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  • 9/11
  • Neil Leach (bio)

Walter Benjamin makes a striking observation about the capacity of certain dramatic events to act like a flash bulb and imprint particular architectural environments on the "photosensitive" plate of our minds. It is as though buildings sink into the recesses of our consciousness as a form of background landscape—almost unnoticeable because of their very familiarity—unless some event happens there that leaves them indelibly imprinted on our minds, such as a tragic accident or a death in the family.

Anyone can observe that the duration for which we are exposed to impressions has no bearing on their fate in memory. Nothing prevents us keeping rooms in which we have spent twenty-four hours or less clearly in our memory, and forgetting others in which we have passed months. It is not, therefore, due to insufficient exposure if no image appears on the plate of remembrance. More frequent, perhaps, are the cases when the half-light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years, until one day from an alien source it flashes as if from burning magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room's image on the plate. Nor is this very mysterious, since such moments of sudden illumination are at the same time moments when we are beside ourselves, and, while our waking, habitual, everyday self is involved actively or passively in what is happening, our deeper self rests in another place and is touched by the shock, as is the little heap of magnesium powder by the flame of the match.

[Benjamin, One-Way Street 342–43]

The events of September 11 seem to have had a very similar effect on the twin towers of the World Trade Center.1 The twin towers had been a prominent part of the familiar New York skyline, but they remained somewhat anonymous. This in part was a result of their architecture. Although clearly the tallest buildings in New York, the twin towers were relatively featureless, and, as individual buildings, did not seem to capture the public imagination as did the Empire State Building with its iconic associations with King Kong, or the Chrysler Building with its splendid art deco ornamentation. They were, in Rem Koolhaas's terms, a perfect example of the lessons of "Manhattanism" unlearnt [291]. The exteriors of Manhattan skyscrapers, which had once conveyed so vividly their rich and diverse occupancy, had become increasingly homogenized, so [End Page 75] that they concealed that diversity. Indeed the deep load-bearing mullions of the twin towers, designed—or so it was thought—to withstand the impact of a 747 jet, and also to allow the interiors to be column free, helped both to obscure any impression of what was going on inside the buildings and also to obscure the view out.2 Moreover, through their sheer scale the twin towers were an example of a radical approach to urbanism, the ultimate response to Le Corbusier's judgment on New York skyscrapers, which he criticized for being too small and too numerous. In their architectural language the towers reportedly were inspired by the minimalism of Mies van der Rohe, but somehow lacked any of his sensitivity [Darton 115]. And certainly their architect, Minoru Yamasaki, had a reputation, following the demolition in 1972 of his Pruitt-Igoe housing project, which had failed on sociological grounds, of not being the most sensitive of designers. Eric Darton goes even so far as to describe their aesthetic impression as "terroristic," and compares the insensitivity of the design and what they represented in sociological terms to the insensitivity of those terrorists who attempted to blow up the twin towers in 1993.3 Not everyone took such a negative stance. Indeed the towers had their vociferous supporters, such as Ada Louise Huxtable, and yet it would probably be fair to say that they remained curiously anonymous within the eyes of the general public.

Of course, the towers played an important role in the social fabric of New York—any vast structure that accommodates so much office space cannot fail to do so—and, on occasions, had caught the world's imagination, such as when French high-wire artist...