Reflecting Absence

I am, to be honest, a little tired of skyscrapers already. The older Art Deco structures have a certain charm but they seem to be crowded out by the taller, more functional modern skyscrapers. Individually they may be ugly but, when viewed together (what is the collective noun for a group of skyscrapers?), there is a grandeur. Maybe the effect it has on me simply reflects the ubiquity of the Manhattan skyline in modern culture but, viewed from the Staten Island Ferry, in particular, all those buildings crowded together on that narrow strip of land have an undeniable presence.

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And an absence. There are still information boards in Brooklyn that name the various skyscrapers that you can see and which include the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Ground Zero is now the National September 11 Memorial, with two huge pools filling the footprints of each of the two towers, each 10 metres below street level and fed by water cascading down their sides. In the middle of each pool there is another cascade taking the water even deeper below the ground. New buildings loom overhead, including One World Trade Center, which has now replaced the Twin Towers as New York’s highest building, but it is these two enormous voids amidst all the skyscrapers that attracts attention.

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The great achievement of the architects, however, is the personalisation of the memorial. The names of all the victims of the attacks are inscribed on the parapets that surround the pools and people – families and friends, I presume – have wedged white roses into the lettering of their loved ones’ names. It was hard enough to capture the epic scale of both the pools and the surrounding towers in a photograph with the limited range of a compact camera. It was just about possible to photograph some of these personal touches But it was almost impossible to capture both at the same time. Yet it was the juxtaposition of the grand gesture and the very highly personal that gave the Memorial its power. The last time I was so moved by modern architecture was at at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Coincidence? Probably not. The architect Daniel Libeskind was involved with both.

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