Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 24, 2010

Reflections on the stalled WTC rebuilding project

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

In a fascinating segment that appeared on Sixty Minutes last Sunday on the failure of the rebuilding of the WTC–to this day nothing but an open pit–reporter Scott Pelley mused:

New York has had leaders of vision in the past. Al Smith, the former governor, got the Empire State Building built in a year, during the Great Depression. But since 9/11 there have been three governors of New York, four executive directors of the Port Authority, and no one to see the project through. The next chapter may be written by judges. In January, an arbitration court threatened to create its own construction deadlines if Silverstein and the Port Authority failed to come up with a new plan by March.

When I heard him say this, it was like an epiphany. All of a sudden I understood why ruling class politicians in the United States have been dealing with “gridlock”. Writ large, the failure of the WTC rebuilding project is a perfect symbol of the inability of the bourgeoisie to get anything done—except launch imperialist invasions. Al Smith, like FDR, was not any smarter or nervier than politicians today. What has changed is the general failure of the bourgeoisie to grasp and act on its own long-term agenda. From climate change to health insurance, from the need to repair infrastructure like bridges and roads to the collapse of daily newspapers all around the United States (an essential means for the ruling class to maintain its ideological hegemony), we are witnessing a kind of paralysis. Nothing matters, however, as long as the biggest corporations in American can show an uptick in quarterly earnings so as to protect its shareholder’s investments. If the rest of the country is turning into Detroit, who cares? Eventually an aroused working class but that’s a risk they are willing to take for the time being.

The Sixty Minutes segment, as one might expect, hardly does justice to the clashing interests that have kept the project in a kind of limbo. It states that real estate developer is not interested in aesthetics and only seeks buildings that are commercially viable. The original architect Daniel Libeskind designed a tower that was 1,776 feet tall (heavy-handed symbolism, needless to say) that had hanging gardens at the top of a glass enclosed structure. It was obviously vulnerable to another attack and a clear waste of the philistine Silverstein’s money.

New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp found Libeskind’s design transparently “demagogic”, quite an acknowledgment from the gray lady in February 2003 when war fever was running high:

Compared with Think’s proposal, Mr. Libeskind’s design looks stunted. Had the competition been intended to capture the fractured state of shock felt soon after 9/11, this plan would probably deserve first place. But why, after all, should a large piece of Manhattan be permanently dedicated to an artistic representation of enemy assault? It is an astonishingly tasteless idea. It has produced a predictably kitsch result.

Mr. Libeskind’s Berlin-based firm, Studio Daniel Libeskind, has not produced an abstract geometric composition. It is an emotionally manipulative exercise in visual codes. A concrete pit is equated with the Constitution. A skyscraper tops off at 1,776 feet. As at Abu Simbel, the Egyptian temple, the play of sunlight is used to give a cosmic slant to worldly history. A promenade of heroes confers quasi-military status on uniformed personnel.

Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic. As this nation prepares to send troops into battle, the design’s message seems even more loaded. Unintentionally, the plan embodies the Orwellian condition America’s detractors accuse us of embracing: perpetual war for perpetual peace.

Of course, it wasn’t the demagogy that did Mr. Libeskind in. It was his failure to pay sufficient attention to the bottom line, a sine qua non for New York real estate, a business that symbolizes short-term narrow interests perfectly. When Libeskind refused to rein in his more rococo design elements, Silverstein decided to go with a more practical architecture firm. But in order to make his decision more acceptable to a public that doted on WTC kitsch of the sort that Libeskind was marketing, it was necessary to tarnish the architect’s reputation. Silverstein’s friends at Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post were happy to pitch in.

The Post’s “Page Six” gossip column mocked Libeskind’s  poetry collection “Fishing from the Pavement”, including some quotes from the book:

The island’s hysteria, language, is tied to the wanton burning of wealth. America turns its mass-produced urine antennae toward Cesar’s arrogant ganglion, while history is advocated by utopians as a substitute for defecating.

Rambunctious pinnacle–dreadful monument on which furious youth glows like a chromospheric flare, incinerated god in his swollen hand.

This poseur–lesbian whose medallion of wishes is effaced by training in history–holds a rare quarto from Utah, strives for new lies. But imagination is so thin that the past often breaks right through her sex Torah.

Jesus invented seduction by exposing the mother to a contemptible kangaroo court.

Page Six concluded: “Don’t quit your day job, Danny.”

Libeskind agreed to a revised design in 2008. Surmounting this hurdle was not enough to get construction going. It turns out that Larry Silverstein has some problems getting money from the insurance companies to fund the reconstruction. I am sure that all the people getting screwed by the health insurance companies can commiserate with poor Mr. Silverstein.

Meanwhile until Mr. Silverstein gets things sorted out with the insurance companies and the New York Port Authority, a bureaucracy that would fit in neatly with a Kafka novel, nothing remains at the WTC site except an enormous hole in the ground. This is perhaps the ultimate statement on the state of American imperialism, an aging tiger incapable of imposing its will on nearly all enemies, except for those as small as the island of Grenada.

8 Comments »

  1. Here’s my take on this – as a union carpenter who installs office furniture in the Financial District and a participant/observer chronicler of building trades labor relations.

    The bottom line is Larry Silverstein is a businessman – and he didn’t get to be a billionaire by worrying about the artistic grandeur of his buildings! He got rich by building practical office buildings with adequate amounts of rentable floor space for banks, insurance companies, law firms, brokerage houses ect.

    Daniel Liebskin is a great artist – and most of the structures he’s designed before this one were Holocaust Memorials in various European and Israeli cities.

    Those structures were political and artistic statements – they didn’t have to make a buck.

    But Mr Silverstein’s buildings do.

    Basically, the Freedom Tower will be built when Mr Sivlerstein feels that the market for first class office space is ready to absorb all of that rentable floor space.

    As things stand, that might be a while.

    GREGORY A. BUTLER

    Comment by MOVIE, REVIEWED — February 24, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

  2. I dunno Greg? Your point is a valid one but it sounds like even if Silverstein had rentably efficient plans that resembled the floor space of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago the biggest obstacle is the boondoggle bureaucracy of the Port Authority which has to run everything by in triplicate to rubber stamp hacks & clock watchers in both New York & New Jersey?

    As far as this fiasco being a “national discrace” — it actually ranks pretty low amongst the plethora of national disgraces that abound — the latest military budget that Obama greenlighted being the biggest.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 24, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

  3. Karl,

    I was talking about market dynamics – if there are no clients seeking to rent office space, it is a very bad business move to build that space, no matter well planned it may be, because you will lose money.

    Remember, the original WTC was an unrentable white elephant for the first 15 years (1972-89) – and Silverstein knows that because he signed a 99 year lease for the original WTC on September 1, 2001 (just 10 days before it was blown to bits before his very eyes).

    He’ll build when he thinks the market is picking up – and he’s said as much in his public statements.

    But I do agree with you on this not being a “national disgrace” – for God’s sake, it’s just another office tower!

    GREGORY A. BUTLER

    Comment by MOVIE, REVIEWED — February 24, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

  4. The WTC Twin Towers were not “just another office tower.” They were seen in many places in the world as a symbol for America, American economic might and capitalism itself. Their downfall (literally) was a monumental, symbolic event, the sort of defeat one can hardly imagine for a nation as powerful as the USA. Any great political or economic leader would have promptly rebuilt both towers, exactly as they had been prior to 9/11. It could have been done in less than 3 years. Only a fool would have allowed them to be tied up by an insurance claim and subsequent “market forces.” But then… look who was in charge back then. By now, it’s already too late.

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 26, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

  5. Yes Richard it was a “symbol for America, American economic might and capitalism itself.”

    It still is a mighty symbol. That open pit sewer is an accurate reflection of American capitalism.

    If it were already rebuilt to its past glory that would imply the ruling class has its shit together which would run counter to Lou’s “epiphany” which inspired this article.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 28, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  6. I agree, Mr. Friedrich. I thought that was my point. My disagreement was only with Mr. Butler’s inadequate description. In light of subsequent events (Afghanistan and Iraq and the near-death of previously accepted civil liberties) I think it fair to say that 9/11 stands as the most glaring defeat in US history. Louis and I are agreed that corporate interests are too centered on profit to be bothered with either avenging 9/11(assuming that’s possible), or rebuilding the WTC. We should not forget, however, how speedily the Pentagon was repaired in exactly its old configuration. Where there us a will… and a need…

    Comment by Richard Greener — March 1, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  7. Another good point Richard. The Pentagon was rebuilt right away. This fact confirms Lou’s thesis that the “WTC rebuilding project is a perfect symbol of the inability of the bourgeoisie to get anything done—except launch imperialist invasions.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 1, 2010 @ 8:09 pm


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