A tricky business, that of understanding New York. The city is always on the move, forever shifting.
Although the two towers have disappeared, they have not been annihilated. Even in their pulverized state, they have left behind an intense awareness of their presence. No one who knew them can cease imagining them and the imprint they made on the skyline from all points of the city. Their end in material space has borne them off into a definitive imaginary space.
A metropolis forever in the making, New York City is a constant reminder of the mutability of urban landscape and the radical impermanence of the city. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the city has also become a notorious symbol of the links between globalization and violence. Engaging with these issues as they relate to post-9/11 New York, this article focuses on an urban landscape architecture project called Lifescape. Under construction since 2008, Lifescape is an ambitious, long-term plan to transform the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (Figure 1) into a public park and recreation area. There are two reasons for this interest in a project to rehabilitate a garbage dump, and both are connected to a broader interest in the interplay between the material and imaginary spaces of the global city.
First, Lifescape marks a significant effort to reclaim and re-imagine a derelict landscape that is connected in both material and symbolic ways to the lived space of the city. Second, following the events of 9/11, the wreckage from Ground Zero was transported to the Fresh Kills Landfill, which was specially reopened to accommodate the 1.2 million tons of material. As one commentator has noted:
Fresh Kills … is not just the place where, for more than 50 years, the rest of the city sent its potato peels, broken dishes and every kind of household trash. For several months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the sad bits of busted buildings and broken lives were sifted on mound 1/9 of Fresh Kills, piece by shattered piece. style=”text-align: right;”>(DePalma, 1)
Crucially, the Lifescape project acknowledges the presence of these remains and envisions a commemoration of the Twin Towers and the recovery effort in the form of a giant earthwork monument. How this monument evokes the memory of the towers, as well as how it connects the park’s landscape back to New York’s cityscape, will be significant concerns for this article.
Through an analysis of Lifescape’s transformative vision and, in particular, its plans for a 9/11 earthwork monument, the discussion considers the ways in which the Twin Towers continue to haunt the contemporary imagination, exerting an almost ghostly presence over the skyline of New York. The argument is that Lifescape works simultaneously to reveal and conceal the mutability of urban landscape, attesting not only to the extraordinary versatility of urban space but also to the imaginative ways in which – responding to an experience of collective trauma – such space can be recycled, renewed, and remade in the present era of “21st-century green, global connectedness” (Hamilton, 14).
As such, the Fresh Kills Landfill relates in a number of interesting ways to New York as a global site. The most obvious connection is that, as the location of the World Trade Center Recovery Operation, Fresh Kills played a key role in the federal investigation of 9/11 and its efforts to understand how and why New York’s symbolic center of transnational corporate capitalism succumbed to terrorist attack. In the process, Fresh Kills also bore witness in the most detailed and intimate way possible to the violence and horror involved in the destruction of the vertical architecture of globalization. Over a ten month period, during which the landfill was designated a federal crime scene, the debris from Ground Zero was meticulously sifted and sorted in search of human remains, personal effects, and objects of everyday life. The resulting process of inspection and introspection – fueled in the national imagination by both the media and traveling exhibits such as the New York State Museum’s WTC Recovery Exhibition – contributed to wider public efforts to work through the trauma of 9/11.
Fresh Kills is also tied into New York’s status as a global city in another way entirely. In its function as a dumping ground for New York’s household trash, Fresh Kills stood for over fifty years as “the largest symbol of American waste” (Hayden, 62). The overproduction of waste may not be one of the defining processes of globalization, but it is a direct consequence of the culture of runaway consumption that has increasingly come to dominate the contemporary scene in global (and globalizing) cities worldwide. Indeed, as Harold Crooks, Mike Davis, and others have shown, the politics of waste – which have long gripped cities ranging from New York, London, and Tokyo to Lagos, Jakarta, and São Paulo – are now inextricably tied to the politics of globalization. Fresh Kills represents a poignant reminder of the material excesses of the global metropolitan condition.
Perhaps the most significant connection between Fresh Kills and New York City as a global site, however, is to be found in the Lifescape project. The reason is that, in its radical plans to redefine the space and function of Fresh Kills, Lifescape is part of the “new spatial order” (3) that Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen see as a definitive feature of globalizing cities since the 1970s. While this reordering typically manifests itself in the proliferation and accentuation of spatial divisions between the urban poor and an urban elite, it is also evident in the retreat of the middle classes from urban centers into peripheral clusters and secured enclaves.
In such terms, and mainly because of its location on the suburban margins of the city, Lifescape could be seen as a project aimed at meeting the outdoor recreational needs of a spatially segregated exurban middle class, effectively reinforcing an established pattern of separation. At the same time, however, Lifescape could equally be seen in a more positive light as an intervention in the spatial reorganization of the global city that deliberately resists the divisive trend of contemporary urban development by reclaiming an inhospitable, toxic site for new, sustainable public use. In this respect, Lifescape poses a profound challenge to conventional thinking about what constitutes waste (and wasted space) in today’s post-industrial world cities.
Fresh Kills is therefore a critical site within contemporary New York, and one that has been largely overlooked in existing analyses of the city’s development in the era of globalization. Yet, as a prominent symbol of consumer waste, a repository of late capitalism’s most notorious architectural ruins, and an experiment in new spatial order, Fresh Kills is more than just a controversial garbage dump. Alongside other urban sites such as Wall Street and Times Square, Fresh Kills is one of New York’s truly extraordinary locations in which the tensions, trends, and possibilities of the global city come together in unique and revealing ways.
Before focusing on Fresh Kills and the Lifescape project, however, it is necessary to comment further on the World Trade Center Towers and the skyline to which they belonged. This is partly because it is impossible to discuss contemporary reshapings of New York’s urban landscape without raising the specter of the Twin Towers and addressing at least in some small way the significance of 9/11. While seeking to avoid repeating recent commentary on the topic – after all, much of the crucial architectural, cultural, and historical analysis of the life and death of these iconic buildings has already been done by publications like Sorkin and Zukin’s After the World Trade Center – the discussion draws next on the philosophical musings of two notable New York outsiders in order to contribute a deceptively straight-forward idea. The idea is that New York’s skyline is a site of instability and change distinguished in the contemporary urban imaginary by visions caught somewhere between the sublime and the uncanny. This line of thought is developed by revisiting Michel de Certeau’s aeriel view of Manhattan in The Practice of Everyday Life, which is then contrasted against Jean Baudrillard’s strangely detached perspective on the vertical city in his “Requiem for the Twin Towers”. Far from extraneous to the subjects of globalization and garbage, this détournement into the philosophy of highrise architecture lays important groundwork for the analysis of Lifescape that follows.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau famously writes about the experience of visiting the observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York in the late 1970s. Looking out over Manhattan from the summit of the skyscraper, de Certeau finds himself “transfigured into a voyeur” (92). And in his voyeuristic gaze, the undulating mass of the city becomes immobilized into a whole, graspable image:
Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passing over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance of Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide – extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space … A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe that is constantly exploding … On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production. (91)
One of the most distinctive features of De Certeau’s cityscape is the description of New York’s vertical architecture in terms of motion and fluidity. And yet, this sense of movement is counteracted by the immobilizing effect of the high-rise view, creating a tension between motion and stasis.
This frozen, long-distance image of New York is what de Certeau goes on to contrast against the chaos and confinement of the city street – the space and level of everyday life. For de Certeau, the pleasure of high-rise voyeurism lies precisely in the liberation it offers from the mess of the street, a liberation made possible by the distancing, estranging perspective of the high-rise view. It is questionable, however, whether such an extreme spatial dichotomy between the vertical and horizontal axes of the city actually holds up under closer scrutiny. In particular, de Certeau’s position that the high-rise view offers anything remotely approaching a totalizing image of the city is problematic, even if that image does represent, as de Certeau is careful to stress, only an “imaginary totalization”7. Setting aside this point of contention, however, what is worth taking away from de Certeau here is the broader idea that the high-rise view produces a depopulated and immobilizing image of the city, frozen in a state of suspended animation, caught somewhere between the living and the dead.
Commenting on the destruction of the Twin Towers in his essay “Requiem for the Twin Towers,” Baudrillard touches on this subject. Interspersed between reckless remarks about how the collapse of the towers resembled a form of suicide and how their aesthetic of “twin-ness” invited a violent return to “a-symmetry” and “singularity” (46-7), Baudrillard does offer some critical insight:
All Manhattan’s tall buildings had been content to confront each other in a competitive verticality, and the product of this was an architectural panorama reflecting the capitalist system itself – a pyramidal jungle, whose famous image stretched out before you as you arrived from the sea. That image changed after 1973, with the building of the World Trade Center … Perfect parallelipeds, standing over 1,300 feet tall, on a square base. Perfectly balanced, blind communicating vessels … The fact that there were two of them signifies the end of any original reference. If there had been only one, monopoly would not have been perfectly embodied. Only the doubling of the sign truly puts an end to what it designates … However tall they may have been, the two towers signified, none the less, a halt to verticality. They were not the same breed as the other buildings. They culminated in the exact reflection of each other. (42-4)
Like de Certeau before him, Baudrillard sees New York’s modern architecture in terms of energy and chaos, also stressing the legibility of the city when seen from a distance. De Certeau’s “tallest letters in the world” (91) become Baudrillard’s doubled signs. What those endlessly mirroring signs designate, of course, is the present age of globalization, and Baudrillard concludes that this symbolism is the reason why the Twin Towers were destroyed: “the violence of globalization also involves architecture, and hence the violent protest against it also involves the destruction of that architecture” (45).
In the case of the Twin Towers, however, the link between architecture, globalization, and violence is far more complicated than Baudrillard’s comments suggest. Given the global impact of 9/11, it is important to remember that the destruction of the Twin Towers was brought about by factors that included but also exceeded the symbolic dimensions of the Twin Towers. For instance, as Stephen Graham argues in Cities, War, and Terrorism, the WTC attacks were also connected to the city’s cultural and ethnic heterogeneity:
The 9/11 attacks can be seen as part of a fundamentalist, transnational war, or Jihad, by radical Islamic movements against pluralistic and heterogeneous mixing in (capitalist) cities. Thus it is notable that cities that have long sustained complex heterogeneities, religious pluralism, and multiple diasporas – New York and Istanbul, for example – have been prime targets for catastrophic terror attacks. Indeed, in their own horrible way, the grim lists of casualties that bright New York day in September 2001 revealed the multiple diasporas and cosmopolitanisms that now constitute the often hidden social fabric of “global” cities like New York. (9)
While the argument that New York’s cultural and ethnic heterogeneity rendered the city a terrorist target oversimplifies the impetus behind the attacks, Graham does highlight an important dimension of New York’s globalism that is too often overlooked. Baudrillard is therefore partially right in saying that the Twin Towers were party to their own destruction, but not in the way – or for the reasons – he proposes.
Together, the skyscraper musings of Baudrillard and de Certeau bring into focus one of New York’s most striking and enduring features. As their comments suggest, the city has one of the most visually compelling and symbolically charged skylines in the world today – so much so that it enables, as discussed in the next section, a kind of undead afterlife for the Twin Towers. Significant here is that, in their response to vertical New York, both philosophers see the skyline in broadly similar terms as a peculiar commingling of the sublime (in the Burkean sense of an aesthetic wonder that awes and overwhelms) and the uncanny (in the Freudian sense of the familiar made newly strange and alien).
The reason for stressing these points about Baudrillard and de Certeau is because their urban panoramas belong to a broader vision of the city that is shared not only by many contemporary New York artists, writers, and film-makers, but also by New York’s Department of City Planning and its ambitious efforts to revivify the dead space of the Fresh Kills Landfill. In other words, the idea of an urban landscape marked by a tension between the sublime and the uncanny also has a certain resonance for the City of New York’s vision of a new public parkland emerging from the site of what was both the world’s largest domestic garbage dump and the operational center of the World Trade Center recovery effort.
“A green oasis for all New Yorkers” (2) is how Michael Bloomberg describes Lifescape in the preface to the project’s master plan. The New York City Mayor’s endorsement is followed by a series of equally bold and exuberant statements by various city officials. The Staten Island Borough President, for example, declares Lifescape to be a “simultaneous ending and beginning” (2), a “life within a landscape” (2). The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner in turn suggests that Lifescape is “reminiscent of the popular movements that gave rise to Central Park, Prospect Park and many of our other greatest parks” (3), and that the city’s newest green space will become “a tangible symbol of renewal” (3). Commenting on Lifescape’s cultural significance, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner anticipates that “the expansive parkland will serve as a cultural destination like no other, engaging New Yorkers and visitors in the city’s unique and vibrant creative community” (3).
Quite apart from the positive spin, which is to be expected from politicians and city officials seeking support for a massive expenditure of public funds, this rhetoric of renewal highlights one of the most important features of the Fresh Kills parkland project. Lifescape is not so much about constructing a new space as it is about creatively reviving a dead space and making it, as stated in the master plan, “rejuvenating to the spirit and the environment” (60). Such a project is made all the more difficult yet significant by the presence of the World Trade Center wreckage within the site. As a way of coping with that presence, the 9/11 earthwork monument is a critical element of the park’s design, a symbolic centerpiece that will play a pivotal role in the project’s potential to rejuvenate the body and soul of a New York in the face of urban decay and post-disaster recovery.
Before examining this symbolic centerpiece, however, it is important to place the earthwork monument in the broader context of the park’s overall design. So first of all, some background and facts about the site and project. Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island has served as a dumping ground for New York City’s household garbage since 1948, and is the largest domestic waste landfill in the world. The site covers an area of 2,200 acres, which makes it almost three times the size of central park. The landfill was closed in early 2001, but briefly reopened later that year to accommodate the 1.2 million tons of wreckage from Ground Zero. The decision to reclaim the land for new public use had already been reached at this point, but the selected design for the transformation of Fresh Kills was not confirmed by the Department of City Planning until later that year. Following a two-stage international design competition to develop a plan for the adaptive end use of the site, Lifescape was announced as the winning entry in December 2001. The first draft of the Lifescape master plan was completed in 2005, and construction on the project began in 2008, with the first major phase due to be completed within ten years. The full transformation of the site, including the environmental recovery, is expected to take thirty years (Figure 2).
Lifescape’s multi-disciplinary design team is being led by James Corner and his landscape architecture practice, Field Operations. Interestingly, Field Operations is also working on another ongoing effort to reclaim a derelict space within New York City. This other project, called the High Line, involves redesigning a defunct elevated railway bed on Manhattan’s far West Side into a public walkway, garden, and park (Figures 3, 4, 5).
In the design statement, Corner’s team describes High Line’s goal as being “the retooling of an industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure, life, and growth”. Corner’s team also cites the importance of creating “an experience of slowness, otherworldliness, and distraction”. These comments may be directed at the High Line, but they could just as easily be applied to the park at Fresh Kills. This, however, is not entirely accidental. Both Lifescape and the High Line are not only being designed by the same practice but also belong to a larger trend in contemporary landscape architecture towards the reclaiming of once-vital pieces of urban infrastructure for new, imaginative, and sustainable forms of public use.
This trend towards creative, sustainable renewal of infrastructural urban space most clearly registers in Lifescape’s vision of transforming a landfill not just into a landscape, but into an eco-friendly natural parkland complete with communal gathering spaces, playing fields, pedestrian and cycle paths, wetlands, grasslands, woodlands, and even a wildlife preserve. Commenting in a 2005 journal article on the philosophy and values behind the design, James Corner explains that “Lifescape is both a place and a process” (15):
Lifescape as a place is a diverse reserve for wildlife, cultural and social life, and active recreation. The aesthetic experience of the place will be vast in scale, spatially open and rugged in character, affording dramatic vistas, exposure to the elements, and huge open spaces unlike any other in the New York metropolitan region.
Lifescape as a process is ecological in its deepest sense – a process of environmental reclamation and renewal on a vast scale, recovering not only the health and biodiversity of ecosystems across the site, but also the spirit and imagination of people who will use the new parkland. (15)
This double inflection of Lifescape as place and process – as both sanctuary space and sustainable space – is graphically articulated in the master plan renderings, many of which present idealized scenes of pastoral serenity and utopian moments of sociality and leisure, all enabled by the environmental reconditioning and spatial reorganization of the site (Figures 6, 7, 8).
Given Lifescape’s emphasis on spatial and environmental transformation, one of the more interesting elements of the design is that it plans to retain most of the artificial topography created by the undulating mounds of garbage (Figure 6), some of which reach heights of over two hundred feet. These mounds will be sealed beneath a protective polymer lining and topped by a thick layer of soil, facilitating the environmental recovery of the site. On the surface, therefore, Lifescape will be a vibrant and varied natural landscape, an idea reinforced by the word “life” in the project title.
Underlying this natural landscape, however, will be the cumulated waste of one of the world’s most excessive cities. So while Lifescape will appear at first to be disconnected from the city – indeed, the parkland is mainly conceived to offer an escape from the conventional experience of urban space – the landscape will nonetheless remain intimately and inextricably connected to the city at a much more fundamental level. In a very real way, this rehabilitated natural landscape will be shaped and sustained by a hidden cityscape of urban waste.
Included in that waste, of course, are the material remains of the Twin Towers, which will be commemorated by the earthwork monument (Figure 9).
The monument itself will be formed by two inclining landforms that mirror the exact width and height of each tower laid on its side. And in a further commemorative gesture, the monument will be oriented on an axis with the skyline where the towers originally stood (Figures 10, 11). This will allow for a panoramic view of Lower Manhattan in the far distance – a view that will eventually include the Freedom Tower rising from the redeveloped site of Ground Zero. Fittingly, the new tower will not only serve in its own right as a monument to urban renewal but, like the two mounds at Fresh Kills, will also evoke the incompleteness of New York.
In this sense, the earthwork monument establishes a strong link back to the lived space of the city. The orientation of the landforms creates direct visual and symbolic connections with the New York skyline, encouraging visitors to gaze at the city from the vantage point of its recycled dumping ground. Meanwhile, the shape of the monument evokes the origins of the urban wreckage contained in the nearby ground. It transforms the landscape into a symbolic burial mound for the urban superstructures that once stood as the world’s most prominent icons of globalization.
Putting these aspects of the monument together, it becomes clear that what the earthwork will do is frame an experience that ensures visitors see much more than what is visibly present on the skyline of Manhattan. The monument will also ensure that visitors remember and re-imagine the violent urban reshapings that took place on September 11, 2001. Such a meditative experience of city-gazing, in which the estranging effects of the high-rise view described by de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life are effectively replicated from a horizontal rather than a vertical perspective, is exactly what James Corner has in mind when he imagines how visitors will respond to the monument: “the slow, simple durational experience of ascending the incline, open to the sky and vast prairie horizon, will allow people to reflect on the magnitude of loss” (20). In other words, the monument will ask visitors to experience an absence, to gaze voyeuristically upon an urban view that no longer exists.
In this abstract sense the Twin Towers have not entirely disappeared from the New York skyline. Rather, at Fresh Kills, they will continue to engage and disturb the contemporary imagination, dominating both the park and the view of the city through their ghostly reincarnations. With the construction of the earthwork monument, the Twin Towers will thus acquire an undead afterlife. In their new horizontal form, they will once again become landmarks from which to observe the shifting verticals of New York’s architecture of globalization – a skyline now marked by a tension not just between absence and presence, but also between memory and loss, between motion and stasis, and between the spectral and the spectacular.
In his essay “Scapeland,” Jean-Francois Lyotard suggests that landscape is an excess of presence that leads to an experience of estrangement – what he calls ‘dépaysement’ (39). Despite the debatable claim that estrangement is a pre-condition for landscape, Lyotard’s words perfectly capture the dynamic at work in Lifescape’s earthwork monument. It is an excess of presence carefully designed to create an experience of wonder and unease – a site of the urban uncanny aimed at the ultimate source of the urban sublime. Remembering the appearance of the Twin Towers in their original location in Lower Manhattan, the architectural historian Mark Wigley describes them as “a pure, uninhabited image floating above the city, an image forever above the horizon, in some kind of sublime excess, defying our capacity to understand it” (82). This image of the Towers as a hovering, otherworldly excess of presence that invites yet resists interpretation is precisely what the earthwork monument seeks to revive. From their new location on Staten Island, and in their new imaginary state, the undead towers will continue to function as New York’s most powerful and conflicted symbols of globalization.
I would like to thank Elizabeth Bowman for her excellent research assistance, particularly in tracking down and securing illustrations for this article. My thanks as well to Field Operations for generously making those images available for use here.
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Hamilton, William L. “A Fence With More Beauty, Fewer Barbs.” The New York Times. 18 June, 2006. D14.
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Originally published in The Journal of American Culture, volume 31, number 3, September 2008, pp. 302-314.
Christoph Lindner is Professor of Media and Culture and Director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, where he writes about cities, visual culture, and globalization. His recent book publications include Paris-Amsterdam Underground (2013), Globalization, Violence and the Visual Culture of Cities (2010), and Urban Space and Cityscapes (2006).