The New York skyline is New York. Or it was. That swelling, jig-jaggy camel-backed saw-blade profile going from south to north, from the Battery, instantly rising at Wall Street, then ascending to its monolithic twin-heights, rapidly falling into the old cast-iron and brick warehouses of Tribeca and SoHo, plateauing in the Village with a slice-shaped ping at the Flatiron Building, steeply spiking to the majestic beacon of the Empire State Building, falling slightly, then rising to the dense-pack porcupine towers of Midtown, right through the high-rent apartment buildings of the Upper West and Upper East Sides, north of Central Park to the strewn and ill-thought-out tenements of Harlem, to the spherical swelling of the Cloisters to the rocky promenade at the northern tip of the Island of Manhattan. This shape said modernity, excess, delirium, shamelessness, clout, and desire. It was a contour made by us, for us, about us. It was a self-portrait of America. To see it was to feel Walt Whitman's Body Electric not of a city, but maybe the city.
Then, all at once, that shape changed. After witnessing the annihilation of what were among the two largest buildings on earth and catching a glimpse of the end, after the dust settled and America turned its attention to the Middle East, New Yorkers were left with an ache. Our skyline was no longer a skyline. Presently, it is a reminder, a ghost limb. Worse, there's a continual, perhaps unconscious low-level shame or looking away from where the World Trade Center stood. Now, whenever there's any picture of Manhattan it's always of the Empire State Building, Midtown, the bridges, the stadiums, or traffic. We never see where the Twin Towers stood. It's as if to look on this site is too much to bear. Needless to say, this looking away only reminds one of what's missing.
What would we see if we did look? Right now, in place of the World Trade Center is nothing, just bureaucracy and bad architecture. While you can remember the entire skyline of Manhattan, it's almost impossible to envision the "master plan" for the Twin Towers site designed by the celebrity architect who won the competition, Daniel Libeskind. The design for his "Freedom Tower," on what is essentially a burial mound, is mostly a number. The building is to reach a symbolic 1,776 feet. The date is great and the height is fine. New York should have tall buildings; anyone who says otherwise doesn't get New York. But tall is all this tower will be.
How could something so important and sensitive, something so in need of an inspired touch, go so wrong? To answer this we need to look back to a month after September 11, when the air was still acrid with the smell of the smoldering wreckage and the managerial mindset that brought us to this sad point surfaced. At a packed assembly of architects in Cooper Union's Great Hall, architectural professionals from all over the globe met and listened to dozens of their own speak about the tragedy in ways I hadn't heard before or, thankfully, since. I love contemporary architecture, but I was appalled by the breathtakingly blinkered and wrongheaded opinion expressed by many in attendance that architects were the only ones who understood the site "in the deepest sense." Several pontificated that "only Frank Gehry could build here," or extolled Zaha Hadid or Richard Meier. One expert brandished a bolt he swiped from the site; another griped that he hadn't been allowed to conduct his own "structural analysis." These puffed-up professionals and autocratic academics believed they were the only ones who could set things right. Many referred to the attacks with a word I hadn't heard used to describe hell before: opportunity.
Come what may, right now on some psychic level New York has no skyline. The spirit that was in the skyline has fallen to the street, into the neighborhoods with all their rich, thrilling, insane activity. The New York skyline has come back down to earth—where all skylines begin.
Be that as it may, we remain in shock. Flying into New York can look like flying into Houston or Cincinnati or Frankfurt. No matter what they build, at least one day New Yorkers, America, and the rest of the world will have something to look at rather than only something to look away from. This period of looking away, of knowing that we didn't know what we had until it was gone, has been excruciating.
Jerry Saltz is senior art critic for the Village Voice, author of the book Seeing Out Loud, and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.