Memorialising the Twin Towers

IN a slim tall volume of images, the Twin Towers rise again, like the two wings of a myth that will not let them perish. In this commemorative volume of extraordinary images that document the building of the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan, that transformed the skyline of New York with a double digit salute to the world, until that fatal morning in September 2001, the need to create our own myths of death and re-birth is defined.

Unlike the sense of unreality that accompanied the actual events, as they appeared in repeated action re-plays on the TV screens around the world, as first one plane crashed into the South Tower and the second one lassoed the North Tower with a fiery burst of combustible energy, these pictures carry a certain weight. They do not cloud the mind with the fear of incomprehension. "How can this be happening? Is this how the world ends? Where can I run?" Or as the text describes the first moments of terror: "Most witnessed the collapse of the South Tower at 9:50 a.m. while the North Tower, still billowing smoke, collapsed at 10:59. Horrified watchers saw people jumping from the high floors, tiny colored dots within the flumes of failing debris. A sense of the unreal — the surreal — pervaded; people looked into the eyes of complete strangers, uncomprehending. Many clasped each other; some sat on the curbs; some sobbed, knowing that people they loved were dying or must have died under horrific circumstances."

In the surreal, time is the first casualty. Events telescope into each other like the fragments of memory that are distorted in a dream. Or they stretch into an endless stream of meaningless objects that acquire a power and significance far beyond their actual worth. It's as if the attackers of the Twin Towers had compressed history into just that small packet of time, one hour and ten minutes, and held us captive against the stone wall of our lives and blown a hole into it, just as surely as they had rammed their way into the steel and concrete skin of the World Trade Center. In the convenient, instantly reductionist terminology of mass media, the event was compared to the "Shot that was fired at Sarajevo" that started the First World War, the attack of Pearl Harbour that brought the United States into the frontlines of the Second World War, though not so gratuitously the dropping of the twin bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended it.

More than anything else, it was a direct hit to the heart of the American Dream of a century of progress and finally of global domination with its twin promise of invincibility and absolute, if benevolently intended power. It was the death of an idea of an American century. No one is safe anymore. For those three thousand people who died in that one fatal hour and more, following the attack, time did stop. It has been described as the largest number of casualties following a terrorist attack. What makes the book interesting is that it does not dwell on just the attack, or the victims of the atrocity. Even less does the book focus on the perpetrators. The avoidance of making it a volume of remembrance and recriminations, but one that serves to record what happened, lifts the volume into another realm altogether.

What it does instead is to revert backwards into time and trace the history of the building of the Twin Towers. Just as a plastic surgeon might pick up micro-fragments of skin and suture them back into the burnt and scarred surface of a horrendously disfigured person's physiognomy, the authors of the book delicately re-create the outlines of the Twin Towers complex and graft them back into the skyline of New York. Is this a process of psychic healing? Or wish fulfilment, or merely a way of coming to terms with a loss by producing a volume that could well be accused of combining both the popularly seductive style of tourist literature with an almost reverential messiah-like quality that pre-supposes that all things American need to celebrated, just because they are American?

How does one rate the destruction of the WTC with an equivalent act of barbarism (this is not to downplay the human tragedy involved)? Can we compare the totalling of the Twin Towers with the blowing up of the Bhamiyan Buddhas for instance? Or looking further down into historical precedents, of the atrocities committed during the Boxer Rebellion in China that led to the destruction of the Forbidden City by an international expeditionary consortium, followed by a reprisal by the rebels that meant the burning of the Hanlin Academy in the early 20th century, that was believed to hold the largest unprinted collection of manuscripts, numbering 11,000 volumes on the scientific, religious and historic wealth of the East? Or the burning of the Library of Alexandria by the Romans in 47 B.C.? Or the sacking of Persepolis in 33l B.C. by Alexander the Great? Naturally, such comparisons can only remain subjective.

One of the triumphs of the book is that it persuades even a non-partisan reader that there was something heroic about the very process of planning and creating a complex such as the World Trade Center in what was originally a somewhat depressed part of Manhattan. The selection of the site, a l5-acres piece of land that had to be prized out of the original owners, who as the text relates, comprised of "hundreds of small businesses, including the famous `Radio Row' of electronics, dealers, as well as restaurants, bars and other retail establishments. Owners and residents put up a fierce `small man vs. juggernaut' fight before leaving" and the uncertainty of the early 1960s, which registered a period of financial decline in the fortunes of the city of New York, despite which the construction of the World Trade Center was started in l966, as "an act of optimism" are splendidly described. It's as if the Towers were to magically lift the City of New York and Lower Manhattan with it, as it developed from the seven storeys deep underground excavated area that was to anchor the two buildings into the rocky ground.

What nobody could have foretold then was that this very pit would become the burnt and open sarcophagus of the towering inferno of remains that we know today as Ground Zero. The chapters that celebrate the design and building of the Twin Towers and their ancillary buildings, plazas, underground shopping centres and parking grounds are what provide a glimpse of the immense planning that went into the creation of the Center. The architect was a Japanese-American architect, named Minoru Yamasaki (l9l2-l986), whose role models, according to the text, were Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, but whose early masters were the men who had designed the Empire State Building. Many plans and models were considered and finally the choice was made for the two towers, with five other structures around a huge central five-acre Plaza at the foot of the towers.

At the height of its fame, the Plaza was dominated by an enormous gold coloured bronze sculpture of a globe, just as inside the atrium within the immensely tall foyer of the towers, was a space to display the full exuberance and spirit of modern American art. It would not be wrong to say that Yamasaki had combined the power and the glory of the American tradition of giant structures, with the minimalism and austere lines of Far Eastern sensibility. From the ground, the flowing lines of the columns that used to rise skyward to a height of 1,360 approximately looked like the slim trunks of a closely planted row of trees. These could be described as the cathedrals of the modern world.

Part of the book's fascination is in describing how exactly the Towers were constructed. They were devised to withstand almost any type of attack. For they were built of a strong inner core, just like the central shaft of a tree, in fact, and a steel grid of fabric on the outside that also went deep into the foundation. It was the combination of extreme heat caused by the combustion of so many tons of fuel and the sudden expansion of the supporting steel girders holding up the floors that led to their almost sequential caving in floor by floor in slow motion. Both the inner and outer elements were bonded together in a continuous network of support on which the floors were positioned.

The narrow glass panes in between the steel grid on the outside is what suggested the sense of a semi transparent skin that at different times of the day would reflect the light in all its atmospheric variety. In retrospect the textures and pastel shades that the buildings display in some of the photographs suggest all the shimmering richness of Venice, at the height of its fame. Finally, that is perhaps what distinguishes the Twin Towers. In a relatively small time, a span of three decades, they had become a cultural icon, not just for the Port Trust Authority of New York that had recommended their construction, not just for the spirit of American enterprise, but as an architectural symbol of sheer beauty.

It's the memory of that spirit of purity of line, of an exuberance soaring up to reach the skies, of a pristine elegance, that survives. The final images of pure beams of light reaching out into the void, as an answer, however ephemeral, to the orgy of destruction that went before, is something that we can all understand. The human imagination in its search for truth and beauty will move from darkness into the light. The Persians have a tale of a mythical bird called the Simurg, that nests in the Elbruz Mountains, who lays one egg in her nest. As she waits for the egg to hatch, the Simurg creates a bonfire of flames around herself that eventually consumes both her nest and her. Only then, can the next cycle of life emerge. In much the same way, the editors have suggested a myth for our times, hinting that out of the despair, debris and death of the past, a new Twin Towers will rise again, one day.

Geeta Doctor

World Trade Center: The Giants that Defied the Sky, text by Peter Skinner, preface by Mike Wallace, White Star Publishers, p.170.

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