- Constructing “America”: Architectural Thought-Worlds
Introduction: An attack on the architecture of hegemony
When operatives of the Al Qaeda network crashed planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on 9/11/2001, they were attacking what they regarded as the quintessential architectural expression of American global hegemony. From their perspective, the attack was one battle in a prolonged war between incommensurate thought-worlds,1 a strike against an evil that expresses itself in both thought and material culture. Whatever resonances the episode has had in various parts of the globe since the attack — antagonistic, neutral or friendly — it has created an intense process of domestic reflection on what America is about. While the more applied effects of that reflection are evident in many aspects of public policy, especially those involving militarization, and securitization, much of the continuing significance of the event will be effected in the design and construction of the new World Trade Center. Architecture served as the material target of the antagonists, and it will materialize the subsequent processes of healing and remembrance. And, inasmuch as (in a Bergsonian sense) the past always “is” (it continually changes as it remains subject to endless, experience-shaping reinterpretation), it is propitious that Daniel Libeskind, many of whose designs are aimed at historical remembrance, is the architect who won the competition to oversee the design of much of the rebuilt World Trade Center.2
Although Libeskind’s control of the design process has been significantly attenuated,3 his participation in the design process constitutes a challenge to the tradition of memorial architectural. As one art historian puts it, “[t]he typical commemorative monument is supposed to create closure. . . . That’s the ruling assumption — that there’s a kind of definitive past interpretation.”4 In contrast, Libeskind’s design vision for the “pit” (a sunken part of the reconstruction, which will bear most of the memorial aspect of the reconstruction) is to resist narrative closure. Opposing a simplistic model of the adequation of architecture to history, in Libeskind’s design preference, “visitors to the pit probably will not be given a map to follow to find the place of magic. Instead they will be allowed to choose their own paths . . . with no authority dictating, as would have been the case in ages past, which direction is correct.”5 Moreover, his initially proposed plan does not provide for a definitive boundary: “The memorial park’s western boundary, the so-called slurry wall that held back the Hudson River from flooding in after the 9/11 attack, will continue to restrain the river. . . . There will be . . . no firm demarcation of what was and what became. Where the wall was, it still is, and in such a place memory is a live event. History plays out in real time.”6
At a minimum, Libeskind’s design orientation is not meant to redeem a version of America’s pre 9/11 sense of itself. Here, as elsewhere — for example in his design of the extension of the Jewish Museum in Berlin — his memorial architecture is anti-redemptive. As James Young points out, in Libeskind’s memorial designs, “memory of historical events, which never domesticates such events, never makes us at home with them, never brings them into the reassuring house of redemptory meaning.”7 Put positively, Libeskind’s memorial structures privilege renewal rather than redemption. In his words, addressed to one of his European projects, “[t]o continue the Jewish tradition across the desert of assimilation and annihilation is to return to living sources of Jewish space and symbolism so that a community can be renewed.” Adopting a radical strain of Talmudic textual practice, and articulating it through architectural design, Libeskind’s Jewish community center and synagogue in Duisburg Germany, is shaped like a book: “The building stands with the vertical hinge of the book facing the river and the main entrance to the complex facing the promenade, which is the one focal point of the new city development.”8 But given the absence of a definitive textual closure in this building/book, — it is an “open book”9 — the museum’s plan articulates the part...