WTC artifacts should be part of rejuvenated site
BY JUSTIN DAVIDSON
March 29, 2004, 6:23 PM EST
The last column to come down from the World Trade Center site, a 50-foot behemoth of rusting steel, lies in state in a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Inscribed with names and memorial notes scrawled into its rusted surface, and festooned with photographs haphazardly duct-taped to it, the beam is a massive but brittle thing.
Moving it again would require the brawniest equipment; doing so without disturbing its fragile encrustation of memories would demand finesse. A whole team of conservators tends to that single length of steel, monitoring the humidity and experimenting with ways to prevent the messages from flaking away.
Outside the column's private tent, an array of twisted brown hulks -- sections of the broadcasting antenna, misshapen elevator motors, piles of colossal beams bent like pipe cleaners -- lie scattered around this 80,000-square-foot architectural morgue in testament to the twinned enormities of the World Trade Center's construction and collapse.
Another tent shelters an array of crumpled firetrucks, ambulances, police cars, and a few vehicles mangled beyond recognition. A boulder-sized lump sits at one end of the hangar, made of fused metal, concrete, glass and, as architect Bart Voorsanger delicately puts it, "compressed material."
Two weeks after 9/11, the Port Authority called in the architectural firm of Voorsanger & Associates to extract artifacts from the wreckage for an eventual memorial. Put that way, their task was emotionally unmanageable.
"We didn't know what would be needed for a memorial, so we just decided to think of it as an archive," Voorsanger said. "At first, the workers were upset because they thought that ours was a prurient interest in the tragedy. But after they understood what we were looking for, they became the curators."
Voorsanger led the way along painted paths bordered in yellow, snaking between the labeled debris. The contents of the JFK hangar represent only a tiny fraction of the World Trade Center's rubble. Most of the steel was recycled, some of it turned into railroad tracks for Bangladesh. "The stark fact is, this is all that's left," Voorsanger said.
This raw material for the future story of 9/11 will be exhibited one day, but how or where is not yet clear. Michael Arad, who designed the memorial planned for the trade center site, pointedly omitted them from his glossy, minimalist above-ground plaza, relegating them to a series of subterranean alcoves and a vast crypt.
Some items belong in such a public vault. The last column, the ball of "compressed material," a rack of bent bicycles and the flattened remains of Alexander Calder's red sculpture -- these objects are as fragile as they are horrifying. But the great steel beams from the North Tower's north facade, which for a while stood 12 stories tall like the bones of a fallen cathedral, need a presence in the open air. Even after having been cut down so as to fit on a flatbed truck, they remain formidable. They could be planted upright at the site -- scattered, perhaps, amid the orderly rows of trees dispensed by the memorial's landscape architect, Peter Walker.
We Americans, so poor in ruins, could be forgiven for not understanding their value. Yet anyone who has stood in the Forum in Rome and imagined the sequence of glory and violence that led to that landscape of destruction should understand what role the World Trade Center's steel could play. They are relics of the primal instinct to build, as well as the barbaric need to demolish.
To let the structures lie where they fell, as in Rome, was not an option. We have the opportunity to put some of them back -- a chance that could quickly disappear. A one-foot slice of beam weighs several tons, so the structural supports to hold up three-story segments cannot come as an afterthought; they need to be planned right now. Once the design has been completed and construction has begun, it will be too late to change our minds.
The history of 9/11 is still evolving, and Arad has been selected as the architectural equivalent of the election-night pundit, interpreting for posterity on the fly. So far, what the public has seen of his design is a series of interlocking blanks and layered vacancies. The remnants of the fallen buildings, by contrast, throb with specificity. Custom-welded for the world's tallest towers, ravaged by cataclysm and then lovingly dismantled, each piece bears a fragment of an epic tale.
True, with their poetic ugliness, these disfigured hulks would disrupt the gloss and glamour of the neighborhood now being designed. That is precisely the point.