Photograph: Construction Phase 1971 courtesy of Jane Holley Wilson © All Rights Reserved
ON SUNDAY, MARCH 14, 2004, the New York Times ran a story entitled "High Anxiety: Designing the Safest Building in History for the Scariest Address on Earth." Author James Glanz described in detail the ways in which the Freedom Tower team planned to rectify the structural vulnerabilities that had turned the World Trade Center site into the world's largest tomb; Timesreaders were assured by a wide range of supremely qualified professionals that the new building would never, could never, suffer the same fate as its predecessors. For the benefit of those for whom words were not enough, however, a prominent illustrated sidebar to Glanz's piece, subtitled "Building Confidence," provided a point by point list of the new tower's features, alongside descriptions of how they were carefully designed to compensate for specific structural aspects of the 9/11 nightmare. The word "Elevators," for instance, was followed by this narrative:
There will be no sky lobbies in the Freedom Tower; elevators will go straight to the ground. This will prevent scenes like the one that occurred on the 78th floor of the south tower, where many people who were waiting for express elevators died when the second plane hit.
Similarly reassuring text was attached to "The Cable Structure," "The Core," "Stairwells," and "Fire Safety," as if to provide the urban reader with a checklist of assuaged anxieties, and to cancel out the site-specific horrors that were revealed to the entire world in the aftermath of the attack, such as smoke-filled stairwells, interior infernos, and massive gashes where walls had been. In terms of color, depth, and composition, there is something profoundly unreal, almost garish about these illustrations, like a comic strip about catastrophe, a Maus for the new millennium. The most uncanny aspect of these descriptions, however, was not the artist's renderings of the as yet imaginary spaces, but the ways in which the descriptions of the new building's features suggested alternate endings to hundreds of the day's most tragic stories. In these accounts, the Freedom Tower could be read not only as a replacement for the lost World Trade Center, but also as a rewriting of the tragedy that trapped its occupants, an alternate narrative that offered more than one way out.
Times readers may have viewed these macabre cartoons as unpleasant but understandable artifacts of life after 9/11. Yet this sort of reassurance is hardly an aberration in the city's real estate history; it is a tradition. As Rem Koolhaas observes in Delirious New York, skyscrapers have been assuaging the fears of their potential occupants since their invention in 1885, when, in order to make these remarkable new structures into profitable real estate, people had to be convinced that the revolutionary was in fact ordinary, and that the everyday act of going to their offices would not risk their lives. Koolhaas describes the key to this structural comfort in Freudian terms through the transformation of the Otis elevator from unheimlich to heimlich...