After the ideological and territorial clashes of the century past, this is neither a Huntington-style conflict of cultures, nor a Pearl Harbor of impeccable geostrategic legibility, nor an unexpected Challenger or a haphazard Chernobyl illustrating the vulnerability of technological reason. What the blurred, anonymous, and lethal terrorism of Manhattan’s Black Tuesday reveals is the derailment of the civilizing process, the regressive mutation of the tamed animal into a psychotic one, and the need of our human park for the renewed discipline demanded by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.
In the world to come, we will trade liberty for security. Beyond the inevitable transformation of commercial aviation, the probable decline of high-rise construction, and the predictable hysteria with regard to the Islamic universe that the writer Michel Houellebecq’s Plateforme forebodingly feeds, the orderly regulation of everyday life will reach a point of inflection in the vertiginous heyday of an individualism turned dysfunctional. In the face of a homicidal and suicidal visionary who believes himself a paradoxical David hitting a pentagonal Goliath, or a Samson bringing down the columns of the temple of capital, perhaps less freedom is the only way to defend freedom, and the voluntary submission to the collective discipline of democracy is the best way to protect the individual, as the wounded serenity of the American reaction has manifested. The towering inferno is not an image of a humiliated USA, but that of the assaulted human race, and it exposes not so much a leak in civil or military security as it does a crack in the educational taming of our species. In the requiem for these skyscrapers, the bells toll for us.
For this historical moment, the Twin Towers provide such a perfect motif as to seem unreal. In the financial heart of Manhattan, the buildings designed by Minoru Yamasaki for the World Trade Center, which for a while were the planet’s tallest, were the very embodiment of corporate power and a globalized economy. Although we still find it hard to believe that those icons have altogether vanished from the city’s skyline, the apocalyptic images of a New York where mass panic has given way to the dusty silence of recent ruins, force us to accept that, if the 20th century ended on 9 November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the termination of the Cold War, the 21st century began on 11 September 2001 with the cruel and devastating demonstration of the vulnerability of the core of that economic and military empire that Muslim terrorists single out as the Great Satan, even if the demolished landmarks were only nodes of a resilient and diffuse network spread all over the globe. It was the long decade of twilight between these milestones that saw the development of an architectural project that struggled with the guilt-ridden memory of the most heinous episode of a century rich in evilness: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, conceived shortly before the Wall went down and inaugurated, as it so happens, on the eve of America’s day of horror.
Designed by Daniel Libeskind, an American Jew of Polish origins who gave it the zigzagging form of a strike of lightning, and directed by Michael Blumenthal, an American Jew of German stock (Treasury Secretary under Jimmy Carter), who softened the building’s angular image so as to present it as a conciliatory institution, the museum opened in conspicuous simultaneity with the destruction of the Twin Towers, offering a complementary symbol for contemporary disorder. While the robust Cartesian rationality of the World Trade Center lies hidden in rubble, ash and smoke in south Manhattan, the broken, lyrical emotion of the Jewish Museum presents itself in Berlin as a shaken sign of the inhuman tremor of our times. Against the mad, infamous violence of the New York hecatomb, a dramatic and pedagogical testimony to the Jewish holocaust; and against the catastrophic devastation of forms and lives, the rhythmical, musical ritualization of fractures, as in a protective and healing exorcism.
These days, many have remembered that the architect of the towers was also the designer of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, whose demolition by dynamite in 1972 was chosen by Charles Jencks as a symbol of the death of modern architecture, and have wondered whether the destruction of the World Trade Center might perhaps signal another watershed of architectural history and criticism. After the smiling historicism of the 1980s and the dry cynicism of the 1990s, the shock of September 11 may shake our perception of the built environment out of its comfortable conformity, derailing architecture from its iron course towards the feathered limbo of spectacle and fashion, and marking the demise of the formal games of postmodernism, both in its sweet commercial variety and in its sour intellectual one.
But perhaps this is only wishful thinking, and the current drift from poststructuralism to pragmatism is driving architecture towards a continent of acceptance of ‘the rationality of the real’ that no historical shock, however catastrophic, may hope to sink in the troubled waters of criticism. Some of us would like to see architecture awaken from its autistic dream, and to see architects leading the struggle to domesticate the wild landscapes of commerce, rather than being swept away by the tidal wave they feign to ride. However, this is more a desire than a forecast, and meanwhile we can only pursue the effort to make sense of the world around us, turning an impassive back to the disorder of the times and spreading before our gaze the works of an imaginary museum: using ideas and forms to build paper architectures of words and images. This will be our contribution to the taming of the shrew and fragile human park.
PS One month after September 11, Dan Rather, the CBS anchorman, judged the media largely responsible for the disaster. ‘We have spent the last years discussing trivia such as the stains on an intern’s dress.’ Might we perhaps extend this self-criticism to the architectural press?
Luis Fernández-Galiano is editor of Arquitectura Viva
The library of London’s Holland House destroyed by German bombs, 23.10.1940.
André Malraux in his Parisian study with the illustrations for Le musée imaginaire, circa 1950.