Critical modernism and the Responsibility of Professionals

This has virtually all of the strength located on the perimeter wall. It is a structural solution that is particularly efficient and strong against wind loads, because it has the greatest moment of inertia. Conceptually it makes the skyscraper a beam, cantilevered from the earth. Also, as an architectural historian, I was acquainted with the way tall buildings can suffer ‘cumulative collapse’, as Rowan Point so famously did in London in the 1960s. Moreover, I had seen films of several tall housing blocks being demolished and understood why the dynamite was placed so as to make them implode inwards. As I watched first one tower then the next burn, I began to fear what might happen and then realized ambulance crews, police and fireman, not to mention spectators and those trying to help, were rushing towards the scene. Transfixed and horror-struck I could not believe this was happening. Then police started to try to clear the scene, too late.

What happened on September 11 was an act of war using terrorist methods against America, its foreign policy among other issues. It has to be considered as aggression, and a human tragedy, before anything else, but in this short reaction I will confine my thoughts to a secondary issue it raises: the responsibility of professionals in a modern society. As many have observed, the modern world is based on specialization and trust in professionals. With the waning of the modernist settlement and the welfare state, some theorists – notably Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens – argue that we now live in a Risk Society. The state no longer pretends to look after our health, employment and livelihood except in the most rudimentary way. The global market economy, flexible specialization and fast technical and social change have together greatly increased the risk in every area of life. In effect, without being asked, we have all become insurance brokers on our own lives – guessing what may happen, trying to minimize risk.

In recent history there have been several spectacular failures of professional responsibility: the ecological damage caused by the sinking of the Torrey Canyon, Exxon Valdez and other oil spills; Chernobyl; the rise of tuberculosis caused by penicillin-resistant bacteria; the BSE crisis, et cetera. And there have been social and political upheavals striking at the heart of the modernist settlement: the events of May 1968, the collapse of communism; the anti-globalization movement. One cannot say the state has withered away because of such events and shifts in power, but they have certainly underscored the presence of risk in all areas. The hole in the ozone layer, the possibility of the earth being hit by an asteroid – such threats are now an essential part of the daily newspaper, if not daily life.

September 11 (the date will become a symbol, as did May ’68) reveals two professional failures: the inability of engineers and architects to warn those near the building that it was about to collapse, and the failure to rescue those on the top floors. An engineer I spoke to about these points, who was also watching the scene on TV, confirmed my reaction. He too knew what might happen, but was struck dumb by the event itself. Could either of us have gotten through by telephone to New York? Almost certainly not. Should the professionals on the scene – especially architects and engineers – have alerted the police, then firemen, to the imminent collapse? Who is to say, who knows what happened in that time, little more than an hour after the first strike? We do know buildings are supposed to have a one-hour fire rating before the structure melts and it is surprising that the towers lasted longer than this given the greater heat of the kerosene explosion.

In any case, whatever could have been done, it is now obvious that the architecture and engineering professions have a responsibility both to warn about ‘cumulative collapse’, and to redesign escape methods for tall buildings. What is extraordinary, in retrospect, is that for 150 years we have been building skyscrapers without adequate methods of escape. Towering Inferno and other films were warnings that went unheeded. It is also extraordinary that although we have SWAT-teams that were seen to charge into Boston hotels soon after the bombings, bravely seeking non-existent terrorists, and we have countless executive helicopters and gunships that – given the right equipment – could have carried out a rescue mission – there was no professional response from the air.

It is obviously possible to design a mechanism, lifted and pulled by a helicopter, that would act as an escape net. Helicopters, that continually put out fires and lift huge weights, could stretch a fire-resistant net tightly against the side of a burning building along the lines of the collage of the World Trade Center. Once clipped onto window mullions it could spring into a semi-rigid shape, like an umbrella. When people had escaped, two helicopters could bring in the next net. All the technologies to make such a system work have existed for sixty years. It is the failure of professionals, in New York, Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and every major city, to have not created some such escape system. If the skyscraper is to survive, as I am sure it will, some variant of this will emerge.

And architectural symbolism? I happened to be invited to a large exhibition in Moscow on Post-Modernism in October 1993. A week before the opening Yeltsin turned his tanks on the ‘White House’ and opened fire. Halfway up it burnt out and turned black. The result was visually and symbolically striking, a good example of post-modernism in its more virulent form. But the party line soon formed: let us clean it all up and paint it white again. Believing that events structure maning, I argued for another solution, a tripartite division: clean up the base, make the floor where bombs hit red and finish the top in blue aluminium. Architectural symbolism should keep a memory of events, and transcend them as well. The clock at the top – stopped at 10.10, the time of the attack – I put by the entrance and doubled, making it into a symmetrical reminder. Needless to say, the Russians listened politely, but the men in power whitewashed the monument.

Perhaps when rebuilding occurs in New York, September 11 can be built into the architecture, and something can rise from it too. A straightforward, not melodramatic memorial. In any case, as this attack and the various failures of professional life continue to show, the modern world needs to become more critical in order to rebuild and sustain people’s trust, and even to survive.
Charles Jencks is an architectural writer and designer. He is currently working on a book entitled ‘The New Paradigm in Architecture’ to be published in 2002.

Afb. 1
Jencks’s proposal for the reconstruction of the Russian ‘White House’ after the bombardment in 1993.
Photo: Charles Jencks
afb. 2
Photomontage of the ‘life-saving device’.
Photo: Charles Jencks
Montage: Bunny Firth


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