstract symbolism, goes a long way toward explaining the controversy that recently raged over what will replace the fallen World Trade Center towers in New York.

Rarely does an architectural project, no matter how tall or expensive, capture the breathless attention of millions nationwide. Yet the name of Daniel Libeskind, a professor of architecture at Penn State, and of his critically acclaimed “Freedom Tower” design were prominently featured in the newspaper headlines. And in a May press conference, Donald
Trump–one of the nation’s foremost publicity hounds–has elevated the WTC question to the dimension of a sweeping saga by unveiling his own proposal: to build what are essentially replicas of the old twin towers–but one story taller.

Recently an uninspiring compromise design was selected over both Libeskind’s and Trump’s proposals. But the original controversy is still illustrative of the forces at work in American culture.

Libeskind’s design was selected by an international panel of famed architects, government officials and philanthropists who favored his design for its symbolism. In the words of Robert Ivy, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, Libeskind “authentically captures a shard of history without overwhelming us with the past….(The design) moved everyone who saw it, heard it, understood it” (USA Today). The occupied portion of the Freedom Tower was to comprise sixty stories and 1,100 feet, more than 250 feet shorter than the original Twin Towers. The next 400 feet comprised a lattice tower, and on top of that a 276-foot spire jutted into space. The height to the top of the spire was 1,776 feet–intended as a symbolic tribute to America’s independence.

The preoccupation with symbolism, more than economic efficiency or practical structural concerns, dominated Libeskind’s design. As he himself proclaimed, “Most architects are concerned with buildings–actually, I’m concerned with people….There’s a big difference. Most architects are concerned with technology. I’m much more interested in the story a city tells, a story a building tells….”

To tell his story with adequate poignancy, Libeskind infused his design with symbolic elements. Apart from the height’s obvious significance, the tower was graced with a Wedge of Light, a “public space” specially calculated so that no shadow would be cast on the morning of September 11. Moreover, the Freedom Tower was shaped like an arm stretched upward, which was supposed to suggest to us the nearby Statue of Liberty’s upstretched arm. In accordance with Libeskind’s intentions, every foot and every concrete block of the building wreaked symbolism–though less than half of it constituted an actual building.

But a majority of the “people” Libeskind was targeting do not seem to have bought into the story his design was supposed to tell. While it may have won the hearts of many architectural critics, intellectuals, and politicians, including Governor Pataki, Trump’s proposal unleashed a vehement protest against the “Freedom Tower” among the American public–particularly New Yorkers. After his initial criticism of Libeskind’s design in the New York Post, where he expressed the view that “the World Trade Center should be rebuilt on the site, only stronger and a little bit taller,” Trump was deluged with letters of support. And in every major poll–including a poll by CNN as well as the official Lower Manhattan Development Corporation poll–Trump’s proposal won over Mr. Libeskind’s design.

Why such overwhelming preference for an imitation of the fallen towers over a new, unique structure? The subsequent Letters to the Editor of major New York newspapers, which cried out almost unanimously in favor of renewed WTC towers, revealed that symbolism does, in fact, have a lot to do with it. It certainly has little to do with Trump’s reputation; consider, for instance, this letter to the Post: “Donald Trump is a caricature of himself, and his arrogance is obnoxious….But I want him in charge of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Period. End of story….I’m on Trump’s team, because someone who really loves New York has an innate knowledge of what is best for New York” (Terrence Lavin, May 20).

So it is not the character or reputation of Trump, but rather some quality of the design that irresistibly drew a New York lover to its defense. According to Mr. Lavin, a true New Yorker senses “innately” that the WTC design is superior to what the Freedom Tower offers. But then, didn’t Mr. Ivy, the architectural critic, say with equal fervor that Libeskind’s design “moved everyone who saw it, heard it, understood it”? Unless Mr. Ivy does not really love New York at heart, and he certainly claims to, there is a clash of “innate” understandings here.

Consider this letter, which addressed a bit more explicitly the source of the Trump design’s luster. “Better to restore the site where some 50,000 people joyously worked, where thousands from around the world did business, and where all celebrated life. Build two new twin towers, as tall or taller than the originals, on the footprints from which they were taken” (Joe Wright, NY Sun). This Manhattan-dweller felt that restoring the actual substance of the WTC site–with all its height and its interior business and work space–would be the only appropriate symbol of America’s resilience and pride.

On the other hand, the Libeskind design, in Trump’s description, was a “skeleton”; a “building that’s not really a building” (NY Post, May 12). This meshes with Libeskind’s own description of the design as an abstract “story” rather than a technologically sound building (which might explain why the Freedom Tower’s launch date was subject to so many delays before the design was finally sacked altogether). Libeskind’s professional philosophy, in effect, is symbolism-over-substance.

But then why did New Yorkers preferring the symbolism of Trump’s revamped WTC towers, which were little more than copies of the frankly not-so-creative original design, to Libeskind’s symbolically sophisticated shell of concrete?

Precisely because it was a shell.

Libeskind proposed that we build a carcass; an empty pretense that is all words and abstractions, but no substance. But America has not traditionally been a nation of empty abstractions. As Calvin Coolidge famously quipped, the business of America is not talk but business. That means that Americans value productive action and concrete achievement, from the pursuit of great monetary wealth to the most ambitious advances in medical and automotive technology. The terrorists were not stupid in choosing the World Trade Centers to attack; symbolically, they represented the heart of the American spirit. It is true that we value creativity and intellect: after all, the creation of iPods and heart monitors and spaceships and, indeed, corporate skyscrapers requires plenty of creativity, and of intellect to boot. But the Freedom Tower abandons the fundamental conviction that the terrorists attacked–that our ideas are practical, and that they bring us, not pious communion with an other-worldy Allah, but paradise on earth.

The fact that so many down-to-earth Americans yearned for a return of the WTC towers means we have not yet been defeated–at least not in spirit. But unfortunately that spirit of earthly pride is not “innate.” It needs to be articulated by those who understand its abstract, intellectual root. Unfortunately, Trump lacked the capacity to articulate it. And President Bush, in articulating our intellectual cause in the “War on Terror,” has not done much better. It is an intellectual defense of the American spirit that America needs.

Until then, intellectuals like Libeskind, will go unopposed on the battleground of ideas. And instead of a return to the spirit of the Twin Towers, we will be misled by the expedient compromises of politicians like Pataki. Unless the Libeskinds and Bush’s are opposed by a new breed of intellectuals, we may be left with but an empty shell of the America we loved.

Gena Gorlin is a sophomore enrolled at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory.

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