The 20th anniversary of 9/11 just passed. In anticipation, I unearthed eight photos I took that morning from my rooftop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They are black-and-white, which just happened to be the sort of film I had in my camera. I snapped them with trembling fingers, a dry mouth, and wobbling knees—six exposures as the towers burned, two after they had fallen and Lower Manhattan had vanished in a billowing cloud of dust and smoke—ashamed to be, touristlike, capturing images I knew contained thousands of people suffering terrifyingly violent deaths. Like Dante, voyeur of the Inferno, I was recording their moments of horror and obliteration, but to what end?
Maybe it’s that the photos are black-and-white or that they were taken from a distance of a little over two miles or that the foreground is so banal—just another morning across the Brooklyn rooftops—or maybe it’s the two decades that separate us from that momentous and terrible day, but looking at the photos now I find them to be peaceful, irresistibly sublime. They have none of the clash and agony of the video footage from the base of the towers, none of the pathos of the stills of first responders and citizens covered in ash with eyes hollowed out. At a glance, and without knowledge of what they depict, one could mistake them for smokestacks from the Industrial Revolution or a fog bank in the harbor. If it’s possible to have a Zen perspective on the events of 9/11, these images might get you there. There’s little in them to suggest that they’re pictures of the world-changing, but that’s what they are.
The geopolitical landscape shifted on that day. Less than four weeks after the attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan, initiating a war and occupation of a foreign land that we have only just now drawn to a painful close. The architectural landscape also changed. High-rise construction in New York City, for one, underwent a revision. Soon to be gone were the days of high-modernist open lobbies and delicate, latticelike structural frameworks (though perhaps it could be said that postmodernism had already put an end to that). The new skyscrapers boasted robust hybrid structures with three-foot-thick, 12,000-psi concrete cores designed to continue standing throughout a 9/11-scale event, their lobbies set behind bollards and enclosed in blast-resistant glazing. The increasingly fortresslike nature of these buildings challenged architects to make them as transparent, beautiful, and pleasant to occupy as possible. The public discussion about what to do with Ground Zero raised awareness of and interest in architecture generally and attracted the attention of the world. A flock of new publications (including the one in which I am writing) came on the scene to cover the flurry of design proposals and development activity. International architects, many of whom received commissions for the rebuilding, opened offices in New York, which grew into a global epicenter of architectural discourse and production in a way it hadn’t been since the early 20th century.
Not all of the big changes we’ve seen in the city’s built environment since 2001 can be attributed to 9/11. The neoliberal winds were already blowing, the tech industry already in its ascendancy. Without the destruction of the towers, the Bloomberg era could still have happened in more or less the same way: a development-friendly billionaire mayor and his energized planning commission harnessing the design community, zoning regulations, and a public-private partnership to recast the city as a safe, amenity-laden cradle for the super-wealthy, major corporations, and the young professionals who serve them. We’d probably still have bike lanes, waterfront parks, and renovated pools, not to mention the ever-thickening forest of so-called luxury housing, which seems to be inexhaustibly in demand. We’d still have widening economic disparities, racial and cultural strife, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic—all problems demanding solutions from the design community.
Destruction is often followed by rebirth, mass extinctions by explosions of diverse forms of life, but the values of regeneration are never fixed, and good and evil always seem to walk hand in hand. It could be that one reason I find the photos I took of the towers burning so absorbing now is that they remind me of another change that occurred that day: Almost instantaneously, as awareness of the attacks spread through the city, New York became a friendlier place. Groups of people who were historically opposed suddenly found common ground and sought each other out for comfort and solidarity. It was revelatory, and it didn’t last. It took an attack from outside to galvanize that unity, which was expressed nationwide, and it is dispiriting that its primary issue was an act of war; but however it arose, for a window of time, it was possible to see a city as big and diverse as New York pulling together to heal and grow back stronger—a common purpose that would benefit us as much now as it did 20 years ago.