That Which Requires a Name
That Which Requires a Name
The World Trade Center, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, dominated Port of New York upon its completion in 1973. The twin towers, the tallest buildings at the time, aspired to significance far beyond their site in Lower Manhattan. The project’s ambitions were driven by a renewed humanist dream, reimagined for a new global society. A project of the specific environment of late twentieth century New York; described by Rem Koolhaas, “Through a bizarre cross-fertilization of misunderstood rhetoric, American pragmatism and European idealism have exchanged ethos: the materialistic philistines of New York had invented and built an oneiric field devoted to the pursuit of fantasy.”1 The World Trade Center, as a project and as building, expresses the aspirations of the Tower of Babel.
The story of Babel is one of human aspiration, a conquering of nature by man. “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth,” the Sumerian translation for the tower Etemananki, is descriptive in itself of this human ambition. Through the accumulation of knowledge, an intense study of the cosmos, Babylonians sought to connect the heavens and earth; more precisely, bring the powers governing the movements of the heavens into the domain of man.2 The desire to control the natural, according to Leon Kass in his lecture “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” is rooted in fear.
Building is the antithesis of wilderness, human reason conquering the dangers of a chaotic nature. These dangers, already present, are accentuated by the Flood. The city and the tower are man’s answer to hostility of the natural world. “The city, to begin with, is a place guarded by a wakeful watch, a place from which men look out beyond for threats to their security; it is not the market nor the shrine but the watchtower or outpost that first makes a city a city.”3 The city-ness described here, clearly has its roots in fear, but this gives way to pride.
The collection of people in the city, brought together for a feeling of security, is what enables the collaboration necessary for building. According to Kass, the city is the manifestation of a new phenomenon, man relying on man, rather than God, for his needs:
“…the city stands as a memorial to the ingenuity and success of those who have gone before, at any given moment the city is an expression of the human effort at self-sufficiency, at satisfying by human means alone all of the needs and wants of human life.”4
The accomplishment of self-sufficiency liberates man; human reason has conquered fear and man is free to celebrate the human reason. Kass’s reading of Aristotle’s “Politics,” leads him to the conclusion that the city is “the embodiment of, and stage for, human speech and reason.”5 Control of nature on earth accomplished, man next seeks to bring the heavens into the earth; in order to accomplish this, man builds. “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.”6 As described in the Genesis account, man burns mud from the ground and creates brick (symbolic, according to Kass, of God use of the dust of the earth to create man).7 This technology of brick not only enables, but propels man vertically. The city represents human self-sufficiency, the conquering of nature on earth; the tower surpasses it, reaching for the heavens, representative of man’s control of the vertical, a new plane of existence. Both the city and the tower create a new condition; the city is an agent for the making of a new type of society based on interdependence and its social effects, the tower is a new physical condition, a new place of existence for those in/on it and a new monument to those on the ground. This exactly fits the definition Kass assigns to making a name: “To make a name for oneself is, most radically, to ‘make that which requires a name.’”8 Through the first ten chapters of Genesis, there are many of examples of assigning names, to animals, people, and places alike, but the aspiration of “making” a name is entirely new to Babel. “Above all, the sky-scraping tower-whatever its explicit purpose--stands proudly as a monumental achievement of proud builders, to serve their everlasting glory.”9 In this act, man assumes the role of God, not only in a physical reconstruction of his world, but also through the mental construction of language.10
Babel’s significance hinges on its all-encompassing nature, “…it is a universal-human project. This is the first due to the fact that Babel is not just any city, but is the city; the paradigmatic or universal city, representing a certain universal human aspiration.”11 The story is the culmination of the universal portion of Genesis, the first 11 chapters that tell the stories of archetypes.12 It begins with the world united, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.”13 Common language is not only important for pragmatic purposes but is also representative of a common desire, a common aspiration. This notion is what allows for the claim of Babel as a universal-human project. Kass notes that language is a human construct, it is the creation of an entire world; however, one that is but a shadow of the given world. “The word is not the thing. True, language may point to and reflect the given world. But, colored always by human perceptions, passions, and desires, language conveys less the world as it is, more the humanly constructed vision of that world.”14
The act of building the city and the tower requires the use of language. It enables the call to action for the first time in Genesis, “Come, let us make bricks.” This phrase implies unity in plan, a common aspiration. Speech is necessary to pull together the resources of man which in turn is necessary to build the city and tower.15 Babel is the city of the humanist dream.
FAILURES OF SUCCESS
Inherent in Babel is the inability for the project to fully realize the aspirations. The realities of the physical world would never allow for the materials, bricks and slime, to last permanently. Just as the realities of man’s recreated world, the city and its social effects, would inevitably lead to a separation in interests and, therefore, a loss of unity. Kass claims that even if the effects of these realities would not cause the projects to fail, its success would cause “intellectual or moral or spiritual” failure. That is to say, even putting practical concerns aside, the project was non-physically doomed. Kass identifies five “failings of success.” First, the man of the city “will revere nothing and will look up to nothing not of their own making,” and because the city was made by man, the city becomes a cave that enchains man.16 Second, man naming the city for himself rather than his descendants, unlike Cain, causes him to lose sight of mortality. Third, “In their act of total self-creation, there could be no separate and independent (non-man-made) standard to guide the self-making or by means of which to judge it good. The men, unlike God in His creation, will be unable to see that all that they had done is good.”17 This is directly related to the fourth, speech, which is a man-made creation, has no basis besides itself, so, therefore, it is rendered meaningless. Finally (and most significantly), there can be no questioning of a universally accepted “truth.” Self-criticism could not exist, the fifth failing would not allow man to see the first four. “The self-sufficient and independent city of man means full estrangement and spiritual death for all its inhabitants.”18
THE NEW CITY
In Genesis, God saves man from these failures,19 the story ends: “…the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”20 The humanist project died with the story of Babel. However, it made a resurgence into the collective consciousness in the 20th century, specifically in one city: New York. In Le Corbusier’s book “When the Cathedrals Were White,” his reaction to a 1935 visit to New York, he states, “In the period after WW1, America entered into the life of the world. New York is a universal city, the first city to be constructed on the scale of modern times.” 21 This was not a new thought; in a 1917 guidebook titled “New York: The Metropolis of the Western World,” New York is described as “…the growing and expanding city of the present, the Metropolis of America, from which is emerging that city of the future which shall be the Metropolis of the World.”22
The rebirth of the humanist project in New York was not a rebirth of the Babelic notion of unity written about by Kass. Rather, it was the embracing of the difference, which by necessity could not exist in the “common speech” city in the story of Babel. Kass describes the division of labor as a social force that would destroy the unity of Babel;23 however, in the twentieth century New York humanist project, the division is a necessity. In “The Sphere and the Labyrinth,” Manfredo Tafuri writes, “…for such an indifference to matters of linguistic coherence (every language is permitted in the ‘great theatre’ of the metropolis). Certainly, the ‘New Babylon’ is invited to participate joyously in the world of commerce: the commodities themselves, here, tend to hide the abstractions of their exchange value, to exalt the ‘gratuitous,’ to present themselves as pure use-value.”24 The division of labor and the varied individual interests, products of the commerce economy of the metropolis, are essential to Tafuri’s idea of the “New Babylon.” A failure of the unity of Babel was that the common truth precluded self-criticism. While no common truth exists in the metropolis, the individuals that inhabit it are forced into uninterrupted motion of the productive order, leaving no time for self-criticism. “’The New Babylon’ must present itself as a variety theatre, through which eccentricity becomes an institution, a mode of collective behavior.”25 The framework of the metropolis allows for the motion of varied parts to create a new unity. “Babel is the prelude to new knowledge, to the division of language, the triumph of ‘difference’ - but only as the premise of a new globality.” 26 In “Delirious New York,” Rem Koolhaas makes a similar argument for buildings as Tafuri does for the individual. In his view, the Manhattan grid acts as the framework which allows the buildings freedom in the vertical axis. “The Grid defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos.”27 It is in this vertical axis that the man of the metropolis assumes the role of God, just as the man of Babel before him, by recreating his physical world. The grid in the vertical axis are described by Koolhaas as “a man-made Wild West, a frontier in the sky.”28
WORLD TRADE CENTER
The idea of a World Trade Center in New York, although brewing behind the scene for years, officially emerges in 1946 when New York Governor establishes a board of ten directors for the construction and operation of the center. “…There be established in New York a world trade center where the fruits of manufacturing skill from every country in the world can be brought together in one place for display and exchange.”29 The plan died, only to be revived when David Rockefeller founded Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association (DLMA), an interest group focused on raising Lower Manhattan property values.30 Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, hired by Rockefeller’s DLMA, created a proposal for a World Trade Center on the east side of Lower Manhattan.31 A later version of the scheme was eventually presented to the New York Port Authority but it was blocked by the New Jersey Governor, leading to the relocation of the World Trade Center site to the west side.32 (fig. 1)
(fig 1.) The World Trade Center site in 196133
A committee was established by the Port Authority to choose an architect for the new site, and the aspirations for the WTC are clear from the evaluation report:
“Due to its great size and scope, the proposed World Trade Center in its realization has the inherent power to create a great impact on man’s architectural thinking. Its planning, design, and construction should therefore represent man’s highest ideals, imagination and creative ability. Through full application of all his knowledge, he can build efficiently and economically a great constructive symbol of international trade in the Port of New York.”34
The aspirations of the project had expanded to include an architecture symbol worthy of a new world metropolis.
WORLD TRADE, CENTER
The name of the World Trade Center can be viewed as symbolic of the project’s Babelic nature. World Trade notes the aspiration of new global unity through trade, Center, on the other hand, is an admission of specific place. Its universal aspirations are cut short by its worldly constraint. A 1966 quote from Austin J. Tobin, the executive director of the Port Authority during the conception and design of the WTC, currently adorns a wall in the underground portion of the museum which now sits on the site:
“In spirit, the Trade Center is a United Nations of Commerce. In concept, the Trade Center is a marketplace for the Free World. In operation, the Trade Center will be a thriving city within a city, the dynamo of the port’s trade with the world.”
The aspirations of the World Trade Center project are clear in Tobin’s words. Similar sentiments are echoed by Walter Gropius and Minoru Yamasaki, the two most seriously considered candidates for architect of the WTC.35 They both go a step further by discussing trade’s ability as an agent for peace. “By its very nature trade is cosmopolitan and liberating to society,” Gropius adds in his submission to the Port Authority.36 At the first meeting to unveil the project model, Yamasaki states his opinion on the possible power of the project to be the “physical evocation of the ‘relationship between world trade and world peace,’ and a ‘living symbol of man's dedication to world peace.’”37 All of these comments build on a worldwide optimism for peace in the wake of the two world wars. In describing the Unisphere at the 1964 World’s Fair, Rem Koolhaas writes, “It dramatizes the interrelation of the peoples in the world and their yearning for ‘peace through understanding’...”38 (fig. 2)
(fig. 2) Unisphere39
The World Trade Center was built with the aspiration of a new Babel, as the latest iteration of “a recurrent human dream, a dream of humankind united, living together in peace and freedom.”40
“Human ordering is the theme of the story of Babel,” Leon Kass declares. “…if what lies behind the human world is only chaos and instability, man must make his own order.”41 By building the city and the tower in the story of Babel, man makes a name for himself; he assumes the role of God by making something which requires a name, by recreating his physical world. This Babelic notion is present in every aspect of the World Trade Center, but no more so than in the land on which it was built. “Perhaps the greatest act of hubris in the building of the Trade Center was not its height, but its location.”42 The WTC was built on the site of a landfill. This was not new condition for building, the landfill itself was created in the colonial era, but the engineering solution for this project was. The Hudson River is kept off the site by 3100 linear feet of 70’ deep, 3’ thick walls encircling the towers’ footprint.43 The “bathtub,” created as a base for the towers, takes the Babelic notion another degree further. (fig. 3)
(fig. 3) The “bathtub”44
The World Trade Center’s specific placement at the edge of the Hudson (technically untrue, the earth removed in the building of the bathtub was used to create Battery Park City, that now separates the WTC site from the Hudson), is important to the relationship of the towers to the city. In his submission to the Port Authority, Gropius, understanding the significance of its visibility from the port (fig. 4), called for an expressive form, “From far away the silhouettes must be simple to be grasped at a glance and remembered as the unequivocal image of the World Trade Center.”45 (fig. 5) Gropius noted the project’s universal aspirations must be manifested in the architecture. For him, this meant the expression of “the great power consistent with the pioneering spirit of our age.”46
(fig. 4) The World Trade Center from the Harbor47 / (fig. 5) The World Trade Center from the Empire State Building48
With the stated aspiration of becoming a center for universal peace through global trade, the World Trade Center’s gothic articulation is fitting. Tafuri writes of the symbolic power of the skyscraper, especially of its collective nature:
“The skyscraper that, finally, through an act of extreme violence, succeeds in purifying, while restoring its own power of speech, the place of the collective murder-the metropolis-which is now dominated by an observatory explicitly designed to reincarnate the symbolic place of the Gothic community: the cathedral.”49
The World Trade Center, through the density of vertical lines created by its closely spaced exterior columns, articulates the heavenly reaching symbolism of the gothic cathedral. (fig. 6) In addition to the collective symbolism and skyward bound articulation, the cathedral, in a notion at the heart of Corb’s book, was symbolic of newness; specifically, a liberation from the past.50
(fig. 6) The exterior, uninterrupted vertical columns as seen from the ground51
The account in Genesis reads, “’Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.’”52 The tower, a creation of man, is built by the stacking of bricks, themselves a creation of man. The bricks, made of earth, are baked, altered by man but remain bounded by the realities of the natural world. Each brick has the same material properties, the same structural capacity, plus or minus a small amount. This necessitates a building up horizontally to accommodate the vertical stacking; the resulting cross section is inherent in the image of Babel. (fig. 7) The stepped form implies a vertical extension, the heavenly aspiration is visible in the architecture; however, the reality is that the incremental stepping back will converge to zero, and prohibit the tower from reaching infinity.
(fig. 7) Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel53 / (fig. 8) The Top of The World Trade Center54
The Babelic reading of the World Trade Center relies on its form, one not of step-back but of extrusion, of vector. In the New City, the step-back form is an immediate admission of a height limit, a point at which the faces of the tower will converge and it will cease to rise. The new towers’ form of extrusions, forms with no acknowledgement of top and no inevitable end, convey the ability of infinity that was absent in the Tower of Babel. (fig. 8) The World Trade Center was built not with brick, but with steel, a modern material of variable strengths, enabling its columns to maintain a consistent cross section from bottom to top.55 The Tower of Babel expressed, in its form, its inability to overcome the realities of the natural world; the World Trade Center asserted dominance over it. Its image, as a vector, removes it from the domain of the natural world, and places it fully in the re-creation of the world by man.
1 Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Monacelli, 1994. Print. 271.
2 Kass, Leon R. “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” Reflections (Center of Theological Enquiry, Princeton, NJ) 7 (Spring 2004): 16.
3 Ibid., 12.
4 Ibid., 13.
5 Ibid., 14.
6 "Genesis 11." Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
7 Kass, Leon R. “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” Reflections (Center of Theological Enquiry, Princeton, NJ) 7 (Spring 2004): 12.
8 Ibid., 17.
9 Ibid., 16.
10 Ibid., 17.
11 Ibid., 12.
12 Ibid., 4.
13 "Genesis 11." Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
14 Kass, Leon R. “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” Reflections (Center of Theological Enquiry, Princeton, NJ) 7 (Spring 2004): 10.
16 Kass, Leon R. “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” Reflections (Center of Theological Enquiry, Princeton, NJ) 7 (Spring 2004): 20.
18 Ibid., 23.
20 "Genesis 11." Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
21 Corbusier, Le, and Francis Edwin Hyslop. When the Cathedrals Were White, a Journey to the Country of Timid People. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. Print. 95.
22 New York, the Metropolis of the Western World. New York: Foster & Reynolds, 1917. Print.
23 Kass, Leon R. “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” Reflections (Center of Theological Enquiry, Princeton, NJ) 7 (Spring 2004): 20.
24 Tafuri, Manfredo. "The "Yellow Giants" and the Myth of Americanism." The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1987. 180. Print.
25 Ibid., 181.
26 Ibid., 179.
27 Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Monacelli, 1994. Print. 20.
28 Ibid., 87.
29 “Dewey Picks Board for Trade Center.” The New York Times 7 July 1946: 1+. Print.
30 Darton, Eric. Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center. New York: Basic, 1999. Print. 58.
31 Robins, Anthony. The World Trade Center. Englewood, FL: Pineapple, 1987. Print. 10.
32 Ibid., 17.
33 Ibid., 18.
34 Ibid., 24.
35 Ibid., 25.
37 "World's Largest Buildings Proposed for Manhattan." Progressive Architecture XLV.2 (1964): 57-59. Print.
38 Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Monacelli, 1994. Print. 291.
40 Kass, Leon R. “Technology and the Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now,” Reflections (Center of Theological Enquiry, Princeton, NJ) 7 (Spring 2004): 5.
41 Ibid., 9.
42 Dwyer, Jim. Two Seconds under the World: Terror Comes to America: The Conspiracy behind the World Trade Center Bombing. New York: Crown, 1994. Print. 13.
44 Satō, Hideaki. Requiem World Trade Center: Once upon a Time in New York City. Tokyo: ICG Muse, 2001. Print. 115.
45 Robins, Anthony. The World Trade Center. Englewood, FL: Pineapple, 1987. Print. 25-6.
46 Ibid., 26.
47 Satō, Hideaki. Requiem World Trade Center: Once upon a Time in New York City. Tokyo: ICG Muse, 2001. Print. 120.
48 Hoffmann, Torsten Andreas., and Klaus Honnef. New York New York: Ansichten Einer Stadt. Weingarten: Weingarten, 2002. Print. 5.
49 Tafuri, Manfredo. "The "Yellow Giants" and the Myth of Americanism." The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1987. 174. Print.
50 Corbusier, Le, and Francis Edwin Hyslop. When the Cathedrals Were White, a Journey to the Country of Timid People. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. Print. 215.
51 Roiter, Fulvio. World Trade Center before. (Padova): Elmar Libri, 2011. Print. 4.
52 "Genesis 11." Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
53 Hoffmann, Torsten Andreas., and Klaus Honnef. New York New York: Ansichten Einer Stadt. Weingarten: Weingarten, 2002. Print.
54 Roiter, Fulvio. World Trade Center before. (Padova): Elmar Libri, 2011. Print. 40.
55 Lewis, H. S., Richard W. Bukoski, and Nicholas J. Carino. Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster. Rep. N.p.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2005. Print.