Fading Footprints

Post–9-11 Art reels in the past; an architect looks forward

We're waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it's "Jihad brand footware" brought to us by Art Spiegelman. The twin towers "seem to get smaller everyday," reads a caption in his teeming, pieced-together comix broadside In the Shadow of No Towers, all eyes, noses, mouths, blunt color, Kinder-Kids tumult: a democracy of shock. But the towers become also a great void into which fall (through the holes in Art's brain) deaths, fears, the sky, TV spectacle exploding from 9-11 into the almost unthinkable contradictions of the Bush war. Jokes grotesque with mixed and blurred antihero ironies and displaced body parts are crammed into cartoon windows like dwelling places for our city subconscious. I'm inside these luxurious 20-by-14 1/2-inch cardboard pages unsure sometimes how to judge the confusions the Al Qaeda attack knocked Art into, who now, more than a little self-involved, must "drag this damned albatross" around his neck, and "compulsively retell the calamities." People tell him it's only post-traumatic stress; others are catatonic. Sometimes it's like my sense of the events and of my neighbors where I live in Lower Manhattan, sometimes it isn't.

Art rushing away from the collapsing towers, his wife hysterical as they look for their daughter at school; rage at Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and Bush (new "Architects of Armageddon"); time standing still yet running out on the slow job of drawing time-sensitive comics. But the steady rant (e.g., toxic air "that makes Love Canal seem like a health spa") is a far cry from the brief, poignant words of Krazy Kat in the Arizona desert. The cat in Art's lap, by a hilarious sequence of head changes, enables him to become Maus, to see that "the killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima." Come again? Maus, with its tender precision and dread, said so much more.

In his effort to make a real book for us in 2004, Spiegelman finds "solace" in adding midway a Sunday supplement of his own early-1900s ghosts "disinterred" by the 9-11 blast. Prefaced by his evocative short essay, this sampling of gentler comics that formed his taste in fact shows war scares, explosive jingoism, Opper's Abdullah the Arab Chief, dream-scale toying with New York towers, and, in Bringing Up Father, Pisa toppling.

Look back in anger: Spiegelman
photo: Nadja Spiegelman
Look back in anger: Spiegelman

Details

In the Shadow of No Towers
By Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, 42 pp., $19.95
Buy this book

Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York
By Paul Goldberger
Random House, 273 pp., $24.95
Buy this book

Spiegelman's paralyzed 9-11 populace bears little resemblance to the thousands actively participating in decisions about what to do at ground zero in architecture critic Paul Goldberger's Up From Zero. The bereaved who thought the site should be left in its raw reality speak and are heard. Between these and the developer and Port Authority leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, who was "willing to consider having almost anything built so long as it restored the amount of office space that had been blown apart," the interests competing to shape this unprecedented project fill out a field of interrelationships like the city itself, a shifting potential—American, one hopes—at a moment when we monitor a sometimes inert national electorate.

Of the many strands in Goldberger's account, time figures with special subtlety. Six early plans all looked alike. (How well I don't remember them.) We needed to wait. If in the '60s it was a "fallacy of size," exemplified by the isolated twin towers, here, unabated from the '90s, was our "fallacy of speed, the belief that faster is always better." Goldberger's own pace seems to miss nothing: hearings and presentations; power play among politicians and commercial interests; original thinking by city planners like Alexander Garvin, at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; competing proposals for the general ground zero layout.

The winner, Daniel Libeskind, was known as a theoretical imaginer, most of whose work had never gotten built. But he knew how to talk in public, and beyond (or far below) his 1,776-foot spire with hanging gardens, he had a clever and moving idea: to expose, and keep as a monument because it had survived the attack, the slurry retaining wall from the original foundation, which held back the Hudson—"an engineering wonder," said Libeskind, "asserting the durability of democracy." Thus he would ensure that the footprints of the twin towers would be below street level, so visitors would "step down into the earth."

Executing the plan from there on is another story. How a memorial got chosen, who would build the actual buildings, enmities and concessions, people at each other but trying: Goldberger tells it in chastening detail. Yet it supports curiously more than it undermines his implicit theme that democracy, like architecture, may prove an open process of competing thoughts.

 
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