An Unfinishable Work

By Beth Boyle MachlanSeptember 11, 2011

An Unfinishable Work

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:

An invention in urban theatricality: the anticlimax as denouement, the non-event as triumph. Like the elevator, each technological invention is pregnant with a double image: contained in its success is the specter of its possible failure. The means of averting the phantom disaster are almost as important as the original invention itself.

By Koolhaas's logic, the Freedom Tower, like the Otis elevator, could succeed — aesthetically, financially, and psychologically — only if we felt safe enough to forget it was there. Freud defined the uncanny as "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar"; for a city where the frightening had become the familiar, however, the missing towers were simply too vast for the urban unconscious to contain. 

In a sense, the twin towers, as doubles of each other, had always been uncanny. Watching them succumb to twin attacks and twin destructions, New Yorkers had the same nightmare twice, in the space of half an hour. The Freedom Tower was designed specifically to resist being considered a "third double" for the World Trade Center buildings, but as a similar form occupying the same space, it was inevitably viewed as the offspring of the previous architecture, as well as a metaphor for the city's — and the nation's — recovery from profound actual and psychological injury. In the fall of 2002, Daniel Libeskind, the original master planner for Ground Zero, envisioned the Freedom Tower as a narrative of recovery and memory simultaneously; it was not only about those who died, but those who lived. To craft a new architectural "story" was, in Libeskind's formulation, the most powerful response to the terrorists' narrative of destruction. He proclaimed to an audience at Columbia University that "architecture is a communicative art; it tells a story. But so many buildings tell a story of a solipsistic kind. They are autistic; they tell a story only of their own making." Libeskind recognized early on that a good portion of the new "story" must be dedicated to reassuring New Yorkers that, this time, there would be a happy ending — meaning, of course, no ending at all. As he told Glanz, "this is at Ground Zero ... everything in the power of engineering, security thinking, safety thinking, architecture, urbanism has to be done to recognize that this is a special site." Although Libeskind did not explicitly mention psychology, his association of security and safety with thinking as well as building recognized the psychic renovation that had to occur before New Yorkers would accept — much less step inside — what might always be a ghostlike space. As Glanz points out, "those who enter will not only be haunted by what occurred at the site in the past; they will also be apprehensive about what could happen again." 

Months before his plan was unveiled or chosen, Libeskind explained to the crowd at Columbia that "we are not at home in language. We are at home at home." Yet the debate over Ground Zero has demonstrated again and again the many definitions and implications of the word "home," as well as its tendency to elide the individual and the nation, the private and the public. This semantic fluidity was immediately understood — some would say exploited — by Libeskind, whose master plan for the Ground Zero site may have been chosen as much for the architect's fluency with metaphors of trauma and memory as for the strength of his designs, especially in contrast to those of the other finalist, Rafael Vinoly, whose towers reminded both Libeskind and Governor Pataki — who had the last word — of skeletons. Libeskind's Freedom Tower literalized and galvanized a rhetoric of freedom that he and Pataki believed might be lost if some sort of skyscraper (preferably one exactly 1,776 feet tall) was not built at the site. For Libeskind, to not build was tantamount to admitting defeat, to resigning ourselves to a more anxious, less imaginative America.



The well-documented struggle over what exactly the Freedom Tower should "stand for" brings to mind Edith Wharton's warning in The Decoration of Houses that "analogies are the most dangerous form of reasoning: they connect resemblances, but disguise facts." It seems that, when applied to Ground Zero, analogies were not relationships or equations, but veils and visions projected onto an actual absence that, for years, downtown workers referred to simply as "The Pit." Architecture critic Paul Goldberger went so far as to suggest that the discord between Libeskind and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that ultimately controlled the final design for the Freedom Tower, stemmed from the fact that "Childs does not like to think in terms of the analogies that Libeskind so loves." Yet the resulting battle was, in effect, fought within a forest of analogies, a mise-en-abîme of metaphors. Alexander Garvin, chief planner for the Lower Manhattan Development Commission (LMDC), compared the Freedom Tower to the Constitution of the United States: "The process of dealing with this piece of land is difficult, but I am beginning to think it may be just like the writing of the Constitution, really — lots of competing views that will clash, and out of it we will have some kind of resolution ... out of it comes something coherent and democratic. This is how democracy works." The New York Post offered a very different reading of the conflict, declaring, "Madhouse: Ground Zero Designers At War." (Of course, one might argue that, in George W. Bush's America, "war" and "democracy" were not opposites, but parts of a whole.) 

While tensions over the site erupted in public forums and private boardrooms, the demolished World Trade Center became the focal point of a sort of revisionist vision of a more innocent city, as Steven Jay Schneider suggests in his essay "Architectural Nostalgia and the New York City Skyline on Film" in the anthology Film and Television After 9/11:

[T]he formerly intact towers were retrospectively viewed as the architectural signifiers of a city and a country that until September 11 had little to fear from outside its borders and believed personal safety, though never guaranteed, was at least assessable and a reasonable bet.

Somehow, the twin towers began to represent a literally prelapsarian urban Eden. As in the case of the Biblical fall, however, their innocence was evident only in retrospect, after its transformation into experience and knowledge. According to Schneider, the towers didn't seem significant to the nation until they ceased to exist, when they became "communal, if only virtual, objects of nostalgic sentiment, signaling America's former confidence and self-assurance while at the same time metonymically connoting the scores of innocent people whose lives were lost on September 11." One is reminded of The Onion's satirical account of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912: "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg." The connection is hardly reassuring.

Just as the excess of the Gilded Age became the symbolic cargo of the Titanic, the prospective Freedom Tower became a synecdoche for the safety of America as a whole. In April of 2005, the original design was replaced by a new version featuring a two hundred foot high girdle of concrete at street level, a modification that would substantially lessen the building's vulnerability to truck bombs and basically eradicated Libeskind's role in the project. The LMDC deemed the new tower "an innovative mix of architecture, structure, urban design, safety and sustainability" (LMDC). Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for the New York Times and no fan of the Freedom Tower from Day One, disagreed, describing the modified design as "a sort of nightmare," and declaring that "the Freedom Tower embodies ... a world shaped by fear." Apparently, the new structure had to be impressively impenetrable from the outside and easily escapable from the inside. This architectural oxymoron reveals how familiar spatial syndromes such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia, in their assumption of distinctions between public and private space, could no longer categorize the anxiety of New Yorkers who felt that the amorphous threat of terrorist attack (dirty bomb? tunnel explosion? contaminated water supply?) had left them no safe place to hide. Like Freud's association of the uncanny with "something repressed that recurs," 9/11 came back, and kept coming back, each time the Freedom Tower was reinvented.

For Freud, the uncanny occurs "when a symbol takes over the full function of the thing it symbolizes"; the "doubling, dividing and interchanging" of which he speaks were evident in the range of significations that writers, planners, architects, developers, the families of the victims, and others attributed to the Freedom Tower. Computer renderings on the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill website in 2005 showed it rising like a gleaming ghost out of lower Manhattan, dwarfing the city, gesturing not only at the sky, but also toward a green swath on the other side of the Hudson, a pastoral vision of New Jersey more in line with the dark fields of F. Scott Fitzgerald's republic than the Garden State of today. It is not a stretch to see that swath as a nostalgic new frontier, a mirage of a more innocent nation with the Freedom Tower as its sentry. Over the course of its imagined existence, the unbuilt tower "stood for" — in no particular order — freedom, the city, the nation, democracy, optimism, nightmares, beacons, the public realm, lost lives, madness, theme parks, war, and power, as well as a titanic reimagining of the classic Cold War bunker. Yet if the nuclear paradigm of us against them implied a clearly demarcated "domestic" interior, the abstract anxiety of the War on Terror has no equivalent, obvious architecture. In the age of the Patriot Act, the Freedom Tower symbolized, more than anything else, the increasingly bitter debate over what America itself should represent.



Architectural design is intimately related to narrative possibility; by shaping a structure, we shape the stories of those who dwell within it. Yet buildings can be the most monumental and unforgiving of plots. Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, published in 2005, illustrates how, in post-9/11 New York, the death of the World Trade Center towers and the birth of their potential replacement transformed architectural analogies into theories about how to dwell in a scarred city. After his father dies in the South Tower, 9-year-old Oskar Schell struggles to construct an alternative to what he regards as "the most horrible death that anyone could ever invent." Oskar relies on "inventions" — as does Foer, for whom invention suggests a form of control, a way of assuming authorship of an unstable world. The child's creations range from stamps that taste like crème brûlée to phantom sounds that prevent birds from crashing into windows, but his darkest imaginings are dedicated to skyscrapers like the one in which his father died; through this invented architecture we track the progress of his pain. At the novel's opening, Oskar clearly associates urban architecture with the grave, imagining, in morbid tribute to the lost towers, "skyscrapers for dead people that were built down ... You could bury people one hundred floors down, and a whole dead world could be underneath the living one." He is obsessed with the "dead world" where his father now resides, the uncanny darkness beneath the formerly friendly face of his urban home. 

Crushed by a new awareness of his own inevitable end, Oskar goes so far as to demand that his harried, grieving mother buy him a mausoleum:

"You're not going to die." I told her, "I am." She said, "You're not going to die anytime soon. You have a long, long life ahead of you." I told her, "As you know, I'm extremely brave, but I can't spend eternity in a small underground place. I just can't. Do you love me?" "Of course I love you." "Then put me in one of those mausoleum-thingies." "A mausoleum?" "Like I read about." "Do we have to talk about this?" "Yes." "Now?" "Yes." "Why?" "Because what if I die tomorrow?" "You're not going to die tomorrow." "Dad didn't think he was going to die the next day." "That's not going to happen to you." "It wasn't going to happen to him." ... "You need a time-out!" "I need a mausoleum!" 

Foer's juxtaposition of "mausoleum" and "time-out," death and youth, the morbid and the mundane, testifies to the inability of New Yorkers like the Schells to return to normal life in a city with a corpse-filled pit at its figurative, if not literal, center. Oskar can't bear not knowing how exactly his father died, or how his own story will end. As he tells the man he doesn't know is his grandfather, "I need to know how [my father] died ... so I can stop inventing how he died ... there were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which way was his." That Oskar tries to find comfort in choosing his own tomb demonstrates that he now fears uncertainty more than death.

Oskar's discovery of a mysterious key in his father's closet initiates what seems at first like a textbook detective story, one Walter Kirn reads as a postmodern tribute to "Gotham's wise-child genre," with Oskar as the literary offspring of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid (The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), Harriet M. Welsch (Harriet the Spy), and even Eloise, all precocious, all at "work" in inscrutable adult worlds. Yet the conventions of that genre are undermined by the unspoken objective of Oskar's quest: to find his dead father. For Oskar, the insurmountability of what he sees as his mission — matching the key with a lock — is not discouraging, but comforting; it provides him with a purpose that distracts him from his pain: "More than 9 million people live in New York ... everyone has to live somewhere, and most apartments have two locks on the front, and to at least some of the bathrooms, and maybe to some other rooms, and obviously to dressers and jewelry boxes." In Foer's universe, as opposed to Freud's, reality is often worse than repression, and private, locked spaces can symbolize safety as well as trauma. Similarly, the mystery of the key is for Oskar not so much a search for answers as a means of keeping his father's story moving. (In the final pages, he tells the owner of the lock for which he has been searching, "'Don't make it short' ... because even though I wanted him to tell me about my dad instead of his, I also wanted to make the story last as long as it could, because I was afraid of its end.") Of course, Oskar already knows the end, as do we; the missing pieces cannot change the outcome of the story. In this sense, both the novel and the Freedom Tower can be seen as belonging — or as wanting to belong — to the genre the literary critic Michael Wood, in his 2007 essay "The Last Night of All," calls "the unfinishable work":

Although all complete stories by definition have an ending, there are many ways of stopping before reaching completion, and there are many reasons for not wanting a story to end, whether we are writers or readers, tellers or listeners.

It is for just these reasons that Oskar is compelled to continue his search for his father, although it "reach[es] completion" before it even starts. If he postpones the end of that story, perhaps the plot will not unfold: the buildings will not crumble, his father will not die.

In his 1967 work of literary criticism The Sense of An Ending, Frank Kermode suggests that "all plots have something in common with prophecy, for they must appear to educe from the prime matter of the situation the forms of a future." Not all these forms are friendly, as Don DeLillo illustrates in his imagining of the thoughts of Mohammed Atta in his 2005 novel, Falling Man:

They felt things together, he and his brothers. They felt the claim of danger and isolation. They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more closely than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point. There was the claim of fate, that they were born to this ... The others exist only to the degree that they fill the role we have designed for them. This is their function as others. Those who will die have no claim to their lives outside the useful fact of their dying.

To believe in the power of plot is to take control and relinquish it at the same time, for acknowledging our own authorship requires realizing that we may be the "collateral damage" of someone else's design. DeLillo wrote of 9/11 that "the narrative ends in the rubble, and it is left to us to create the counter-narrative." The Freedom Tower represents one such narrative; Foer's novel offers another — in fact, it offers several possibilities. Yet none of these stories can undo what has already occurred. Oskar screams at his mother, "If I could have chosen, I would have chosen you!" But to choose who lives and dies is to become like DeLillo's terrorists, to believe that "others exist only to the degree that they fill the role we have designed for them." Oskar, like his father, like all of us, cannot choose, not in any meaningful way:

It would be getting so hot that my skin would start to get blisters. It would feel so good to get away from the heat, but on the other hand, when I hit the sidewalk I would die, obviously. Which would I choose? Would I jump or would I burn? I guess I would jump, because then I wouldn't have to feel pain. On the other hand, maybe I would burn, because then at least I'd have the chance to somehow escape, and even if I couldn't, feeling pain is better than not feeling, isn't it?

Choice can only move forward, not backward. Oskar cannot decide which parent should have died, or how; even with the revisionist history embedded in its design, the only disaster the Freedom Tower could avert was one that had not yet happened. 

For Oskar, skyscrapers are tragedies. Like human lives, their ends are inevitable: "Everything that's born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they're all on fire, and we're all trapped." Only after his quest takes him to the top of the Empire State Building does he begin to envision buildings that resist destruction, such as "skyscrapers made with moving parts, so they could rearrange themselves when they had to, and even open holes in their middles for planes to fly through." By imagining alternative architecture, Oskar is of course imagining alternative endings, not to his father's story, but to his own. At the same time, this vision provides Oskar with the reassurance he needs: most buildings can and do survive. By the end of the novel, he sees skyscrapers as organic, evolving entities, and asks, "What if skyscrapers had roots? What if you had to water skyscrapers, and play classical music to them, and know if they like sun or shade?" The implications of his new analogy suggest that he will survive, and move on. The final words of the novel, in which Oskar remembers the bedtime story his father told him the night before his death, might even be seen as an alternate ending, were it not for Foer's use of the past conditional "would":

He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the ... end to the beginning, from "I love you" to "Once upon a time ..."
We would have been safe.

Oskar knows what the promoters of the Freedom Tower refused to acknowledge: safety exists only after the fact. We can never know if we will be safe; we can only know if we were safe — or if we weren't. Positioned opposite Oskar's last words is a picture of the World Trade Center, still standing, with the Falling Man just barely visible in the lower right corner. Thirteen more photographs on the right-hand side of the book show the airborne body slowly rising through the sky; the final image is of the tower alone, with the man presumably safely back inside the building. This grim flip book is uncanny in that it is real and unreal simultaneously: the pictures are tragic facts, while the reversal of their order is a fantasy of plot reversed and life restored.



The struggle over what the Freedom Tower stood for, literally and figuratively, ruined its chance to stand for anything, or to stand at all. The project was renamed 1 World Trade Center in 2009, because, according to the Times's Joe Nocera, the Port Authority wanted the Tower "to be viewed as a commercial office building and not a civic symbol." (In the environs of Ground Zero, names are everything; let's not forget the ugly debate over the "Ground Zero Mosque.") The new building is scheduled for completion in 2013. Like the Freedom Tower, 1 World Trade Center will stand 1,776 feet high, with 408 of those feet coming from an extremely expensive spire; it will look out over Reflecting Absence, the graceful, restrained memorial built in the lost towers' footprints that will open to the public on the 10th anniversary of their fall. The original Freedom Tower, once again both like and unlike the buildings it was meant to replace, is now a ghost.

The anxiety about endings evident in the Freedom Tower's design and Foer's work demonstrates our need — in a world at war with an emotion (terror) as opposed to an enemy — to live without knowing what or when the last page will be. The "attempted refusal" of the end of the story, Wood writes,

is not ... a denial of literal endings, of the fact that things wear out and vanish, that stories and people do finish or get finished. It is a refusal of (or a longing for) the acceptable, meaningful end, an insistence or a fear that an end is never anything other, cannot be anything other, than the blunt, brutal fact that the play is over and that eternal-seeming reruns and comebacks have an end in death.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close brings to life our desperate, impossible desire to make history come out differently, to feel at home. The critic Stephen Abell has proposed that "plotted destruction is the preserve of terrorist and novelist alike"; I would like to suggest that the missing leg of this designing triangle is the architect, whose craft relies most greatly on our faith that what is built will continue to stand. All three envision forms of a future: for the architect these forms are literal; for the author, figurative; for the terrorist, who imagines a more sacred world rising from the rubble of the past, they are both.


LARB Contributor

Beth Boyle Machlan is Senior Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. Her writing has appeared in Studies in the Novel, The Awl, The Faster Times, and Representing Segregation:Toward an Aesthetics of Living Jim Crow. She is working on a book called Panic Rooms: Architecture and Anxiety in New York from 1900 to 9/11.


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