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The former Freedom Tower will be a properly post-American building. It will be big, but not too big. It will be smaller than the towers put up by our enemies so that they will have no reason to feel jealous. It will not stand for anything in particular. It will just be office space, like the city and the country, a place that people can come to do business without making any commitment to it.
“A skyscraper rises above its predecessors, restoring the spiritual peak of the city, creating an icon that speaks to our vitality in the face of danger and our optimism in the aftermath of tragedy,” Libeskind had said of his design. One World Trade Center cannot be accused of doing any of that. There is no spiritual peak, not even the one at the top of its no-longer-1,776-foot height.
The rapid construction of the Empire State Building in a year’s time during the Great Depression made a statement about the ability of a nation to do great things even in its darkest hour. The slow pace, the perpetual redesigns and the bland final product of One World Trade Center make the opposite statement. A reminder that inept and timid leadership can rob a nation of its exceptionalism.
In 1910 the eleven tallest buildings in the world were in New York City. Now the city doesn’t even make it into the top eleven and barely makes it into the top twenty. And the majority of today’s top eleven buildings went up after the World Trade Center was destroyed. When One World Trade Center is completed, and, if its antenna is counted as part of its height, it will qualify as the third-tallest building in the world, until the latest monstrosities in Shanghai and Dubai topple it off that list.
A building is not a nation, but there are certain parallels to the diminution of national ambition, and there are undeniable parallels between the stumbling makeshift design process of One World Trade Center and the fumbling War on Terror. A great work can be done in a short time if you know what it is you want to accomplish. The blueprints for the Empire State Building were drawn up in two weeks and the structure was completed in a year. One World Trade Center has suffered from revisions and redesigns because it never had a clear purpose. Most people agreed that something had to go up, but they no longer knew why except that it was empty space and empty space has to be filled.
It’s not a tower of freedom, because freedom implies too much individual agency. It has opportunities for those who pursue them hard enough. It does not however have a future. Only the eternal present of buildings that, for all their futurism, are hardly any taller than they were a hundred years ago.
Futures arise from national destinies. A nation unmoored from its past has nowhere to go. It cannot make anything new, because there are no new things. Its horizons are limited to its geometry, it experiments with shapes and colors, it digs through the trash of earlier eras for things it can use, reviving trends, dumpster diving through history while feeling that other eras were more exciting and more interesting than this.
The Post-American America is a place unsure of its identity, whose new conceptions of American values all too often serve only to negate the old, creating an empty space in which nothing is forbidden and everyone is welcome, but that has no structure, only emptiness.
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