The disassembly of a skyscraper is a rare and expensive event. Counter-construction, or reverse building, methods precede often baroque permit requests and legal go aheads. In a sense, a building must be ‘re-cocooned’ in the very materials from which it sprung forth. Scaffolding is wrapped along the perimeter and façade of a structure destined for scrapping in conjunction with heavy mesh tarping to keep dislodged material at bay. Concrete and masonry are removed by kinetic force while delicate distributions of steel and plumbing are dissected by torch. Furnishings, fittings and amenities are the first to be uprooted. Company property, rank and station dearly depart along with the evicting and fracturing of its actors and their ball point pedigrees.
A necessary byproduct of this structural extraction is the concurrent dismantling of a building’s sum total – it’s registered value and symbol for both its physical form and ontological forms must be jettisoned for land to be truly levelled. Just as cultural or heritage significance can be inscribed upon a building, they can also be withdrawn by moratorium depriving a façade of its typical inconspicuousness by deliberately dressing it down. The property magnate will liken this to a righteous civil rejuvenation, uplifting a city’s aesthetic prospects lest it betray itself as an incubator of globalist modernity. The start phase of construction is the same. The erecting of a building does not go unnoticed. It is an optical and sonic aberration, obtrusive, dirty, alluring. Traffic, pedestrian or vehicular, might be diverted, detoured, show-room models temporarily exhibited. When work is complete these ‘abnormalities’ – themselves just splintered variations of raw city – are lifted and recouped into completion. The once-stalled masses are emancipated, the building forgiven for obliging them. Outside of these sometimes-volatile beginning and ending stages, the fledging and complete building is swiftly absorbed in an image tradition of cordoned city streets and backdrop. Cities are nearly always conceived of in wholes and for this to remain intact rods, steel and concrete are cycled, interchangeably, shelter to shelter, in an inanely privatised fashion. Even anomalous or distinctive towers (Eureka Tower, 120 Collins Street, 101 Collins Street, for instance) are typified as perfect bastions of a city or binding agents of a skyline.
In (more) recent geographies, the technical and formal qualities of buildings served as a faint skeletal infrastructure for studies more concerned with meaning and politics of representation.1
As multi-storied brick tenements ascended and thinned into mass commercial facilities, the skyscraper became less a repository of recognisable labours, and more a prescriptive signalling of ‘work’, ‘capital’ and ‘Western excellence’ writ large. The image we commonly have of these spaces abandons their intricate and plentiful micro-geographies, reducing residents and their energies and activities to a state of static totality or cohesiveness. Any building appears total from its exterior. The far away look up and see thousands or tens of thousands gathered, expressed and de-particularised as a rectangle. The far away look down and see the microbial sprawl they are inseparable from. In this double perspective one can only really deduce a sense impression of the other. Purveying from within, however, generates something less predictably all-encompassing – it’s true bowels and buffeted barbarisms laid bare. The glass epidermis keeps vast work, exertion and latent potential at bay – capable of being benign, equitable, undemocratic, opaque, obvious and/or guerrilla.
Careful not to introduce Nine Eleven as a self-evidentiary concept, stable ‘theme’ or given notion, I believe the attacks to be, among many things, an unspooling, decoding and recoding of our relations with skyscrapers; with their popular imaginaries and common fictions. The breaching of the United States’ ‘secured’ air space and destruction of one it’s foremost built icons on 11 September 2001 not only challenged the country’s previous stronghold over its national security and defence (and thus it’s enshrined and feverishly upheld legacy of exceptionalism and infallibility) but also warped our distinctly modern faith in skyscrapers and buildings as self-sufficient and sedately hierarchical. In the crucible of the flames and shock the afterlife of the Twin Tower’s was prematurely instigated, bearing open fragmented, multi-scaled and multi-sited networks of association. Now under the scrutiny of media and common interest, the flaming cubicles, evacuated hordes and dispersed business papers that drifted from the epicentre uptown were means to substantiate and render tangible what was once enclosed. Thrown at high velocity outside of its routine repetitions, the Twin Towers were to answer for and explain their assault; dissected and cross-examined at the very moment its densities couldn’t dilute themselves as symbols. The intricate specifics of the building and its once-human presence was of interest, answered by standby funerals, missing persons flyers, testimonials from office employees, rescue squadrons, reporting and investigative programming and ultimately, cultural critique. Just as much a result of counting losses as preserving them for posterity, the Twin Towers in their ruin were richly and widely atomised and, in this renewal, recognised as the arterial reserves they actually were.
A sequence of searches on Nine Eleven forums brought me to a transcribed symposium on the ‘Artist Residency Program’ in the Twin Towers, presented by the director of Visual & Media Arts at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Moukhtar Kocache. In it, Kocache speaks of the two peer-to-peer artist studio programs administered in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. In the quashing and flattening of the buildings vertical square footage as it fell into itself, it is often forgotten just how expansive the interior terrain of the Twin Towers was. Vast swathes of real estate went occupied, unoccupied or for sale in flux. A small portion of that, between floors ninety-one and ninety-two, was donated to a number of emerging artists by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; a revolving desk of one hundred and fifty ‘artists, cultural workers and producers’ took residency there on six-month contracts, with public access encouraged in the interim. As a launch pad for multiple disciplines and methodologies, independent and collaborative, a great majority of the works completed clearly reference or are imbued with an awareness of site. This isn’t to say that all are ‘site-specific’, per se, as in the public sculptures that once festooned the concourse of the Trade Centres (as an aside, the abrupt death space generated by the falling of the towers fractured the expecting temporal proceedings of that New York Tuesday. In doing so, ironies were revealed, analogies literalised and euphemisms animated. Lost was a granite memorial fountain inscribed with the names and honouring the causalities of the 1993 World Trade Centre truck bombing, an alleged precursor to Nine Eleven. James Rosati’s 1972 stainless steel Ideogram, a barbed pastiche of the buildings rigid blueprint, was indistinguishable from and carried away with the fallen shrapnel on Ground Zero).
Kocache speaks at length on the attacks as, among mass causalities and infrastructural decay, a ‘loss of subject … opportunities, possibilities, context, and a whole world of references in the form of visual but also conceptual and political material’.2 Rescuing and reclaiming these theoretical response systems to tangible phenomena as qualitative losses in and of themselves is radical, especially given the attacks appear intractable from their gross human loss. All but one of the practicing artists were spared (artist-in-residence, Michael Richards) and as depths of grief and remembrance shift between subject to object and back again, Kocache’s lamenting of involuntary inaction is less easily pulled from rubble or positioned before tribune.
The program itself, despite having reached ‘thousands’ during open-studios or in public performance happenings at the Trade Centre concourse, has been relegated to a place of inadmissibility in wider reconstructions and accounts of the terror, recovery and remembrance. From its very inception, the arts programs ran alternative and adjacent to the politics and bureaucracies of the Twin Towers as rented spaces of capital exchange. Modular and self-regenerative, the ‘independent’ (in as much as the artists enjoyed free-reign over what was produced and when) and gratuitous labouring of these artists proved radical and progressive exceptions to the paid and contract-based economies overwhelmingly administered elsewhere. This sort of conditional and contingent para-tenancy operated at a managerial distance from the vast lease holdings and stakes at play while providing a literal proximity to them by virtue of skyscraper congestions and compartmentalisation. Office minutiae and corporate culture were these residents’ raw material and a number of experimentations and sensory works have been catalogued in Kocache’s transcript.
Photographer and archivist Martina Gecelli compiled a series of documentation on abandoned office spaces at the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Space left in dereliction carpeted by forsaken fax sheets, sinks, split particle board desks and spilled ceiling entrails. Reviewing her photographs in hindsight proves markedly discomforting in their accidental evocations of the later annihilation event. Gecelli’s ‘post-mortem’ witnessing closely resembles the record-making practices of forensic photographers though, seemingly, the crime scenes are devoid of clue or victim. Her selective consideration of those vacant spaces in the North Tower not only work to unwind and dishonour the myth of this ‘building’ as everywhere-engineered (so all encompassing as to be the namesake of a cardinal point) but also serve as isolated portraits of a sky tower’s sterilising and foreboding psycho-geography. Kochache reminds us that:
We did not go to work every day into the buildings simply because our offices and studios happened to be there, but precisely because they were located in the Twin Towers and our desire was to analyze them from within.^3
Whether Gecelli trespassed onto this space or not, her peripatetic tracking of cubicles phasing in and out of ownership is useful in it being tantamount and applicable to any given commercial space.
Spatial psychologies were implemented by performance artist Susan Kelly as well, who ascended the staircase from the first to the ninety-first floor of the North Tower in a tunnelling upward endurance exercise, herself an informal unit of measurement and record-keeping trundle-wheel. Her travelogue exists purely in the provocation of the event, undocumented and entirely experiential. Movement and mobility are key areas of concern in the architectural blueprinting and casting of buildings of this scale, in which access and egress are loosely plotted upon a nine to five timing window. Stair chutes and elevators are amenities that stem and control the vast migrations of crowds across the vertical stratum of a tower complex. Importantly, the Twin Towers were transitory hubs, never lived in or zoned as residential and so its corridors and shafts of passage were vital to clear thousands in rotation. If (and when) destroyed evacuation would be severely impaired if not totally compromised. The ambulation’s of Kelly closely mirrored the panicked fleeing of those ‘in-danger’, as well as others whose vantage on the looming threat was blighted by being indoors on lower floors. As if the trapped themselves became de-facto and bona fide architectural analysts ...
The construction workers who work there do not call it Ground Zero. To them it is simply 'the pile.'4
The debris and despoliated remains of Nine Eleven were procedurally carted cross-river to a waste facility known as Fresh Kills Landfill, now out of service. A so called ‘bucket-brigade’ was formed in which five-gallon pails of building were passed down and sifted to isolate human remains from sediment. When an estimated 350,000 tonnes of total material had been removed from the premises by May of 2002 and re-distributed to this new zone of landfill the Twin Towers were null and void, removed of any ‘remnant vestige’ that could be publicly accessed or remembered. It is no wonder the nominated public memorial site – completed on 11 September 2011 after a multitude of stymied proposals most of which include the provisions for a monument or cenotaph – contain a pair of concave fountains emblazoned with inscriptions of the lost. Pried from any true actuality, a pool or negative chasm is perhaps the best analogy to what once was of the towers; a rhetorical cross wiring of relations, ‘pipes and cables, managers and users, owners and investors’ under a residuum of being ‘held together and pulled apart’. In this sense, the denizens and citizens who comprise a skyscraper are architectural implements in and of themselves. When both co-producers – material and sociological – are absent or decimated, as was the exceptional case in the Nine Eleven attacks, the ‘skyscraper’ as we imagine it fails.
Will Kollmorgen is an arts writer. He is a recent graduate of the Monash Art History and Curating program and has a specific interest in archival practices, object-oriented taxonomies and student-teacher economies.