Tom Vanderbilt


On the morning of September 11, I was eating breakfast in my home in Brooklyn and preparing to leave the house, my destination a meeting with my publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, the subject the final design considerations for my book, _Survival City:  Adventures

Among the Ruins of Atomic America_. Although I heard the soft and

distant explosion of the first airplane hitting the WTC and then saw the building on fire, I didn't consider staying home -- my girlfriend and I were in the normal and hectic process of going to work, and, unaware of what was really happening or going to happen, we let routine take over.  As I exited the subway -- which was full as usual but certainly abuzz with the earliest reports of the explosion -- and rounded Houston Street onto Greene in Soho, where I had gone as I usually do for a coffee, I heard first the screams of "Oh God," and then saw the first tower collapse, some dozens of blocks away.


That I was on Greene seemed particularly resonant, for it is one of

those lower Manhattan streets that afforded a perfect view of the

towers rising from what looked like a sea of otherwise uninterrupted 19th century or early 20th century architecture, two white obelisks dwarfing the diverse and accumulated historical grid, always seeming vast and distant but always there, and now hauntingly eradicated from the view.  I stood on the street for the next two hours, talking to people I would normally see in the cafe but never otherwise acknowledge, exchanging information and learning of news not by radio or television but in that most urban of fashions, standing on street corners.  It was only after a two-hour walk, across the Williamsburg Bridge and back to my home, through the eye-stinging smoke, that I could begin to appreciate the full horror of what had happened.  Like everyone surrounding me, my thoughts were simply of concern for people I knew and of getting home rather than my immediate surroundings or my exact plan for getting home.


As the day wore on I was struck by the fact that I had begun the day preparing to finish up my book and that I was ending it surrounded by some horrific approximation of what it had discussed.  In brief, the book concerns the vast and secret landscapes of the Cold War that were erected in America, from the missile silos of North Dakota to the White Sands Missile Range.  Yet I had also undertaken a study of how the atomic hazard of the period had changed -- metaphorically and at times physically -- the fate of the city; how aerial bombing (indeed, the aerial view) had gone from an isolated practice to a dedicated industrial program during World War II to a sort of underlying basis for everyday life during the Cold War.  Inherent in the discussion was the specter of architects, as one report put it, suddenly "being on the front lines" of national defense; i.e., as the images drifted back from Hiroshima, was there anything architects could do to respond to the threat?  Many tests in Nevada and AIA-sponsored competitions later, where "dual purpose" shelters (rec room/bomb shelters) were confidently put forth as the most elegant design solution, the majority opinion was that if in fact a bomb-proof architecture could be built, its physical parameters so contrasted to the aesthetic and moral precepts of democratic life that it could not be inhabitated (one of the most famous examples was the relatively long-lived Abo Underground School and Fallout Shelter in Artesia, N.M., a windowless building with "emergency entrances" rather than exits).


The most dominant architectural tendency of the time, institutional

corporate modernism, tended in fact to create buildings that went

against the prescriptions of the civil defense planners -- the

glass-skinned Seagrams and Lever buildings in New York would be just two of the more conspicuous examples.  Of course, after the Cold War and immediate nuclear threat subsided, the participants in the blastproof building discipline (e.g., Weidlinger Associates) had to shift to new concerns, i.e., terrorism.  Even here, there were myriad complications.  Just last week, working ironically on a story about what happens to places where tragedies have occurred, I was speaking to an architect who had worked on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.  After the shooting, there was a flurry of calls to design schools that would help deter such acts.  But his general feeling was that design in the end was not sufficient; one could design against gun-wielding students, but what if the next attempt was gas?  Or a truck bomb?


As the day of September 11 passed, the dusty and dry arguments I had researched in my book -- the 1950s debates over whether cities were "obsolete" in the face of nuclear war, our ability to cope with such a disaster, even with the best planning, the protection that architecture itself would offer in the fact of such attacks -- took on a chilling immediacy, as I myself surveyed a scene for which the closest metaphor seemed the scientific and science fiction accounts I had read of an urban nuclear disaster -- the layers of white ash, the dazed people walking through the streets, the shutdown of phone service (with the Internet, originally designed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a backup for such an event), military jets roaring through the sky, the radio using words like "ground zero" and "nuclear winter," talk of the president at the Strategic Air Command and of deep underground bunkers.  And as another day passed, larger considerations:  Would Manhattan's density -- proven to be one of its greatest assets -- become its largest liability?


As I write from my office I can see lower Manhattan, now absent its

two most prominent icons, now looking essentially like Houston or any quite average metropolitan skyline, save for the low and ominous cloud of smoke that drifts to the north.  It is too early and I am still too unsettled to offer any kind of solid and detached analysis, only a vague feeling -- one that I had come across before in looking at the realm of "atomic architecture" -- that architecture cannot be built against the worst aspects of humankind, but only in hopeful emulation of the best.


With hope,

Tom Vanderbilt

Posted on H-Urban 9/14/01