All Americans can tell you their story about September 11, 2001. Just as a personal achievement, a wedding day or a funeral stand outside of time in our memories, so does the moment when each received news that planes had hit, the towers had fallen and the country was preparing to retaliate. I was sitting in seventh grade history class when the coach of my middle school football team came in to deliver the news to my teacher and the class. I watched the news a lot that day, more than I ever had before. I took a break to play football with my neighbors. In between plays, we invented all sorts of far-fetched scenarios for the attack and what it would become.
9/11 has only obliquely impacted by life through its indirect effects. By contrast, those who lost friends or family on that day will look at the new towers or the new memorial and think of those they lost. In the aftermath of the attack, I share with them only the towers themselves and the clarity of the moment when we learned of their passing. Yet even in their absence, the twin towers show us just how important buildings can be in establishing feelings and memories held in common. It is precisely because they are physical narratives that our memories of them are so clear and so similar.
The towers were not necessarily the most beautiful objects, in and of themselves. But they had a mystique about them. They were dominant and imperial, and commanded the other buildings on New York’s skyline. All other objects in the sky were subordinate. Stark, gray, expressionless, unfaltering, rigid and earnest, the towers oriented travelers to New York. They acted upon us. They instilled a feeling of confidence and obedience. Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked on a tightrope between the towers in 1974, described the feeling perfectly in The New York Times: “they pierced the skyline so brilliantly, so arrogantly, so beautifully, that at first they served as a beacon… They were so tall. They were a constant reminder to believe in humanity, to believe in imagination, to believe in miracles and fairytales and myth and legends.”
In the simplicity of the silhouettes and the number of buildings — two, not one — the message of the architects and engineers was clear. “We wanted it to be a modern building, not to be based on past, but rather a new step forward in structural engineering and architecture,” said Leslie E. Robertson, the structural engineer of the World Trade Center, in an interview with the Times. “It was not a place for people who knew where they were going; it was for people who were discovering where to go and had a desire to prove that it was the right way to go.”
I only saw them once. I was in fourth grade or so, and I drove with my parents to Jersey City to see my mother’s cousin. We walked to the riverside one morning to get a view of the skyline. The towers beaconed in the sun on the right side of the city. As a young kid peering over the railing, the towers affirmed to me that there was no more an exciting place to be. For that instant, I felt motivated and inspired by them, just as so many others who lived in New York or worked in the towers must have felt on a daily basis.
The towers, and the moment when they collapsed, stand alone in the universal feelings that their memories evoke. Once placed in context, though, there is no longer any agreement. Two days ago, CNN ran a series of interviews with survivors of 9/11, relatives of those who perished and people whose lives were completely changed by the event. Teenagers described the feeling they experienced when they learned that they wouldn’t see their parents. A survivor from one of the towers describes the burns he received and the physical trauma he underwent. Bush and Cheney described the chaos of the day, and the spirit of the days after. The interviews characterized the general feeling of the day that we all seem to share.
But as the program moved to events later on, the tone changed. A Muslim chaplain described his two-month detention for “suspicious activity,” his release, and the government’s apology for the injustice done to him. Bush described a moment several weeks after the fact, when he threw out the first pitch for a ballgame at Shea stadium, as one of the most nerve-wracking of his presidency. A mother described the loss of her son in Iraq, a tragedy no less grave than any suffered on 9/11, but whose place in the popular imagination was profoundly different. The program aroused memories of the tragedy, discord and cynicism of the narrative that 9/11 became. As you move past 9/11, the shared feelings start to disappear.
When we build things, in a sense, we are consenting to share feelings. Any public architecture project, whether it’s to build newer, taller tower, or fill in an empty lot in a neighborhood, is subject to conflicting opinions. The complicated nature of public space, and the complicated nature of the Ground Zero site in particular, is, in simplistic terms, illustrated by the time it takes to reach even a partial agreement on how to conceptualize them. A story that is physically built, however, as opposed to a collective story, presents a final product. The buildings that we live in and see around us were once contested spaces, and sometimes still are. But they are still there. They are silent, and treat us equally in their demeanor. They may act upon us in different ways, and we may interpret them differently, but they are all present in our stories. In their honor of the Twin Towers, we can take time to appreciate the buildings already around us, the ones that we see every day and don’t talk, but act upon us. The ones that create common memories.