A Chance to Assess Ground Zero's Historical Significance
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP , NYTimes
Architectural preservationists are coming to the rescue one more time.
Thanks to these intrepid souls, the ground zero design process may
shortly enter a new stage. Legitimacy, it might be called.
Preliminary discussions are being held today on a federal review of
plans to develop the World Trade Center site. As stipulated by the
National Historic Preservation Act, the so-called Section 106 review
requires that the site's historical significance be officially
evaluated before federal money can be used to rebuild it.
For the first time, in other words, independent scholars will have the
opportunity to address publicly the historical meaning of ground zero
and its value to future generations. This is welcome news indeed. Not
since the milestone Supreme Court decision that upheld the
preservation of Grand Central Terminal has there been a landmarks
issue of comparable importance to the future of urban America.
The review may well liberate the site from the clutches of
politicians, architects, their publicists and other unqualified
figures who have presumed to speak in history's name. And it could
slow the breakneck redevelopment timetable imposed by Gov. George E.
More important, if done properly the review will be a pioneering
undertaking in cultural archaeology, for it will explore not merely
the value that is inherent in urban artifacts but also the mechanisms
a society uses to confer value on some artifacts and withhold it from
Historical significance, that is to say, is in the memory of the
beholder. In the case of ground zero, it resides in the conflicts that
arise when memories disagree.
So the review ought to arouse philosophical as well as historical
debate. What is there, after all, to be preserved? A void? Little
physical evidence remains of the twin towers. The void itself has been
voided by the new temporary PATH rails that run under the ground where
the towers once stood.
This voided void is densely packed with history nonetheless: with the
layers of ideology encoded by the towers and by the critical responses
to them, and with the changing perceptions of architecture as the city
around them evolved.
Peering into this void could substantially alter the scope of historic
I propose that we begin this cultural excavation by sifting through
the stratum nearest us in time: the plans developed by the Lower
Manhattan Development Corporation since its creation after 9/11. We
can learn about the site's meaning by reviewing the history we have
been living through while it is still fresh in living memory. The
attacks brought to the surface many of the unresolved conflicts over
the twin towers. Call it the protracted panic stage.
On the whole, I find the record deplorable. Yet even its most
depressing episodes could be redeemed were the record to be treated
with the proper degree of historical awareness. In fact, in a Swiftian
vein, I can already envision an educational program a sort of Almost
Like Freedom Museum dedicated to learning from the mistakes so far.
They include parceling off the public realm to the highest private
bidders; the eagerness of cultural institutions to embrace their own
devaluation in the marketplace; the suppression of civil discourse
through techniques of risk management and conflict avoidance; the
manipulation of stirring images to distract attention from baser
motives; the abuse of religious belief to evade personal responsibility.
No one should be surprised that it has been left to preservationists
to restore a measure of sanity to Lower Manhattan. Until recently,
with the rise of a new audience for contemporary architecture,
preservation and public art were all that remained of the liberal
consensus that once supported architecture in New York. It may take
another generation before the new audience discovers that solidarity
does not automatically mean settling for the lowest common denominator
Preservationists, however, have had ample time to build organizational
skills. And these talents need not always be deployed toward turning
back the clock. In fact, preservation now has the potential to foster
some of the most advanced thinking on modern social space.
In the last two decades, a remarkable body of scholarship has emerged
on the concept of cultural landscape, a category that has only begun
to filter into popular consciousness. With roots in traditional
archaeology and the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss,
this area of study has become a major discipline in cultural studies.
The writings of J. B. Jackson, the homespun philosopher of the
American landscape, also belong to the genre. Historians like
Gwendolyn Wright, Delores Hayden and Patricia Morton are among its
leading practitioners today.
Ideally, the Section 106 review of ground zero will be guided by
approaches developed by these thinkers. It could help make clear that
preservation now denotes much more than lying down in front of
bulldozers, valuable as such techniques undoubtedly are. It is also
strategy for training vision, for learning how to recognize the
ideologies from which built forms emerge. Equally important, the
review could reveal the ideologies from which built forms do not
emerge: the beliefs and assumptions that underlie the drive to declare
some places to be protected zones of history and others not.
Is this asking too much of the Section 106 review? Not if public
confidence in the ground zero plans matters. Unfortunately,
politicians often believe that they are entitled to public trust
without troubling to earn it. So long as they are in charge, the plans
will remain a classic study in the rage for self-deception: the
defining cultural characteristic of the post-cold-war era.
We won! We're the big winners. We can put shopping malls into
graveyards, make office buildings dress up for the Fourth of July.
Come see a culture implode.