Reach for the sky One day last November I spent a long sad afternoon prowling around the perimeter of the smoking ruins of the World Trade Centre, trying to take in the horror of what I was seeing, exchanging numb civilities with equally shell-shocked strangers. I saw my own bewilderment's reflected in the eyes of those who had gathered at the site - not, I believe, as voyeurs, but out of a graver, more honourable compulsion to bear witness. In the rather different aspect of those who came here every day, the emergency workers and those who worked in stores and offices nearby, I saw something else, almost an avoidance, a turning away of the head from the unbearable in order to make it possible to go on. I walked for hours, looking in people's eyes for the answers none of us had.
Nobody was offended by my staring. It was a time when eye contact seemed necessary, even comforting. My own eyes kept being dragged upwards to look at the empty sky. Many people have written and spoken about the force of the towers' absence from the landscape. The eye seeks them out where once it found them, and can't believe what it doesn't see. The absence has become a presence.
At Ground Zero that November day, the hollow air seemed to gather and shape itself into those huge lost forms and soar upwards towards the memory of billowing fire. "That was where it happened", I kept reminding myself, "not down here, but up there". I tried to identify cubes of empty space "up there" that might correspond to the exact locations of the twin crimes, wanting, a little crazily, to repossess those spaces by the pure force of seeing. An aeroplane passed overhead and made me wince. Now that the city's conversation has moved on from the simple articulation of grief towards ideas of reconstruction, this longing for the sky is what I remember most powerfully. I remember, too, senator Charles Schumer speaking poignantly on TV in the after mat of the attacks, wanting his city back.
And I remember the decisions made in postwar Britain and Poland regarding the damage done by bombs to the Houses of Parliament in London and to the entire heart of the city of Warsaw. The people of Warsaw and London, too, wanted their cities back, and rebuilt the Palace of Westminster and the centre of Warsaw exactly as they had been before. If a recent poll is to be believed, a majority of New Yorkers is of the same mind. Build the Twin Towers back, they say, just as they were before or, at least, standing just as tall and grand. Make our city whole. We can't make the past un happen, but we can remove the scar it left behind.
At once, here come the counter-arguments. The "memorialist" lobby, with the relatives of the dead in its vanguard, wants the site to be thought of as sacred ground. The "anti-capitalist" lobby, which allies itself with the memoria lists, objects to the excessive influence over the six newly unveiled schemes of the requirements of the Port Authority for the provision of as much office and hotel space as previously existed, and of the leaseholder Larry Silverstein for buildings equivalent to those he has lost. The "architectural" lobby argues that you can't go back again, that there is an opportunity here to build the great buildings of the future, not merely to echo the past.
And the "danger" lobby believes that to put up tall buildings would only invite somebody to knock them down again and would also be useless, because nobody will ever wish to work "up there" again. In the days following the unveiling of the six plans, all these lobbies - and others, too; let's not forget state governor George Pataki's determination not to let anything at all be built on the "towers' footprints" - have been making their feelings known. The result of all this democracy may be the building of a new Lower Manhattan which everyone can support, or, more probably, it may be a timorous, confused series of compromises, a multi-humped camel of a scheme - the camel being, as the saying goes, a horse designed by a committee. As it happens, my own idea for the reconstruction, or possibly one exactly like it coincidentally dreamed up by someone else, has been incorporated into more than one of the six schemes. At the end of that day of sky watching I thought: something grand must be built here (and, yes, if I had to choose, I'd probably side with those who wanted the new buildings to look like the fallen towers, at least on the outside). Those who destroyed it were making a symbolic statement and we must answer them in symbolic terms.
So, what if we did build a new 110-storey tower here, or even two towers; but what if the top 30 or 40 storeys of one or both the towers were then left empty, filled only with light, like a giant atrium or pair of atrium, and what if that were the memorial - a memorial in the very sky-space where the assaults had occurred, and which repossessed and dignified that space for ever What if the walls of that single or twinned memorial were engraved with the names of the lost, like a negative-space version of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC Might that not offer a solution that all the lobbies could accept By chance I learned that a friend, the British artist Brian Clarke, was advising Larry Silverstein and his team of architects on what might be done at the site. I told Clarke my idea; he liked it and said he'd pass it on. Since then I've heard nothing, but I now see that, in the words of one press report, "Almost all designs feature a memorial tower first suggested by architects for World Trade Centre leaseholder Larry Silverstein, which would be at least as tall as the toppled 110-storey buildings and have more than 40 storeys of empty, transparent space on top". I am simultaneously amazed, gratified and perplexed. I've tried to find out if indeed this is a version of my original idea, but so far have received no reply. But it doesn't finally matter whose idea it is.
I still think it is a good one, and commend it to all parties. What matters more is that a choice is swiftly made about the nature of what is intended; do we want to create a necropolis or a phoenix I venture to suggest that those hard-working men and women who were hard at work when death flew in through the window would be best served by the re-creation of a spectacular working environment, by the regeneration of the city they loved. That would be a finer memorial, surely, than any statue or garden or light-filled atrium in the sky: the sight of Lower Manhattan restored to its old vibrancy, the spectacle of New York looking, as it has always looked, towards the future and not the past.