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aken together as a kind of shotgun diptych, the two designs chosen as finalists by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation illustrate the confusion of a nation torn between the conflicting impulses of war and peace.
Daniel Libeskind's project for the World Trade Center site is a startlingly aggressive tour de force, a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun. The Think team's proposal, on the other hand, offers an image of peacetime aspirations so idealistic as to seem nearly unrealizable.
While no pacifist, as a modern-day New Yorker I would like to think my way to a place beyond armed combat. The Think project accomplishes this. As I observed in an appraisal last week, the design by the architects Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Violy, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban is an act of metamorphosis. It transforms our collective memories of the twin towers into a soaring affirmation of American values.
The Think project calls for two frameworks of steel lattice in approximately the same locations as the original towers, but without touching their footprints. The new towers would form the infrastructure for a vertically organized complex of cultural and educational buildings designed by different architects. New York could only gain from the restoration of the image of the twin towers to the skyline.
Students of civilization will not be offended by the thought that a tragedy of global proportions has given birth to an occasion for civic self-regard. That is how cities have been responding to acts of terror and destruction for at least 4,000 years. Destruction is not a path anyone would choose to get to art, but it is well-trod path.
Compared with Think's proposal, Mr. Libeskind's design looks stunted. Had the competition been intended to capture the fractured state of shock felt soon after 9/11, this plan would probably deserve first place. But why, after all, should a large piece of Manhattan be permanently dedicated to an artistic representation of enemy assault? It is an astonishingly tasteless idea. It has produced a predictably kitsch result.
Mr. Libeskind's Berlin-based firm, Studio Daniel Libeskind, has not produced an abstract geometric composition. It is an emotionally manipulative exercise in visual codes. A concrete pit is equated with the Constitution. A skyscraper tops off at 1,776 feet. As at Abu Simbel, the Egyptian temple, the play of sunlight is used to give a cosmic slant to worldly history. A promenade of heroes confers quasi-military status on uniformed personnel.
Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic. As this nation prepares to send troops into battle, the design's message seems even more loaded. Unintentionally, the plan embodies the Orwellian condition America's detractors accuse us of embracing: perpetual war for perpetual peace.
Yet Mr. Libeskind's design has proved surprisingly popular. Its admirers include many culturally informed New Yorkers. With its jagged skyline and sunken ground plane, the project does make a graphically powerful first impression. Formally, at least, it represents the furthest possible extreme from the six insipid designs released by the development corporation in July.
The contrast is surely part of the appeal of Mr. Libeskind's design. Those who rejected the earlier designs because of their blandness cannot accuse Mr. Libeskind's concept of wanting to fade into the background of Lower Manhattan. Isn't his design precisely what some of us were seeking? A vision that did not attempt to bury the trauma of 9/11 in sweet images of strolling shoppers and Art Deco spires?
And yet the longer I study Mr. Libeskind's design, the more it comes to resemble the blandest of all the projects unveiled in the recent design study: the retro vision put forth by the New Urbanist designers Peterson Littenberg. Both projects trade on sentimental appeal at the expense of historical awareness. Both offer visions of innocence nostalgia, actually.
Peterson Littenberg is nostalgic for Art Deco Manhattan circa 1928, before the stock market crash caused the United States to abandon the prevailing ideology of social Darwinism. Mr. Libeskind's plan is nostalgic for the world of pre-Enlightenment Europe, before religion was exiled from the public realm.
This yearning is not restricted to Mr. Libeskind's project. The seductive spirituality of premodern society goes far toward explaining the emergence of memorial architecture as a leading genre in the public realm today. An examination of this phenomenon is overdue. Inadvertently, perhaps, Mr. Libeskind has forced the issue into the foreground.
The secular public space is a modern invention. Like the United States, it is a child of 18th-century Enlightenment thought. Before then, land was defined by ownership or utility. There were estates, markets, streets, taverns, military fortifications, government seats and the faubourg. Above all, there was the church, or the parish, which offered the nearest approximation to the open, civil environments of today's public realm. Public space, in other words, was religious space.
Today's disputes over the display of crosses, manger scenes, menorahs and other icons are throwbacks to a time before religion had been separated from civil society. This separation comes with a cost. It has left a void in public space that has not been completely filled in by reason, recreation, art, nature or the other secular alternatives placed there over the last few centuries.
That is the void that overtook ground zero on 9/11. We can use words like sacred or spiritual to describe this emptiness, but what we are really referring to is the absence of organized religion from the modern civil sphere. Memorial architecture has long been one way to fill the void.
In recent decades, memorial architecture has taken up an increasing share of public life and space. Since 1982, with the stunning public response to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, memorial architecture has emerged as a branch of industry. Through it, quasi-religious sentiment has gained a socially sanctioned place within the public realm.
Like other institutions in civil society, memorialization is vulnerable to political pressure. What and how we remember are not neutral, self-evident propositions. They are debates. Their outcome is often susceptible to manipulation by those in power.
This should be a reminder of why the religious and civil spheres were separated in the first place by Enlightenment thinkers. In medieval society, the power of religious faith was customarily exploited for political gain. In modern society, political actions are held accountable to reason.
The issue is one of proportion, in time as well as space. Boundaries must be placed around grief lest it overwhelm our ability to gain new perceptions. We do not embrace reason at the expense of emotion. We embrace it at the expense of self-deception.
A public realm devoid of religious authority may be the price of living in a modern democracy. But the price does not exclude the most profound depths of feeling and spirit.
That is why the Think team's proposal is the correct one for us. The spaces it proposes for memorial observance could be as eloquent as a cathedral's. But they would be enclosed with the Enlightenment framework that has stabilized this country since birth. From mourning, it would build towers of learning. They would lift us high above the level of feudal superstition in which our enemies remain mired.
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