The Ground Zero of Fear

We live in a world that is completely defined by fear. We are afraid of others, of what we don’t know, of our bodies, of the state, of nature. We erect defensive mechanisms against what we fear. Architecture is an appropriate tool to keep fear at bay. We erect the walls, floors and roofs that make up the constituent elements of the particular cultural practice we call architecture so that we can keep others out, or so that we can keep out the rain, the sun, the heat or the cold. We make buildings to assert our power (against others we fear), our immortality (against the bodies we fear) and to defend our property against all enemies and have-nots. Moreover, you could argue that we make buildings in order to feel at home or to be able to work more easily, but in almost all cases those buildings are made for us and thus are meant to facilitate and control our activities.

Even beyond the confines of the building, we are continually under surveillance and control. property. Public space is pervasively monitored, private property even more so. Our movements and our behaviour must be controlled. One fifth of the American workforce monitors the work of the rest of the busy bees. On a larger scale, our cities are, as Manuel Castels has pointed out, places of command, control and communications. It is from here that control of the region is organized via image (media) and deed ( corporations, police, politicians). The list is endless, ranging from the way we install surveillance systems everywhere, even in our own homes, to the organizations that are continually tracking our money, our data, our behavioural patterns, from bunkers under the ground and eyes in the sky. Even the images by which we understand ourselves and our world are manufactured for us.

Then somehow chaos erupts, and the certainties that are the result of all this control evaporate. I don’t mean to be abstract or banal about this: thousands of people die in such disasters, whether they be earthquakes, riots or terrorist attacks. These events destroy buildings, but also the things we expect of buildings: the security of a completely controlled environment. They remind us, in the most elemental form, of the terrible reality of what we do not know and what we consequently fear.

The natural response is to make buildings that are even more controlled. The calls are already out there for stronger walls and columns, more security patrols and cameras, more legal systems for controlling who may use buildings. Of course it might save some lives, and for that reason alone we should consider such strategies, but in the end we also all know that it will not help. Just as there are no ‘earthquake-safe’ buildings, only ones that are more ‘earthquake resistant’, so there are no terrorist-proof designs out there that will protect us totally.

Another question is that of memory. Should we rebuild Ground Zero as if nothing had happened? Should these acres and acres of prime Manhattan real estate be returned to productive life as the site of new office towers, just to prove that we can keep going, in a better and more secure fashion? Should we instead leave the site open so that the memory of what happened will always be present? Should we create a symbol that combines a sense of memory with an optimistic icon of Manhattanism, and Western Culture in general? All of these are reasonable options. The site is actually large enough to accommodate all of these responses, though a moral or an architectural purist would say that we should choose just one of these options. My most immediate response is that we (speaking as an American) should build an office complex that is not itself a symbol, and an open space that is not designed as a void as such, and a cultural centre that would be a new icon for the continuity of what we think Manhattan stands for at its best – preferably designed by a Arab or Islamic architect.

On the other hand, what we do in terms of architecture to accommodate the desire of our culture to continue, to make money or to remember, is just what architecture already knows how to do: make speculative office space, make monuments, make parks. The bigger question is whether we could build something with which to confront the horror. Can we come to terms with the fear that is already a constant and central element of the act of architecture? To do this, might mean erecting a non-building of such terrifying intensity that it could not be built. But that might the most serious construction in which we could engage.

Aaron Betsky

Critical modernism and the Responsibility of Professionals