The widespread belief that a big chunk of the World Trade Center site should be turned into a memorial park commemorating the 9/11 dead misses the point. Simply stated, the city is itself a monument. And the city does not tolerate competition for its insatiable attention. It is an incessant festival of demolition and reconstruction, surging frenetically upward, giving physical form to the heroic aspirations of its millions.
A traditional memorial is a place of serenity and introspection, where the participant engages spaces and objects that are didactic. Washington is replete with such experiences. Manhattan, by contrast, has always devoured its civic monuments. It does not have time for such memorials. How many people know what event is commemorated by the noble stone carvings at the southwest corner of Central Park? Though the Maine memorial is a rare and splendid example of neoclassical sculpture, one can only focus on it for a brief moment before one’s attention is captured by the monstrous steel skeleton rising on the western edge of Columbus Circle, crawling with a thousand construction workers and reaching each day a step closer to the stratosphere.
To mourn the relative silence of Piccirilli’s exquisite carving is to miss the point—in Manhattan, the real memorials are above the 60th floor. In a culture whose creed is Liberty through Capital, the speculative office building is the Cathedral, whose height is the measure of its sanctity. The Empire State Building is our Parthenon, the Chrysler Building our Chartres. The Twin Towers were to us what the Pyramids where to the Pharaohs: testaments of civilization designed to challenge the limits of time and space.
To be sure, our collective conscience sometimes troubles us when faced with the change that we have replaced conventional religious belief with a system that appears to value materialism above all else. This is a central contention of our enemies—and the reason they seek to raze our temples of commerce and individualism. But we must not forget that our material wealth is but the physical manifestation of individual liberty and self-determination. It demonstrates a refusal to accept given conditions and a determination to transcend the boundaries of circumstance in search of a better life.
Like all religions, Prosperity is hardly perfect. It licenses greed; economic inequality is its basic premise. However, unlike many of the world’s other religions, it has no room for intolerance, violence, and ethnocentricity. Neither does it institutionalize hereditary class privilege.
The greatest possible monument for those killed on September 11 is a Manhattan more spectacular, more breathtaking, and more sublime than the one they left behind on that day. Nothing short of a stunning display of technological prowess and gravity-defying structural acumen will be sufficient. The more accomplished the architecture, the greater the homage to the fallen.
We must build, build, and build again. Let us turn not to Washington for inspiration, but rather to midtown Manhattan. Let our obelisks be built of vast trading floors, of office buildings humming with high-powered executives and aspiring entrepreneurs from all corners of the globe. Let our fountains flow with currents of creative energy, rather than the soothing hum of moving water. In this way, we demonstrate to the world, in steel and stone, how we refuse to be bowed—and we show our enemies the futility of destroying our temples.
The kind of introspection and silence demanded to commemorate both our extraordinary achievements as a nation and the enormity of our loss on that day can only occur on the roof of the world, miles above New York Harbor, with the monumentality of the real memorial—Manhattan Island itself—spread out before the viewer. Let us honor our loved ones from the heavens, far above the caves of the pathological, life-hating creeds of our miserable attackers. Let us raise the torch of human achievement even higher. We owe this much to those who fell on 9/11, as well as to all those who continue to seek the opportunities that our nation and our city embody.
It’s time to build.
Matthew J. Dockery is Assistant Professor of Architectural Design at the New York Institute of Technology.