Reconstruction and Commemoration

by Lucien Steil

Proposal for the Reconstruction of the Potsdam Stadtschloss and Historic Center. Painting by James Hart Dyle<br/>(The Prince of Wale's Urban Design Task Force, 1996)

Life is a permanent process of reconstruction. The incapacity to rebuild results into an incapacity of life. Death is nothing else than a definitive interruption of reconstruction, which though following a fixed plan and order nevertheless allows infinite and always new and individual variation.

—Leon Krier

The beautiful cities of the past have been damaged, assaulted and destroyed, then rebuilt again and again so many times. Have there been times when humanity was not confronted by war, illness, corruption, evil and destruction? The Golden Ages—if there ever were any—were probably rare, exceptional and short. Now why rather than building a human Patria should architecture and urban construction then dedicate themselves to celebrate and illustrate the conflicts, disruptions and failures of our time? Why should art, architecture and city-building stand as allegories of unbearable pain and disfigurement, rather than as paradigms of healing and continuity?

In times when the world was more often than not destabilized and dis­rupted, traditional architecture and city-building emerged as ideals of home, harmony and beauty, solidly enhancing spirit of place and sense of commu­nity. They also gave time its place in a perspective of permanence, where the dialectics of being and becoming, of existence and change, etc., were at peace. Through centuries of both glorious and tragic history, marked by the most refined craftsmanship, artistic and scientific genius, civic life and citizenship, the traditional city has remained a desirable model of civilization, of good life and of a possible and buildable utopia. It has remained not only an efficient paradigm of reconstruction but a most resilient catalyst for the common good and for the noblest virtues of humanity.

Basilica of Echternach, completely rebuilt 1950-1955 after its destruction by Nazi occupants in 1945, fleeing the allied armies<br/>Photo by Lucien Steil

The historical city of Echternach, with its famous basilica and Benedictine abbey, was blown up in 1945 by its Nazi occupants, leaving a heavily destroyed city to the allied troops. The city and the basilica were rebuilt in a tradi­tional manner and became the very paradigm of post-war reconstruction in Luxembourg.

Roger Scruton writes:

Urban architecture—urban monuments in particular—ought to be invo­cations of the permanent. It is this that makes the classical styles not only agreeable to every age but also adaptable to every use. They are adaptable because they are marked by the will to endure, the collective decision to stand above the tide of appetite and history, and to make a permanent claim to space. This is why we admire the Parthenon, and why architects ever since have returned to it as a model for their work.

The Human as the Scale of the City

Now it is true that there are some places where towers and streets have worked successfully together, and one thinks immediately of the example of Manhattan, with its uniform grid. Yet Manhattan is, and will remain, unique in sheer scale and wealth, and its towers are, of course, far from the whole story of the city of New York. Jane Jacobs’ Greenwich Village, with its tenements and brownstones, has been as much, or more, a part of Manhattan’s livability as Trump Tower and Rockefeller Center.

 —HRH The Prince of Wales

“Tall Buildings” (Invensys Conference, London, December 11, 2001)

If truly dedicated and profound, the most iconic and symbolic endeavor of reconstruction of the United States of America at the beginning of the twen­ty-first century, the reconstruction of Ground Zero in New York, would have been more imaginative, more poetic, more compelling. It would have con­sidered the World Trade Center site as an organic part of Manhattan, as an urban quarter dedicated to life, diversity and citizenship, and above all to the Common Good. There is no functional or economic necessity to pack together and concentrate hundreds of firms, businesses, delegations, representations, corporations, offices, etc., in one single building, or a few tall ones. It has been sufficiently demonstrated that these concentrations are alienating, confusing, disturbing, impractical, complicated, inefficient, unproductive, highly uncom­fortable and destabilizing to all the people forced to pass a major part of their days in them.

World Trade Center area skyline, 2014<br/>Photo by Lucien Steil

Barbara Littenberg has argued: “We felt strongly that to replan the site as multiple, smaller venues and not one massive architectural project, was a far more sensitive way to restore lower Manhattan.” (“Proposal for the World Trade Center,” Post Urbanism & ReUrbanism, Michigan Debates on Urbanism, volume III, edited by Roy Strickland) The organization of all the functions of the former World Trade Center in the form of a new urban neighborhood, of pedestrian scale and with complex and mixed functions, etc., would have been a far more original, sustainable and efficient reconstruction option. It would have been particularly better suited to receive a wide range of urban func­tions and to articulate commemorative and civic monuments and spaces in a more refined range of scales and expressions than the plump and inarticulate masses and spaces of the present reconstruction. It would obviously have been a less vulnerable and resilient alternative. The construction of a complex and mixed-use urban neighborhood would have presented considerable advantages for a better economic and socio-cultural regeneration in a more democratic, participatory and pluralistic design. In good urban architecture, decision and building processes can unfold within the additive and incremental stages of smaller urban components, blocks, streets, squares, etc., from planning into building phases.

Peterson & Littenberg, Model of WTC Reconstruction

Littenberg continues:

We believed that only a complete urban fabric based on New York’s traditional grid could heal this wound in all its complexity. The details are crucial. Vibrant city streets are not country roads. They need street walls to form them. Buildings with activities on both sides are necessary to generate vitality and energy. City blocks cannot be coded by arbitrary setbacks and random empty plazas. There is precision and rigor required to maintain city form and establish a permanence to the public realm.

Perhaps the September 11th tragedy has strengthened the resilience, solidarity and confidence of New York and New Yorkers, and perhaps a new social and cultural consciousness and reinforced identity have arisen? What seems particularly moving and inspiring, however, is that the horrific experience of terrorist violence and destruction has generated a much more acute awareness of the human as the real scale of the city. The reconstruction of the WTC site unfor­tunately has missed the opportunity for a dignified and commemorative grace. Littenberg hopes that the city can eventually transcend the contingen­cies and compromises of short-sighted materialism and cultural mediocrity and re-emerge in newer projects and places. The collective memory of a city consists both in built and unbuilt projects and developments, myths, dreams, visions and history, and in the prayers and virtues imbedded in the most beautiful projects of reconstruction and perfection, which continue to inspire, educate and ultimately foster the construction of a better world.

Commemoration

Commemoration is not about remembering and reviving acute and relentless destruction, terror, fear, etc., but about overcoming these moments of unbearable pain by moral and material acts of reconstruction—acts of reconstruction encompassing the integrity and dignity of human existence. Commemoration envisions the reconstruction of homes and monuments, cities, towns and villages as the unalienable expressions of permanence, of immanence and of transcendence. It enhances faith in resilience and proposes the continuity of civility, urbanity and community.

Neither the immensity of the fatalities, chaos and panic, nor the subse­quent reactions of despair, anger, helplessness, fear, etc., can generate more than fragmented and painful records of events where reason and humanity have temporarily abandoned the world to the unchained forces of evil. But commemoration is more than a reaction, or a simple remembering. It is a cre­ative act of reconstruction—emotional, spiritual, cultural, moral and material. Commemoration is, in fact, the result or synthesis of a healing process, and probably it is the very healing itself. It is about a healing which allows us to re-order the world and to reassess the meaning of human existence within its historical and cultural dimension, within its political and geographical bound­aries, within the dialectics of the individual and the community.

Commemoration consecrates the memory of dramatic, tragic, heroic or mythic events by rituals, signs, places and monuments of collective and civic importance. It translates the momentary shock—caused by the brutal and sudden irruption of death, destruction, terror and horror—into durable acts of reconstruction—of a community’s identity, its historical continuity, its moral and civic cohesion, its faith in the unalienable ideals of human civilization. This creative sublimation of the experience of death and destruction, of horror and fear, into symbols of life, continuity and permanence is the para­doxical purpose of commemoration. It is a necessary condition of any cultural endeavor of humanity.

The particular tasks of architecture and urbanism consist in safeguarding and emulating the quality, character and identity of places, buildings and monuments as the most permanent and most powerful locations of collective memory and human culture. Only then can they provide the appropriate civic settings for acts of commemoration.

Not only should monuments, sanctuaries, commemorative plazas and gardens be considered in this context, but the city as a whole should be encom­passed as an integral part of a commemorative endeavor. The city is indeed the highest form of commemoration, the highest expression of resilience, the most beautiful synthesis of human culture. It is a material, artistic, poetic, historical and moral masterwork, and the most perfect and complete testimony of col­lective memory.

 American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2015, Volume 32, Number 1