Architect company MVRDV provoked shock and outrage in early December of last year when its plan for the building of two skyscrapers in Seoul, South Korea, came to public attention. The two buildings strongly resembled New York’s Twin Towers, destroyed by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001 — a day that is burned into the national psyche of the USA, and the psyches of individuals all around the world. Incredibly, the fashionable architecture firm designed a kind of exploding center, called the Cloud, that would join the two towers.Things come into view soft focus. It takes a split second before we see the uniqueness of anything — a face in the crowd, for example. The architectural design does look like a photo of the Twin Towers exploding, at least until you look at it close up, or from above (which most of us won’t be doing).
No surprise that MVRDV quickly issued an apology, saying “It was not our intention to create an image resembling the attacks nor did we see the resemblance during the design process.” I suspect that they’re telling the truth. The problem is that the company simply played with forms and geometry and images the way pundits so often play with words. Missing is the substance. What do they represent? If anything?
Gone from much of the arts is the notion of values. Don’t get me wrong, ambiguity can help to pull the viewer into a movie or painting or work of sculpture. But, it should lead somewhere. Ambiguity should occur in the meeting of meanings, creating a new meaning that we ourselves cannot discover in the moment.
Only a couple of months earlier, in September 2011, a sculpture commemorating the 9/11 attacks was unveiled at Potters Fields Park, near Tower Bridge, London. The sculpture was made, by New York artist Miya Ando, from beams found in the wreckage of the Twin Towers. Sarah Matthews of the 9/11 London Project Foundation, which commissioned the sculpture, said “We have been set up to ensure that the legacy of 9/11 is to build hope from tragedy.”
The statement’s almost as empty as MVDRV’s apology. Why do twisted girders represent hope? Or anything other than the ghastly event itself, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed?
The same problem is embodied in Ando’s sculpture as in MVDVR’s architecture. They will inevitably be interpreted as meaning something, but what exactly remains unclear, and open to anyone to impose their own meaning onto them. To the shock of the architects, their architecture represents the carnage of 9/11. Unlike traditional sculpture, representing a great general or statesman, the great sacrifice of soldiers for their nation and for freedom (and, therefore, ultimately for embodied values), or one of the classical Virtues, Ando’s sculpture really offers us nothing at all, beyond amusement. It has turned pain into art, but even the pain seems to be missing.
Take a walk downtown Manhattan, near the site of the attacks, and you’ll come across other damaged girders from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. Formed into a cross — If I recall correctly, in the collapse of one of the two towers — it seemed a miraculous site to the rescue workers, and offered them real hope in the USA’s darkest hour. It’s not art, but it radiates with meaning.
The meaning of 9/11, and how best to memorialize the victims, has been the issue since virtually the day of the attacks. The memorial at the site of the World Trade Center focusses around two large, square fountains, each of which are about an acre, and are located in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Around the edges, inscribed in bronze, are the names of the victims of the 9/11 as well as the earlier 1993 truck bombing attack on the center. The fountains, surrounded by trees, are a tasteful and peaceful memorial endowed an a quality of calm in the city that, if you believe the cliche, never sleeps.Controversy has haunted the memorial, too, however, and with the recent revelation that the memorial will cost more than $60 million a year to operate, it’s unlikely to go away any time soon. The fountains alone will cost nearly $10 million a year. A memorial may not prove to be enough in the end, if it does not appear to be more than a reminder of a past event; if, that is, America cannot find in it a representation of timeless values. This does not mean that it should be seen as the hot spot in a cosmic conflict. It should not. But, that, by it, America should be reminded of what it essentially is.
On the tenth anniversary, controversy broke out over the banning of religious clergy. President Obama addressed those gathered there, speaking the important words: “we preserved our values, we preserved our character.” In a bold move, considering the then recent religious controversy, Preisdent Obama quoted Psalm 46 during his address, saying “God is our refuge and strength [...] Therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.”