Friday, August 20, 2010

Memorial III: WTC

Back in the day, I did a couple bits on memorials. In the second one, I highlighted my favorite memorials to the World Trade Center:
My two favorite memorials to the World Trade Center are both unintentional artifacts. The first... is Fritz Koenig's The Sphere, which is now in Battery Park--it's a sculpture of a whole golden globe, which used to sit in the midst of the Trade Center plaza, symbolizing the globalization of wealth. Which is a pretty empty symbol, to me--simplistic, hearkening back to "In America the streets are paved with gold." On the day of the disaster, rubble fell onto the Sphere, punching holes into it, revealing it to be hollow (if you look at the pre-9/11 photos, it certainly looks solid). There, you have both sides of the equation--the whole golden globe, representing the unity of the world both in globalization and in the aftermath of the disaster, and the holes knocked into it by those who were in the gaps of that golden globe, countries like Afghanistan that were left behind. They were gaps in the globe before, but because we ignored them (pretended that they were part of it), they lashed out and knocked their own hole in the globe.

The other memorial, for me, is the Cortlandt Street subway station on the NQRW line. I sometimes ride past there on my way to Prospect Park. It's a ghost station, still lit, still visible, the name is still there, but with no people. And interestingly, on the digital stop-by-stop display, they still display CORTLANDT STREET - WILL NOT STOP. It would be so easy for them to not display that, and yet they leave it there. In a quiet way, they're saying, "There used to be something there. Now it's gone." It's the Pompeii version of memorial. Quiet and empty.
This whole thing is coming back to mind thanks to Park51, the "mosque" that we can't have until Saudi Arabia decides to recognize religious freedom (apparently).

This whole thing has been made even more insane by Slate's must-read article (h/t Marginal Revolution) about the plaza that Koenig's sphere sat in:

Yamasaki received the World Trade Center commission the year after the Dhahran Airport was completed. Yamasaki described its plaza as "a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area." True to his word, Yamasaki replicated the plan of Mecca's courtyard by creating a vast delineated square, isolated from the city's bustle by low colonnaded structures and capped by two enormous, perfectly square towers—minarets, really. Yamasaki's courtyard mimicked Mecca's assemblage of holy sites—the Qa'ba (a cube) containing the sacred stone, what some believe is the burial site of Hagar and Ishmael, and the holy spring—by including several sculptural features, including a fountain, and he anchored the composition in a radial circular pattern, similar to Mecca's.

At the base of the towers, Yamasaki used implied pointed arches—derived from the characteristically pointed arches of Islam—as a transition between the wide column spacing below and the dense structural mesh above. (Europe imported pointed arches from Islam during the Middle Ages, and so non-Muslims have come to think of them as innovations of the Gothic period.) Above soared the pure geometry of the towers, swathed in a shimmering skin, which doubled as a structural web—a giant truss. Here Yamasaki was following the Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in a dense filigree, as in the inlaid marble pattern work of the Taj Mahal or the ornate carvings of the courtyard and domes of the Alhambra.

The shimmering filigree is the mark of the holy. According to Oleg Grabar, the great American scholar of Islamic art and architecture, the dense filigree of complex geometries alludes to a higher spiritual reality in Islam, and the shimmering quality of Islamic patterning relates to the veil that wraps the Qa'ba at Mecca. After the attack, Grabar spoke of how these towers related to the architecture of Islam, where "the entire surface is meaningful" and "every part is both construction and ornament." A number of designers from the Middle East agreed, describing the entire façade as a giant "mashrabiya," the tracery that fills the windows of mosques.
Amazing. In the same way that the attack recontextualized Koening's Sphere as representing both the good of capitalism, and the bad, the memory of the plaza does the same thing; the beautiful intricacy that many Muslims take away from it, and the anger and frustration that some do.

It's not something that ends with a moral, or an easy takeaway. It just sits in your gut, alive.

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