A Vision for Ground Zero

A Vision for Ground Zero
Frederick Turner

The recent crop of designs for the redevelopment of Ground Zero have rightly been widely condemned as miserably unimaginative.  They not only fail to satisfy either the spiritual or the economic mandate implied by the site—perhaps the most important piece of real estate in the world—they also express, as clearly as if it had been written all over them, that America was defeated by the terrorists.

Whatever else we do, the replacement for the World Trade Center has got to be more splendid, more beautiful and more truly symbolic of New York and of America than its predecessor.  It must be a fitting monument to the citizens who worked there—and who behaved, as far as we know, more than magnificently in their moment of trial—to the firefighters who charged up the stairs, and to the police who died there.  The present wrangling between those who want the whole site to be a garden, and those who want commercial development, is itself miserable, and is reflected in the misery of the designs that have been proposed.  In actual fact, there is a desperate futility in the project as presently conceived, because even if the whole site were turned into a memorial garden it would be in the wrong place.  For most of the dead did not die there at all, but a thousand feet away, a sixth of a mile, directly above.  Ancient epics and dramas—the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Antigone—tell of the unease and pollution of an improperly buried or unburied corpse; the present quarrel reflects that unease in twentieth century terms: our loss of courage in the marketplace, our baseless guilt at our prosperity, our secret qualms that maybe we deserved to be attacked.  The rebuilding of Ground Zero must be a monument that will begin to heal those deep spiritual wounds and illnesses.

To be such a monument it must embody the future hopes of the nation, its resilience, its pride, and the peculiarly American technique for achieving its goals.

What is that “American technique”?  There is an ancient saying, that you cannot serve God and Mammon.  The Old World always took this saying as a simple command or prohibition, an injunction to make the right choice.  The genius of the framers of the American Constitution is that they took it as a “koan”, so to speak.  A koan in the Buddhist tradition is a paradoxical utterance whose form is that of a puzzle but whose solution is not an answer but a change in the answerer and thus a change in the conditions in which the puzzle itself exists.

If it is a simple and absolute choice, between the spiritual and the economic, then of course we should choose the spiritual.  But if we do, rejecting any temptation to improve our economic lot, we should not be too surprised–as the national sponsors of radical Islamic terrorism have found–when it turns out that our economic decline into hideous squalor ends up compromising any possible spiritual goal of our society.  In another saying Jesus hinted at something that did not imply that terrible choice, between the world and one’s soul: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, he said of the coin of money he was shown,  and unto God that which is God’s.

The solution to the problem that the American framers found was simple and radical: make Mammon serve God, and then to serve Mammon is to serve God.  The free market democratic republic that resulted has spent two hundred years of fine-tuning the market so that it has become almost impossible to get rich without in the process enriching everyone else.  Probably the best thing I could do in practical charity for my fellow humans across the globe would be to buy a brand new Lexus.  The stimulus to the world economy would be efficient, and would lead to the creation of wealth, technological and scientific progress, the ability of employees to buy educational and medical services, the opening up of trade relationships between countries which might otherwise prefer to go to war, the demand for a better natural environment, and the emancipation of women.  More real human benefit would likely accrue per dollar from my purchase than any contribution of an equal amount of money to hunger relief, humanitarian aid, or third world national development efforts.  The free market as it has evolved, with its apparatus of legal property rights, banks, joint stock companies, and so on, has solved the koan by redefining the nature of money.  In the Roman Empire of the first century in which Jesus proposed the koan, money was still predominantly the sign of the other’s lack.  Today money has become predominantly the sign of the other’s wellbeing.  Then, others were poor because I was rich.  Now, others are rich because I am rich.

The World Trade Center was a huge tool of that American solution.  But its architecture in the context of its site said no more than that.  It served Mammon, but did not express by its form that the Mammon it served served God.  Its replacement must say triumphantly that the terrorists have been defeated not only in terms of wealth and power, but in terms of spiritual goodness and moral beauty as well.

The site itself offers three great architectural models for how New York historically expressed these ideas: John A. Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the splendid Art Deco of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings further uptown.  The Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge explicitly recall the religious vocabulary of Europe, while the bridge itself was a mighty engine of economic development up and down the east coast of the American continent.  The great uptown skyscrapers were cathedrals celebrating the servitude of profit to virtue and the paradox that the servitude enhanced the profit.  And Lady Liberty welcomed to the New World exactly the people that Jesus and the Prophets had commanded us to serve:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The golden door was the gate to profitable employment and the creation of wealth.

So the mandate for the new design for Ground Zero is as follows: it must be a monument to those who served and protected world trade, it must be a golden door, it must express as did the old World Trade Center the engineering genius that enabled the financial district to enrich the world, it must nobly echo the architecture of hope and aspiration, it must firmly insist by its very form on the preeminence of spiritual over economic concerns, and it must at the same time indicate that spiritual concerns, in the American way, are only possible with the support of economic progress.  It must delineate a hierarchy of values, not a choice between them—the koan, not the command.  In this spirit, the design sketched here is offered.

If one could call up the ghosts of John Roebling, Donato Bramante of St. Peter’s, the Abbot Suger of Notre Dame, and Ictinos of the Parthenon, what would they say in response to the mandate?  I believe that the first thing they would say would be very simple.  Since the immediate practical problem is how to have a memorial garden and a profitable business building in the same place, and you cannot put a building on top of a garden without destroying the garden, I think they would say “Then put the garden on top of the building”.  “Memorialize the dead where they died, a thousand feet above the street,” they would say; “not down below where their cenotaph would in any case obstruct the creative work of the living.”  The second thing I think they would say is that if you want a golden door—and New York has no great gate or triumphal arch on the scale of St. Louis’ parabola or San Francisco’s Golden Gate—then build one.  So we already have the basic form: a memorial garden on top of a triumphal arch that is also a major business skyscraper.  The design says that you can have god and mammon if mammon is serving god, for the spiritual garden is supported by the secular marketplace, and the marketplace is crowned by the garden.

New York Harbor would now be framed by Lady Liberty on one hand and the welcoming gate of downtown on the other.  The gothic archway of the gate will echo the arches of Roebling’s bridge on the other side of the island.  Millions of people uptown will look downtown and see, beyond the spires of the Empire State and the Chrysler Building, the art deco curved ribs of the great arch and the cantilevers of the garden it supports; and would remember with a comfortable familiarity the twin towers that have now been rebuilt in a more graceful form.  And downtown will have its own Central Park, a thousand feet up above the harbor and Wall Street, a haven of peace and memory above the roar of the market below, in the very place where our fellow-citizens died.

Grand staircase/escalator wells, open to the sky, will carry the thousands of visitors, pilgrims and tourists up the last three storeys into the cool upper air.  They will wander the paths and woodlands and little hills and the lakeshore until they come to the noble monument to the dead in the center of the garden.  And they will find their way to the staggering views around its edge: sixty miles up and down the coast, inland to the Hudson Valley, out into the Atlantic Ocean.  They will notice how the very plantings here are of a different climate.  The place will be windy and cleaner, the temperature three degrees lower than the streets below—preserving a hundred years from now the climate of New York as it was before global warming, and reminding them of what New York was like two hundred years ago.

And Mammon, too, will be served.  The combination of a huge tourist attraction, a pilgrimage site, an architectural and engineering wonder, the historical associations of America’s triumph over its most cruel enemies, and thus an economically revived downtown, will make it once more the most desirable commercial real estate on the planet.