Working Through Ground Zero

Lásló Munteán,

University of Budapest, Hungary

(The accompanying pictures can be found in our Media Library)

Ruins represent the physical decay of what preceded them, but their removal erases meaning and memory. – Rebeca Solnit [1]

It is they, not we, who created this void in our city and in our lives: to preserve it would be to extend the deed itself for perpetuity. – James Young[2]

Shortly after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the remains of the World Trade Center were completely cleared from Ground Zero. Although many demanded that the iconic remains be left in place, and some proposals for the site incorporated elements of the original towers, the ruins will not be part of the final design. Some of the steel beams have been used for 9/11 memorials outside New York City, while others have recently been melted down and incorporated into the bow of the Navy’s new battleship, the USS New York. The rest has been sold for scrap, mostly in Asia. The temporary storage of the wreckage of the towers at the ominous Fresh Kills landfill at Staten Island has been controversial ever since it became clear that the debris and the dust contained human remains. In an act of reverence, family members of unidentified victims received urns filled with ashes and dust from Fresh Kills. Nevertheless, the preservation and return of the ruins to their locus at Ground Zero has never been seriously considered.

Since the 1990s, a topographical / archaeological stance toward sites of trauma[3] has been attracting much of attention in memory studies on both sides of the Atlantic. Amid the growing interest in memory and memorializing, which Andreas Huyssen calls the “memory boom” (29), such scholarly apathy towards the disappearance of the ruins of the World Trade Center seems surprising.

Even James Young, member of the jury at the 9/11 memorial competition, and whose books The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning and At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture have become classics, takes a clear stand against the preservation of ruins in an essay written shortly after the disaster:

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 are obviously rooted in American culture’s general intolerance towards ruins, the second half of his argument, in which the role of ruins is criticized in relation to memorialization, goes beyond that. Young believes that the presence of the ruins would be counterproductive, because they signify destruction, therefore simplify the interpretation of 9/11. By referring to “all this rich life,” Young’s words inscribe 9/11 into a war-narrative in which the act of memorialization constitutes reprisal (217).

My objective in this paper is to decipher the ideological ingredients of the trajectory that Young offers as a way of processing pain and working through collective trauma, as well as to observe how this narrative takes architectural shape at Ground Zero. In her recent book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Marita Sturken uses tourism as a master metaphor to demonstrate how souvenir items of kitsch, such as snow globes, teddy bears, and even the crooked steel beams from the Twin Towers taken away from the site, facilitate the notion of American innocence and provide comfort by reinscribing catastrophe into a depoliticized and exceptionalist context. Her insights have offered a number of vantage points for my work. Towards the end of this paper I will trace alternative ways of memorialization that engage the gaze of the archaeologist rather than Sturken’s “tourist’s gaze,” to which the dominant architectural narrative at Ground Zero subscribes.[4]

I will first explore how we humans use the built environment as a screen for self-identification. Then, I will trace how grief over loss is translated into sacrifice and heroism, and attempt to decode the meanings inscribed into ruins (or the lack of them). I will then proceed to observe the prospective Freedom Tower as an architectural embodiment of the binaries that are at work in Young’s argument. Finally, I will inquire whether the morose minimalism of the memorial entitled Reflecting Absence, now under construction, counters or supports the didactic vocabulary of the Freedom Tower, and will trace alternative manifestations of memorializing 9/11 by contrasting the gaze that they employ to that of the official designs at Ground Zero.


In his book entitled 9/11, Noam Chomsky claims that “The horrifying atrocities of September 11 are something quite new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target” (11). The attack on the World Trade Center, as its name suggests, symbolically amounts to a strike on the very center of world trade, an architectural representation of corporate capitalism. But would it be fair to say that such connotations were inherent to the building? Architectural theoretician Neil Leach points out that such meanings are never inherent to buildings, but inscribed by the observer. For instance, Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the towers, saw his edifice as a “monument to world peace” in which representatives of different nationalities could come together under the unifying force of world trade (Simpson 58). Conversely, architectural critic Charles Jencks saw manifestations of the sublime in the monotonous repetitions of steel beams, which reminded him of thought-control mechanisms deployed by dictatorial regimes (Darton 128). Yet neither of these readings would explain the physical pain that many observers of the attacks felt in the moment that the airplanes hit the buildings and at the collapse of the towers.

What accounts for the physical pain induced by the perception of the tragedy, and what causes the subsequent anthropomorphization of the buildings in cartoons and souvenir items? The use of metaphors, such as “wounded skyline” or even the “footprints” of the towers, reflects an intimate relationship between humans and the built environment – a process of identification which works at an unconscious level. At this point it is fitting to ask: how do we relate to buildings, after all? Let me look at some of the pioneering scholarly works in this matter.

Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, first published in 1960, was a breakthrough work which still serves as a principal source on cognitive mapping. He coins the term “imageability” and defines it as:

[…] that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. It might also be called legibility, or perhaps visibility in a heightened sense, where objects are not only able to be seen, but are presented sharply and intensely to the senses. (Lynch 9-10)

Through his research Lynch identifies five cardinal points of reference to which people tend to relate: paths (roads, streets, etc.), edges (boundaries), districts (larger sections in the city with some common character), nodes (“strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which he is traveling”), and landmarks (“typically seen from many angles and distances, over the tops of smaller elements, and used as radial references”) (Lynch, 46-9).

Within the urban texture of New York, the Twin Towers functioned as a landmark and, as Lynch would say, contributed to the imageability of the city by offering tall points of reference for spatial orientation. This landmark offered a sense of familiarity and security. As Andreas Huyssen recalls:

The image of the Twin Towers simply represented home in a metropolis. Often, you first saw them approaching New York from the air. Year after year, you saw them in the distance driving back home from the airports in Queens, Brooklyn, or New Jersey (160).

In the wake of the tragedy, as numerous accounts testify, it was this relation to the home, signified by this landmark, which was disrupted, giving way to a haunting feeling of loss, traceable in a number of psychosomatic symptoms evidenced by witnesses.[5] Cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose analysis of 9/11 I will use later, witnessed the collapse of the towers and recalls having felt physical pain (“Metaphors of Terror”). In a similar fashion, in her essay “Wounded New York,” Judith Greenberg articulates a sense of loss of home. She writes:

The towers dwarfed neighboring buildings; they overwhelmed—a point made by both the terrorists and the commentators. The towers now overwhelm in their absence. The proliferation of photos in windows around the city testifies to a grieving and an attempt to claim that lost home (25).

What mechanisms are at work here? Neil Leach’s explication of architectural identifications offers a vantage point to study this phenomenon. In his book Camouflage, as well as in his essay “9/11,” Leach demonstrates the way in which we engage in a symbolic relationship with the built environment. By applying Christian Metz’s film theory, he explains architectural identifications in terms of the processes of introjection and projection that take place during the perception and conceptualization of the built environment. In the process of introjection, the environment prints itself into the self, while, in a reflexive manner, the self projects itself onto the perceived environment. As the two processes reflect each other, identification takes place (“9/11” 78).

Let us look at this dual process in more detail. Regarding introjection, Leach supplements Metz’s thesis with Walter Benjamin’s notion of our habit of appropriating buildings[6] by which we register the sensory impulses that the environment introjects into our psyche in order to be stored as “memorized sensory experiences” (79). As for the projective element, Leach asserts that:

The environment must therefore serve as a kind of “screen” onto which we would “project” our own meaning, and into which we would “read” ourselves. We need to project something of ourselves onto the other in order to recognize—or misrecognize—ourselves in the other. This reveals the subtlety of a psychoanalytic account of identity, in which the mechanisms of projection and introjection work in tandem, in a model that replicates the operations of the cinema, in which we become the projectors and the environment the screen. (ibid.)

By this rationale, Leach goes on to conclude that claiming inherent meanings for buildings and places, such as “sites of memory,”[7] does not make sense, for it is we humans who invest buildings with meanings (ibid.).

A landmark in Lynch’s sense, the World Trade Center towers served to signal a familiar point of reference stored in what Benjamin calls the pool of “memorized sensory experiences” (79), thus offering screens for the introjective and projective aspects of identification. Their collapse created a void not only in the city’s skyline but in the minds of all those who ascribed such a role to the towers both inside and outside of New York City. As Judith Greenberg recalls, “September 11 blew apart not just our sense of home but our psychological unity as well. If not literally, then internally, it tore many of us into fragments” (24). Such a juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar induces what Freud describes by the term unheimlich[8] which, as Lynch would argue, renders the texture of the city un-imageable and yields to a traumatic sense of loss.

Soon after the attacks, building façades were also utilized as surfaces of identification. The ruins were still smoldering and the hope of finding survivors was still alive when signs posted on walls throughout the city showed faces of people “missing.” As it gradually became clear that the site would not yield survivors, nor the bodies of the dead, the meaning of “missing” transformed into a euphemistic signifier of death. As the poet Charles Bernstein puts it in his “Report from Liberty Street”:

If downtown seems oddly detached, out of time or frozen in it, one of the most affecting sites is at the Times Square subway station. Around the cold tile columns in the central atrium of the station, people have put up dozens of homemade signs, each with a picture of someone. They say “missing,” not in the sense of “looking for” but, rather, of feeling the loss. The grief surrounding these columns is overwhelming and we look on as if hit by a wave of turbulence. Yet, despite the votive lights and candles in coffee mugs, which, remarkably, the Transit Authority has left undisturbed, these are secular shrines, in the most pedestrian and transient of all places in the city. (

Such a memorial practice was aimed to “individualize the dead” (Sturken 173) in the face of the massive scale of destruction that largely erased identifiable human remnants. The photographs posted on the walls also functioned as an interface where intimate objects of the private sphere, such as family photographs, descriptions of people, telephone numbers, entered the public realm.[9]In this merger of private and public, the element of time plays a crucial role. The photographs’ capacity to individualize the victims is palpable not only in their ability to recall the absence of the person they show, but also in their capability to imply the presence of those who are missing or mourning that particular person. Like graffiti, they turn walls into screens of communication. Moreover, there is also an uncanny aspect to them. They usually represent the victims in culturally constructed forms of the family photograph; most feature peaceful, familial settings and smiling faces totally antithetical to the gravity of their context in the wake of the tragedy. The observer easily identifies with such photographic settings, which makes the experience of loss through the euphemistic “missing” sign ever more palpable. Photographer Marianne Hirsch sees this effect in terms of what Roland Barthes calls the “deadly knowledge” of the viewer. These photographs, Hirsch writes,

[…] were intended to be placed in school yearbooks, collected in family albums, or circulated among friends, not to be displayed in public as they came to be. Violently yanked out of one context and inserted into another, totally incongruous one, they exemplify what Roland Barthes describes as the retrospective irony of looking at photographs—the viewer possesses the deadly knowledge that the subject of the image ignores. (73)

It is this kind of knowledge that informs our gaze when looking at pictures of the World Trade Center towers, which were posted on walls and windows simultaneously with the spontaneous memorials and the proliferation of American flags. Subsequent follow-up messages were sometimes written on the photographs, such as “Found—Rest in Peace,” which Sturken interprets as a “message for the lost one and as a memorial to her, now no longer missing” (185). I would argue, however, that such palimpsest writings might just as well constitute a ritual act of turning the missing sign into a tombstone. As we do not know who the authors of the added texts are, the acts of visiting and revisiting of these signifiers of death can be seen as ways of reenactment and working through loss: by writing, I identify myself in the context of loss. Such a “screening” of identification and a manifestation of belonging is especially important when it is only possible to bury bodies in mass graves and not as individuals.The first temporary memorial on the Ground Zero site was designed by Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere in 2002; it consisted of two blue light beams soaring high up into the sky at night as a tribute to the dead. Originally called the Phantom Towers, the Tribute in Light memorial replicated the myriads of candle lights throughout the city, as well as the shape of the absent towers. Documentary filmmaker Rick Burns dubbed them “our phantom limbs.” “You feel it but it’s not there; you look to where you feel it should be.” (qtd. in Hirsch 83). Consequently, in order to conceptualize their absence, one needs some sort of a signifier to process the experience of loss. According to Freud, working through trauma requires a narrative that helps patients move beyond compulsive repetition and integrate their trauma as a memory (Sturken 27). At this point, I would like to revisit the remains of the World Trade Center as material documents of tragedy and trace their role in processing trauma.

The Erasure of Erasure

If reenactment and the construction of a narrative are so integral to working through trauma, what is the narrative that accounts for the removal of the ruins – the erasure of the physical remains of erasure?

In many parts of the world, ruins stand as signifiers of past disasters. Their modes of preservation, through the establishment of parks, museums, and educational facilities are ideologically anchored cultural practices centered around the material remains of the past. The Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, the remains of the domed building in Hiroshima, and the cathedral of Coventry are just a few examples of the power of the original remains that anchor memorialization into the physicality of destruction.

The steel beams of the World Trade Center, along with all the rubble accumulated on the site, were taken to the Fresh Kills landfill at Staten Island. The remains of the dead, in this sense, became inseparable from the remains of the towers, subliminally implicating the towers’ complicity in their deaths. The dust emerging from the site[10]became iconic of the catastrophe and entailed associations to the material refuse of the World Trade Center, the material remains of the bodies, as well as a dangerous contaminant that claimed lives even afterwards (Sturken 178). In an attempt to signify bodily remains and thus pay due tribute to the dead, urns filled with dust that had been retrieved from Fresh Kills were handed out to family members in an official commemoration at Ground Zero. By this transformation of the dust into sacramental and ceremonial substance (cf. Sturken 185), the ruins at Fresh Kills became deprived of this “privilege” by having been left out of this process. There is also a metaphoric separation of the dust from the remaining steel beams of the towers in which the former is elevated to the realm of the sacred (thus emphasizing its meaning as the remains of the dead) while the latter is rendered to the realm of the profane. For years afterwards, many would have liked to see the ruins returned to the site. Nevertheless, this idea was not reflected in the memorial proposals (205). Paradoxically, while most of the wreckage was sold for scrap, the city of New York distributed tons of steel beams and other objects from the site to be incorporated into memorials throughout the country. Although this gesture seems to turn the materials into a sacrament in much the same way as the ritualistic transubstantiation of the dust, Sturken argues that it amounts to an act of depriving the material remnants of the power that their genius loci would grant them:

The use of a steel beam for a memorial at the site of the former World Trade Center could potentially carry the same kind of power that sites like Coventry do, as a preservation of ruins that speak to a particular moment of loss. Yet, transported elsewhere and transformed into memorials, the beams seem precariously close to kitsch status. (207)

What meanings would the steel beams activate if they were to be returned to Ground Zero? In order to identify the “building blocks” of this narrative, let us turn back to the photographs of the missing. We have seen that these spontaneous gestures served to individualize the dead in the face of catastrophe. Shortly after 9/11, The New York Times launched an obituary section with brief notes about those who perished on September 11, 2001. For weeks, short biographies appeared, accompanied by snapshots similar to the ones on the posters of the missing. This series came to be called “Portraits of Grief.” In his recent book entitled 9/11 – The Culture of Commemoration, David Simpson sees a problem in the presentation of the photographs and the attached biographical notes, and identifies an effort on the part of The New York Times to make all these stories look alike. He quotes chief editor Howell Raines who reflects on the photographs in a self-congratulatory tone:

[…] when I read them, I am filled with an awareness of the subtle nobility of everyday existence, of the ordered beauty of quotidian lives for millions of Americans, of the unforced dedication with which our fellow citizens go about their duties as parents, life partners, employers or employees […] (qtd. in Simpson 22).

Simpson identifies a rhetoric which portrays the dead as “regimented, even militarized, made to march to the beat of a single drum” (23). In his subsequent arguments, he delineates the long-standing tradition of naming the dead in a democratic spirit and arrives at Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to which he offers a reading from the perspective of memorialization. In his famous speech the president claims that he cannot hallow the battlefield, for it has already been hallowed by the blood of all those soldiers who died there.[11] In fact, Simpson claims, what Lincoln does is exactly the opposite:

It is after all the address that does the hallowing—exactly what it denies by invoking a prior presence. All verbal commemorations and material monuments work this way. They put in place what they claim is already there, and in so doing preempt the possibilities for alternative acts of memory. (31)

In this context we may ask, what makes a ground sacred in American culture and, ultimately, what makes Ground Zero sacred? Sturken reminds us that in the U.S., the concept of sacred places has always been primarily secular and national, rather than religious: “When death is transformed into sacrifice and made sacred, it is almost always deployed with such political intent” (199). As the World Trade Center did not constitute a military target, and the people who died in it were not soldiers, the “Portraits of Grief” demonstrate an attempt to militarize the victims and transform civilian death into heroic sacrifice. This sentiment is reinforced by Rudolph Giuliani’s farewell address of 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 the opposite: he isolates Ground Zero from the complexity of world politics by granting it an exceptional status. The paradox here is that it is through a conventional, simplifying, jingoist rhetoric that the unprecedented complexity of 9/11 is framed in the illusion of exceptionalism. Political scientist Jenny Edkins describes this phenomenon as a process in which “the state, or whatever form of power is replacing it, has taken charge of trauma time” (qtd. in Simpson 4). Therefore, Ground Zero is sacred ground not because of the loss of lives but because that loss is processed in the narrative of sacrifice and heroism which, as Sturken says, reinforces an understanding of history as a mediated, reenacted, “cathartic experience” (9).

This brings us back to the ruins of the towers. We have seen that the remnants stored at Fresh Kills were not returned to the site, yet parts have been distributed for memorials in other states. This move, which Sturken describes as coming close to kitsch, makes sense in the context of the heroic narrative: relocated from its original site, it is no longer the steel beam that defines the memorial but the architectural design of the memorial itself, as well as the context of the new site. Such an act of relocation allows for the exoticization of the relic and calls for the heroic narrative to be acted out. The element of kitsch in this kind of cultural practice subscribes to Celeste Olalquiaga’s definition of nostalgic kitsch as “a form of remembrance that smoothes over the intensity of the experience of loss, selecting the ‘acceptable parts’ of an event and consolidating them into a memory that can forget the original intensity of a traumatic experience of loss” (qtd. in Sturken 20). The use of ruins is therefore only acceptable within the proper teleological context. In this sense, melting some of the wreckage into the bow of the USS New York gives meaning to the deaths in the trajectory of the war against terrorism – a context in which ruins are “kitschified” to justify retaliation.

In the context of Ground Zero, however, the ruins reject this narrative and, by their sheer size, they make it architecturally too demanding for any memorial to wrap them into a form that would lead observers to invest them with “proper” meaning. The remaining steel skeleton of the towers, which once stood tall amid the pile of rubble, perhaps too eerily replicated the grid plan of Manhattan, and such a form, so iconic and yet mute in its devastated modernist minimalism, would not only have embodied loss but perhaps would have been too strong a signifier for the failure of modernity in general. At this point let us revisit the arguments of James Young’s essay to which I referred at the very beginning. For Young the preservation of the ruins of the World Trade Center would entail surrender to the terrorists, an argument in which he posits rebuilding and the preservation of the ruins as a binary opposition and reads it in the context of the war narrative:

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. (“Remember Life with Life” 221-2)

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.[12] “Indeed,” Young says earlier, “let us embrace the ideological roots of modernity: the affirmation of life itself, change, and rejuvenation, all things abhorred by the antimodern zealots of religious fundamentalism and absolutism” (216). Once exposed to these binaries, one is compelled to take a stance between two sides—a reductionist rhetoric vehemently criticized by Slavoj Žižek:

And is it not the same today with the choice of ‘democracy or fundamentalism’? Is it not that, within the terms of this choice, it is simply not possible to choose ‘fundamentalism’? What is problematic in the way the ruling ideology imposes this choice on us is not ‘fundamentalism’ but, rather, democracy itself: as if the only alternative to ‘fundamentalism’ is the political system of liberal parliamentary democracy. (3)

Of course, the choice is always one of the extremes. The result is a belief in American innocence which, as Sturken argues, “affirms the image of the United States as a country of pure intentions to which terrible things can happen, but which itself never provokes or initiates attack” (15). 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 opposite poles. Such an indeterminate, contemplative stance is counterproductive to the meaning-making machinery: “… 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” (Young, “Remember Life with Life” 216). Like Lincoln’s rhetoric in the Gettysburg Address, 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, erasing the ruins, would open up the field of interpretation. At the same time, his rhetoric works just against that: remembering life with life compels us to take democracy’s side and thus engage in a reductionist reading of the complexity of 9/11, which Žižek talks about. Consequently, the erasure of erasure is indispensable for the narrative of rejuvenation. It is fitting here to quote Rebeca Solnit: “This is the paradox of ruins: they represent a kind of destruction, but they themselves can be destroyed and with them the memory of what was once there and what it confronted” (357).

The Freedom Tower

Before discussing the prospective tower on Ground Zero, let me revisit and take a last look at the World Trade Center. The monotonous rhythm of its façade was largely antithetical to most of the New York skyscrapers that came to be icons of the city and modernity itself. While, in older buildings the repetition of stories of offices, one on top of the other, culminates in ornate spires, such as those of the Woolworth Building, the Metropolitan Life Tower, the Chrysler Building, and, perhaps most emblematically, the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers did not feature any of these ornamental features. Inspired by the Bauhaus modernism of Mies van der Rohe, the towers’ architect, Minoru Yamasaki, embraced functionalism in his design but turned away from the graceful transparency of Mies’ design. The façades of the towers, like gigantic TV screens with pixel-like openings, offered a rather repulsive interface for identifications – different from the reflecting glass of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the imperial geometrics of ‘20s Art Deco. The repetition of vertical and horizontal lines dazzled the eye of the observer and exerted a hypnotic power, as Charles Jencks commented years before 9/11:

The effect of extreme repetition may be monotony or a hypnotic trance: positively it can elicit feelings of the sublime and the inevitable because it so incessantly returns to the same theme. A musical figure, repeated at length, such as that in Bolero, acts not just as a form of mental torture but as a pacifier. Repetitive architecture can put you to sleep. Both Mussolini and Hitler used it as a form of thought control, knowing that before people can be coerced they first have to be hypnotized and then bored. (qtd. in Darton 128)

Jean Baudrillard felt both attraction and repulsion when he saw the towers as a combination of the punch card and the statistical graph: “The fact that there were two of them signifies the end of any original reference. If there had been only one, monopoly would not have been perfectly embodied. Only the doubling of the sign truly puts an end to what it designates” (39).

Despite the fact that, apart from their unparalleled height, the towers provoked little interest in architectural circles, two years before the 9/11 attacks two books were published almost simultaneously on the story of the World Trade Center: Eric Darton’s Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center and Angus Kress Gillespie’s Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center. Both authors’ accounts treat the story of the towers in the political and cultural contexts and, in the light of the 1993 bombing, investigate the iconic qualities of the buildings that made them synonymous with American exceptionalism, capitalism, and ultimately with America itself (Gillespie 4). Darton locates the history of the construction of the towers within the framework of modernist visions of ideal, orderly cities realized through centralized plans for urban renewal. In this sense, the World Trade Center was one of the belated achievements of what Le Corbusier envisioned in his Radiant City. In order to construct the Twin Towers, a whole community of merchants dealing with electronics, known as Radio Row, had to be relocated and their houses bulldozed, some of which had been built before the Civil War. Despite the protests staged against the demolition of Radio Row, as well as the efforts of the Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center, speculation prevailed and the towers were built.

Ironically, by the time the towers were completed in the early 1970s, the ideology that underpinned their construction had become obsolete. Darton asserts that, “[w]ithin little more than a decade of David Rockefeller’s 1958 plan for the wholesale bulldozing of much of Lower Manhattan, massive renewal schemes had come to be widely viewed as either unattainable, undesirable, or both” (37). Paul Goldberger, one of the first chroniclers of the design competition for the Ground Zero site, maintains that the towers’ “overall design was more of an abstract composition than a functioning piece of the city; indeed, like so much urban renewal from the 1950s and 1960s, the very basis of the design was a rejection of the traditional form of the city” (28). The modernist dream of the orderly city had gradually turned into a nightmare in the eyes of urbanists such as Jane Jacobs who criticized and stood up against urban renewal projects. It is largely through the work of such activists and the growing neighborhood resistance that many of the traditional neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan have been spared from the wrecking ball (Darton 37). Goldberger suspects that, “[b]y the time the trade center opened, Radio Row might well have qualified as one of the landmark commission’s historic districts, along with Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Brooklyn Heights” (29).

Thus, the construction of the World Trade Center constituted a triumph of what Henri Lefebvre calls “conceived space” (38). In his pioneering work The Production of Space, Lefebvre offers an analysis which suggests that space is produced by social interactions that generate its representations. In order to demonstrate its complexity, he provides the following scheme of trialectics: a) Perceived space is perhaps the most obvious, visible manifestation of space that, through culturally embedded practices, renders meaning to objects and maintains the continuity of social interactions; b) Conceived space is made up of architectural plans and layouts, whether or not they are realized; c) Lived space is the space that mediates between the previous two categories (38-9). It is the space of “inhabitants” and “users,” as Lefebvre puts it, the ever-changing space of everyday life (ibid). By this rationale, conceived space is the realm of the modernist project, in which centrally controlled urban renewal renders the texture of the city a tabula rasa to realize utopian developments. As landmarks in Lynch’s sense, the Twin Towers had become part of what Lefebvre calls perceived space, as reference points for navigation and identification. Although the terrorist attacks asserted their meaning as symbols of corporate capitalism, Neil Leach’s arguments about architectural identifications demonstrate that the absence of the towers disrupted the background which had been habitually integrated as familiar in the Benjaminian sense and thus generated the uncanny feeling of homelessness. In this context, James Young’s arguments seem to channel commemoration into a centralized trajectory of conceived space, which will offer a heroic narrative to be acted out in the perceived space of Ground Zero – a rather modernist project in and of itself. We have already seen how Young’s argument translates the idea of the preservation of ruins into an acceptance of defeat and surrender to the perpetrators of destruction.

How does architecture on the tabula rasa of Ground Zero respond to the binaries that such a narrative intends to reinforce? Shortly after the fall of the towers, various entailments of the conceptual metaphor PEOPLE ARE BUILDINGS emerged in many textual and graphic representations of 9/11. For instance, the metaphor of the “wounded skyline” describes the city as a human body in need of healing. In this urge to render anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects, the World Trade Center also acquired such attributes. George Lakoff’s essay entitled “Metaphors of Terror” offers one of the first analyses of the conceptual metaphors activated by the attacks. “Tall buildings,” Lakoff says, “are metaphorically people standing erect. As each tower fell, it became a body falling. We are not consciously aware of the metaphorical images, but they are part of the power and the horror we experience when we see them” ( Such a mapping of perceived reality into the cognitive sphere complements Leach’s arguments on architectural identifications. Leach makes reference to what Benjamin describes as the “photosensitive plate of our minds,” which, in the case of an unexpected change, such as a catastrophic event, leaves imprints of the otherwise familiar and unnoticeable architectural environment on our minds (75). Leach’s concept works in tandem with Lakoff’s explanation of the unconscious “metaphorization:”

Each of us, in the prefrontal cortex of our brains, has what are called “mirror neurons” Such neurons fire either when we perform an action or when see the same action performed by someone else. There are connections from that part of the brain to the emotional centers. Such neural circuits are believed to be the basis of empathy. […] If we metaphorize the building as a person and see the building fall to the ground in pieces, then we sense—again unconsciously but powerfully—that we are falling to the ground in pieces. Our systems of metaphorical thought, interacting with our mirror neuron systems, turn external literal horrors into felt metaphorical horrors. (

It is therefore not surprising that in various media representations the Twin Towers embodied anthropomorphic characteristics as a form of projection of the self.[13]It is important to note, however, that in most representations, be it graffiti or souvenir item, the towers were portrayed as two benevolent, vulnerable brothers – antithetical to the qualities attributed to them before 9/11 (Sturken 222). Within the dynamics of introjection and projection, we can interpret this change as a metaphorized inscription of pain in Lakoff’s sense, projected unto the absence of the towers, and screened out on alternative means of representation.

How do the proposals for the rebuilding of Ground Zero reflect these processes? Weeks after the disaster the idea of building a tall structure on Ground Zero seemed to have reached absolute consensus in architectural discourse; nevertheless, a few articulated their reservations about such a project. Most notably, two architects, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, did not shy away from expressing their doubts: “Let’s not build something that would mend the skyline, it is more powerful to leave it void. We believe it would be tragic to erase the erasure” (qtd. in Sturken 231). It is this power of the ruins, the preservation of erasure, which Young classifies as reductive. Commenting on 9/11, Jacques Derrida went so far as to say that we do not yet “know what we are talking about” (qtd. in Simpson 9). This stance of inquiry, one that Young’s reinforcement of the heroic narrative does not tolerate, is articulated by anthropologist Setha Low:

The current obsession with monitoring public life, then, portends a narrow space of remembrance at Ground Zero, one that can be easily surveyed and controlled. This raises a host of questions. Since sites of trauma are about the production of meaning, whose stories will be communicated and interpreted? A monument organizes historical memory, but whose history will be recorded, and towards what end? […] The diversity of responses to the attack, then, suggests that any single, homogeneous design for the memorial—especially one that follows the current model of policed space—is not what is called for. Rather, the site must respond to the different experiences and reactions of people throughout the city, divided as they are by age, generation, location, ethnicity, and class. (166)

In contrast with the militant choreography of The New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” section, Setha Low calls for a demilitarization of the dead by refusing to homogenize victims and thereby subscribe to any totalizing narrative as a way of commemoration.

However, with the idea of preserving the ruins dismissed, numerous proposals came in – almost without exception choosing to reenact the towers (Sturken 239). Shortly after the attack, the idea of rebuilding the Twin Towers gained strong supporters and the Team Twin Towers was formed.[14] As many of the plan’s advocates claim, the rebuilding of the towers would have healed the “psychological wounds” of those who lost their loved ones on September 11. Andreas Huyssen says that such a remake would be a “monument to forgetting, an erasure of history, an emblem of global capital in a different sense from that of the terrorist imaginary” (159). I think this project would go even further. Such a “simulacrum” of the towers would have encapsulated trauma in an illusory pre-9/11 phase and, instead of facilitating a working through of trauma, it would have architecturally perpetuated the illusion of the familiar, set against the real absence of the dead.

A number of proposals came in for The New Yorker’s series “After the Towers” in the summer of 2002. Komar and Melamid’s design would have reenacted the Twin Towers in an uncanny setting of a farm in which two silos would have served as signifiers of the absent towers in an innocent, pastoral setting (Sturken 229). Tony Oursler would have screened out the original footage of the planes impacting the towers on surfaces attached to two scaffoldings in the shape of the old towers (230).

Star architects performed reenactments in a similar fashion, except on a grander scale. The THINK team, which was second only to Libeskind’s design, would have replicated the towers in the shape of steel skeletons framing what seems reminiscent of the Tribute in Light temporary memorial. The crooked, wobbly forms crafted by Peter Eisenman, designer of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, would have dramatized the moment of the collapse of the towers, while Richard Meier’s group saw their new towers taking shape as a gigantic vertical grid, evoking a structural component of the World Trade Center. In their effort to offer architectural responses to fill in the void and dramatize loss, these projects attempt to graft the image of wounding into the trajectory of recovery.

In what sense is Libeskind’s winning design different from the others? In short, both Libeskind and his design talk more than the others. In his presentation of his project in 2002, he activates the immigrant narrative as a collective American experience and anchors his design on another American icon, the Statue of Liberty:

I arrived by ship to New York as a teenager, an immigrant, and like millions of others before me, my first sight was the Statue of Liberty and the amazing skyline of Manhattan. I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for. (

It is important to note that Libeskind does not specify what that sight stands for but, in a gesture similar to Lincoln’s not hallowing Gettysburg, he activates the meaning of the statue as a mother who welcomes the poor immigrants, which is only one of the many potential meanings of the statue, as cognitive linguist Zoltán Kövecses demonstrates in his essay “Understanding the Statue of Liberty.” Conceived as an abstract version of the Statue of Liberty, Libeskind’s tower evokes the ABSTRACT QUALITIES ARE PERSONS and the PEOPLE ARE BUILDINGS conceptual metaphors. In this context, the abstract quality of freedom embodied by the female figure is mapped onto the imaginary “screen” of the absent World Trade Center justifying the meaning of the attacks as an assault upon freedom.

The “dichotomy,” as Libeskind puts it, “to acknowledge the terrible deaths which occurred on this site, while looking to the future with hope, seemed like two moments which could not be joined” ( What appears as THE PLACE STANDS FOR THE EVENT metonymy in the case of the Statue of Liberty (Kövecses 130) seems to highlight Libeskind’s problem. The place of the statue, in this sense, stands for the event of immigration, which Libeskind takes for granted in his presentation, yet the genius loci of Ground Zero evokes the fall of the Twin Towers and the memory of loss. Although the ruins are long gone, Libeskind singles out the slurry wall, a part of the old foundations, and ascribes new symbolic meaning to it. The exposure of the foundations of the old towers that survived the attacks thus serves the purpose of reflecting the solid ground of American democracy through the SOCIETY IS A BUILDING metaphor:

The great slurry wall is the most dramatic element which survived the attack, an engineering wonder constructed on bedrock foundations and designed to hold back the Hudson River. The foundations withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction and stand as eloquent as the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and the value of individual life. (Libeskind,

The superstructure of his design mimics the slanted beams of the ruins of the old towers in an abstract way while, echoing Young’s concerns, Libeskind keeps the power of ruins at bay by refraining from incorporating the original steel beams into his project. By giving such a symbolic meaning to the old understructure and anchoring it onto the concept of freedom, the design provides an architectural echo of the heroic narrative: “Those who were lost have become heroes,” Libeskind claims (

The “hero-cult” of the victims is accentuated in the master plan by a design for a Park of Heroes and the Wedge of Light:

Each year on September 11th between the hours of 8:46 a.m., when the first airplane hit and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage. (Libeskind,

This is a further elaboration on THE PLACE STANDS FOR THE EVENT metonymy by the extension of the scope of the source with the element of time. Libeskind’s Wedge of Light puts sunlight into the service of the memorialization, thus framing the spatial and temporal coordinates of Ground Zero and 9/11 as a “megalithic” ritual. The project, which Governor George Pataki would later name the Freedom Tower, evokes other meanings of the Statue of Liberty that relate the concept of independence to immigration – the narrative with which Libeskind identifies in his speech. In this sense, the statue’s torch evokes the UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING metaphor (Kövecses 133), in which the concept of knowledge is intertwined with that of liberty as the KNOWLEDGE IS LIGHT conceptual metaphor reflects (Kövecses 134). The antenna of the tower is indicative of a mapping that establishes a connection between the book of law in the left hand of the statue and the height of the skyscraper. The book evokes the PRINCIPAL OBJECT IN A DOMAIN STANDS FOR THE ENTIRE DOMAIN metonymy in which “the book stands for justice, and, at least in part, constitutes liberty” (Kövecses 133). A further manifestation of that connection is the date “July 4, 1776” which renders the Declaration of Independence a document of reason. In this sense, the date on the cover of the book evokes the TIME STANDS FOR THE EVENT/DOCUMENT metonymy and, combined with the PLACE STANDS FOR THE EVENT metonymy (Kövecses 130), the Declaration of Independence is thus conceptualized both as a document of reason (torch) and as a precondition of immigration (Kövecses 136). In the Freedom Tower, the Declaration of Independence is activated by the TIME IS SPACE metaphor, in which the height of the skyscraper, which Libeskind limited to 1776 feet, symbolically evokes the date of independence. It is in this context that the “double function” of the inscription on the cornerstone makes sense: “To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom, July Fourth 2004” (qtd. in Goldberger 240).

By the time the cornerstone was laid, Libeskind’s master plan had already gone through several changes. In this paper I will not deal with the controversy that resulted in George Pataki’s decision to require Daniel Libeskind and David Childs, the architect chosen by Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the site, to come up with a design together; suffice it to say here that the unhappy collaboration of the two architects resulted in a tower with substantial modifications on the master plan. The original asymmetrical shape mimicking the Statue of Liberty has been dismissed and transformed into an obelisk-shape. The only characteristic it preserves from the master plan is the symbolic height reached by a lighted spire that governor Pataki still sees as “a replica of the torch of freedom that soars to the sky” (qtd. in Dunlap and Collins, html?_r=1&oref=slogin).

However, the SOCIETY IS A BUILDING metaphor, which Libeskind famously utilizes by preserving the slurry walls of the old towers, posits a controversy in this latest design. To meet the latest safety measures, the lower stories of the building, which Libeskind had designed to be transparent, will have to be wrapped in concrete to withstand potential car bombs – a feature that “undermines” the intended narrative by grafting the signifier of fear into the foundations of an edifice meant to stand for resilience and freedom. However, even apart from this shortcoming, the Freedom Tower’s imposing didacticism creates dissonance: it uses the familiar in an unfamiliar way. Its design attempts to comfort us by compelling attention. As David Simpson notes, “These buildings will demand of us that we ‘concentrate,’ that we never assimilate them to a habitual life, that we never forget that they mean and what they mean” (68). Will the memorial at the footsteps of the Twin Towers counterbalance this rhetoric?

The Memorial

Compared to the uneasy birth of the form of the Freedom Tower, the competition for the 9/11 memorial went rather smoothly. Michael Arad and Peter Walker called their winning design Reflecting Absence. Conceived in a simple, minimalist language, the memorial features waterfalls cascading down at the perimeter of the footsteps of the old towers. There will be a place to store the dust with unidentified human remains taken from Fresh Kills, as well as an adjacent museum. The design features elements obviously inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC – a memorial often used as a role model for contemporary concepts. Simpson, who criticizes the Freedom Tower for its jingoist rhetoric, finds the capacity in Arad’s and Walker’s design to:

Avoid and even to contest the dominant tone of the site master plan. But the power of their project will come from its explicit self-location in the vocabulary of memorial architecture and not from the uniqueness of these deaths in isolation from all others in other places. (79)

Even if the memorial evades the exceptionalist tone of the Freedom Tower, will it be able to incorporate the multiplicity of voices and the variety of experiences of which Setha Low reminds us? Will it be able to destabilize the coercive rhetoric Žižek warns against? And, after all, in the absence of the ruins, will it be able to initiate dialogue, or will it succumb to the centralized, heroic narrative of American exceptionalism? Although Simpson contends that Arad and Walker do not embrace exceptionalism, he realizes that the guidelines of the competition required that the proposals harmonize with Libeskind’s master plan and comply with the underlying narrative of the Freedom Tower. The mission statement for the memorial competition reads: “May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance” (The Memorial Mission Statement). Architectural critics Philip Nobel and Suzanne Stephens soon pointed out that such strict guidelines pose impediments to diverging from the master-narrative and compel the structure to incorporate simplistic symbolism, such as the use of water features to represent tears and beams of light to evoke the souls of the victims (McKim 84). Still, even if the memorial incorporates cliché vocabulary, it definitely lacks the verbose didacticism of Libeskind’s original design. The memorial and the tower, however, are intended by the mission statement to work in tandem, therefore even if the minimalist language of the memorial reflects absence, the obelisk shape of the latest version of the Freedom Tower will fill that absence with its monumentality – which bespeaks not only resilience but also fear, as we have seen earlier. It is the Lefebvrian conceived space, the space of centralized planning operated by the state’s ideological apparatus, which manifests itself in the ongoing Ground Zero project. This is the construction of a space that elicits the tourist gaze of “history as experience” in Sturken’s sense. If these prospective designs at Ground Zero remain reduced to the representation of the heroic narrative, where can we trace acts of memorialization in what Lefebvre calls lived space? Are there any acts of remembrance that embrace multiplicity and encourage dialogue and inquiry?

In his essay “Agamben at Ground Zero: A Memorial without Content,” Joel McKim applies Giorgio Agamben’s aesthetics to ponder a potential memorial design which neither facilitates a working through, nor does it yield to reductive rhetoric. Reading Agamben’s The Man without Content, McKim identifies the notion of poiesis (as opposed to praxis) as a standpoint applicable to memorial design. Poiesis, in McKim’s reading, “entails a kind of passivity, a giving oneself over to the original productivity of rhythm that requires a suspension of will” (92). Agamben sees the “suspended potential” as a source of creativity, an experience of poiesis through which something can “come into being which is not predetermined by the will or conditioned by a presupposition: in other words, something radically new” (95). In this sense, the problem with Reflecting Absence, McKim claims, is that it “fails to acknowledge the impossibility of language in response to such a disaster. The memorial fails to acknowledge the potential of communication itself and as such misses an opportunity to create a space for the kind of open community Agamben insists is both possible and necessary” (100).

Seeking architectural manifestations that live up to Agamben’s notion of mediality, McKim sees Jochen Gerz’s “The Monument Against Fascism” in Hamburg as an example. This “countermonument”[15] consists of a column gradually lowered into the ground while its surface was inscribed by graffiti and signatures of the locals, until it completely buried itself – thus negating its status as a monument and contesting the possibility of memorialization. Within the maze of the concrete columns of Peter Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin, McKim also finds potential for dialogue which evades the compulsive narrative function of memorials to traumatic events. As Agamben’s poiesis entails the elements of uncertainty, potentiality, and openness as opposed to the interpretive mechanisms of authoritative didacticism, Levebvre’s lived space is constituted by myriads of changes performed by everyday practices. In Agamben’s sense, this is the realm where the pure potentiality of language can be realized – a capacity which is unidentifiable, non-binary, and therefore potentially dangerous to the system. Young’s arguments against the preservation of the ruins at Ground Zero thus make sense in that it would have too much of a potential to go “awry” and talk of defeat without a “proper” interpretive framework. To describe the power of potentiality Agamben uses Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in his work entitled The Coming Community:

The perfect act of writing comes not from a power to write, but from an impotence that turns back on itself and in this way comes to itself as a pure act (which Aristotle calls agent intellect). This is why in the Arab tradition agent intellect has the form of an angel whose name is Qalam, Pen, and its place is an unfathomable potentiality. Bartleby, a scribe who does not simply cease writing but “prefers not to,” is the extreme image of this angel that writes nothing but its potentiality to not-write. (36)

Along with Lefebvre’s concept of lived space, Agamben’s theory might be useful to envisioning alternative ways of memorializing 9/11 in New York. Although McKim does not offer specific suggestions as to the physical form of such a potential memorial, ideas attesting to such a stance have surfaced throughout the competition.

One such proposal for a 9/11 counter-memorial was sent in by Nancy Rubins for The New Yorker series “After the Towers.” The design, as the caption reads, features “two holes carved into the earth, the same size + shape as the World Trade Center” (reproduced in Sturken 228), reminiscent of the interpretive voids Gerz’s and Eisenman’s counter-monuments create. While Arad’s and Walker’s design absorbs the reflection of absence in the symbolic use of water, Rubins’ concept reflects absence by replicating the towers in negative space, devoid of the consoling presence of a soaring landmark aimed at restoring the skyline.

The spontaneous memorials that carpeted the streets of New York shortly after the catastrophe also attest to the notion of the potentiality of language translated into a memorial act. Devin Zuber recalls their proliferation and their gradual disappearance:

They also became sites of ritualized mourning, with flowers and messages periodically taped onto their fragile surfaces. The Manhattan commute thus became a daily visual contact with the dead, the underground transformed into a veritable underworld. The presence of the photos in the subway also outlived the remarkable spontaneous memorials that unfolded at Union and Washington Squares. As Setha Low and others have noted, the city made little effort to maintain these demotic spaces of ritual, even attempting to destroy or contain their activity; […] Public and personal expressions of grief are discarded for the sanctioned consumption of bric-a-brac. (280)

Marla Carlson recalls that “Giuliani’s management of this disaster, much like the cleanup of Times Square, was calculated to make tourists comfortable; indeed, he assigned to New Yorkers the role of consumers ‘going about their lives,’ which consisted of eating in restaurants and going to the theatre” (408).

In line with Agamben’s notion of potentiality, the ability to transform and disappear is an integral quality of spontaneous memorials. In recent years, a number of artistic memorial performances have taken place in the spirit of temporality and indeterminacy, countering what Sturken calls the touristic experience of history and engaging what I would call the archaeological gaze instead. Zuber makes mention of The Gates project carried out by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York in 2005: “With The Gates, 7503 portals with saffron-colored fabric lined some twenty-three miles of pathway in the park, a random number marking a stark contrast to the dogmatic insistence that the Freedom Tower cannot deviate an inch from its patriotic 1776 feet” (296). Carlson describes three similarly engaging, dialogic projects: The Angel Project, Her Long Black Hair, and Ground Zero Sonic Memorial Soundwalk. None of these artworks attempt to provide a new landmark in Lynch’s sense to fill in the void of Ground Zero. Instead, they provide alternative surfaces for identification: they are walking tours in which the participant becomes an archaeologist of memory; identifies clues, deciphers mysteries, only to realize that “these particular texts repeatedly slip out of our mental grasp, they leave extra nooks and crannies for us to fill” (Carlson 415). The Soundwalk ( uses the Internet as a medium to embrace the multiplicity of sound documents related to the World Trade Center. In this sense, the towers serve as a kernel to which fragments of personal memories of everyday experiences are constantly attached in audio form as a virtual palimpsest to be excavated. This latter manifestation of memorial practice uses cyberspace both as lived space and as an archaeological excavation, devoid of the imposing categories of the heroic narrative.


The erasure of the ruins from the Ground Zero site can be seen as a culturally and politically informed effort to give meaning to the tragedy of 9/11 and wrap it into a narrative of America’s resilience in the face of terrorism. The collapse of the World Trade Center, which, above any other connotations, signified home for most New Yorkers, generated a sense of loss and disorientation, primarily rooted in our unconscious identification with the built environment.

When the World Trade Center was built, it was criticized and resisted by local communities that had been relocated to provide space for the monumental project. As such, the Twin Towers represented a culmination of modernist urban planning aimed at replacing the organic texture of the city with a centrally conceived, orderly pattern, designed for maximum profit and the enhancement of global capitalism. Although the 9/11 attacks reinforced these connotations by identifying the towers as symbolic of America’s economic and cultural influence in the world, in the wake of the tragedy, the fallen towers gained anthropomorphic representations as familiar, benevolent humans whose absence from the skyline has induced a sense of loss.

Libeskind’s winning proposal for the Freedom Tower offered a master narrative for processing trauma into a heroic trajectory in which victims turned into heroes and their death into an act of sacrifice. This trajectory is also palpable in James Young’s rhetoric for a prospective memorial in which the idea of the preservation of the ruins is dismissed as reductive. In this paper I have treated this rather influential argument as illustrative of the rhetoric which connects the act of memorialization and building on Ground Zero to the concept of vengeance. Through Sturken’s and Simpson’s insights into the culture of commemoration in America, I have pinpointed the simplifying tendencies of binary oppositions activated by Young’s arguments and traced them in the architectural designs for the prospective Freedom Tower and the memorial.

There is a didactic way of imposing narrative in the complexity of 9/11 in the designs for Ground Zero, which is ominously similar to the imposition of the World Trade Center project onto the texture of Lower Manhattan as a modernist project. As Young himself celebrates modernity as an American virtue, modernity seems to strike back with a vengeance at Ground Zero: the minimalist language and water-symbolism of the Reflecting Absence memorial will be supplemented by the overwhelming presence of the Freedom Tower bespeaking resilience and victory while wrapped in a bunker-like fort at its base in fear of car bombs. As conceived space in the Lefebvrian sense, these designs reduce the complexity of 9/11 and the potential of memorialization to a patriotic, modernist experiment, featuring the tall office building as a prevailing American icon.

I have used Lefebvre’s concept of lived space and Agamben’s theory of poiesis as a theoretical background to trace those manifestations of memorializing 9/11 in New York that contest the modernist framework of monumental designs and engage in non-coercive, dialogic forms of memorial activities. These alternative projects embrace spontaneity and indeterminacy and incite participation and dialogue, rather than the consumption of pre-packaged experiences of history using 9/11 as a vortex. Although the act of preservation of the ruins may constitute a memorial practice, I am aware that any preservation or display of ruins already constitutes an act of interpretation and narrative-making. Still, James Young’s fear of the reductionist vocabulary of ruins when it comes to making sense of 9/11 indicates the danger that ruins, in their original location, may elicit inquiry and contemplation. I would call this “dangerous” method an archaeological stance – an act of memorialization to which both the ruins and the alternative memorials to 9/11 attest. The archaeological gaze that is activated here offers a way of working through trauma by questioning any master narrative that would help turn loss into a narrative. By rejecting the representation of the heroic narrative as a pre-packaged “content” in Agamben’s sense, the archaeological stance offers a counterpoint to what Sturken describes as a poster-like panoramic view designed for the tourist gaze.

End Notes

1. Rebeca Solnit: Storming the Gates of Paradise. p. 351.

2. James Young: “Remember Life with Life: The New World Trade Center.” p. 218.

3. The Topography of Terror exhibition at the former Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin is an illustrative example of this approach.

4. Although hardly any book published on memorials nowadays comes without a chapter on Ground Zero, only a few venture to discuss memorialization from a cultural point of view. Marita Sturken and David Simpson are among those few who have done so and my work owes a lot to their insights

5. For instance, Judith Greenberg describes the case of five girls who, shortly after 9/11, lost a great deal of weight and were unable to swallow because they:

believed that some debris or body part from the destruction of the towers had lodged their throats and produced the symptom. Their identification with the scene of witnessing was so strong that it ‘entered’ their bodies. Upon examination, each girl indeed had a physical constriction in the throat, but there was nothing, no visible matter, inside to cause it.” [Italics in original] (26)

6. For further details on Benjamin’s and Adorno’s different understandings of the process of mimesis, see Neil Leach: Camouflage, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. pp 16-32).

7. Here, Leach’s observation seems to contest Pierre Nora’s concept of the “lieu de memoir” (Realms of Memory) and what James Young calls “memory-sites” (The Texture of Memory 4).

8. For an exploration of the uncanny in architecture, also see Anthony Vidler’s work The Architectural Uncanny (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994).

9. For photographs of spontaneous memorials see David Curry, “Memorium WTC 2001,” (accessed October 2, 2008).

10. For an analysis of the relevance of dust see Jon Bird: “The mote in God’s eye: 9/11, Then and Now.” In Journal of Visual Culture. London: Sage Publications, 2003. Vol. 2(1).: 83-97.

11. Abraham Lincoln says in the Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced[…]. (qtd. in Wills 263)

12. Here Young obviously identifies modernity with progress, openness, tolerance, disregarding many of the less positive features that left their mark on 20th 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)

13. For a cognitive linguistic analysis of 9/11 cartoons, see Benjamin Bergen: “To Awaken a Sleeping Giant: Cognition and Culture in September 11 Political Cartoons.” In Language, Culture, and Mind. Eds. Michel Achard and Suzanne Kemmer (CSLI Publications, 2003).

14. See: The Team Twin Towers website, (accessed: October 2, 2008).

15. James Young coined this term in his The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

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