Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Picking up the pieces," by Rhiannon Batten,

March 9, 2002, The Scotsman, "Picking up the pieces," by Rhiannon Batten,

Your house is burning down - what do you save? Photographs? Your grandmother's china? The answer is that you just don't know. In the end we went by instinct," says architect Bart Voorsanger, looking out across a desolate graveyard of scorched, crushed metal. But the salvage operation he is talking about didn't involve many photographs or family heirlooms. His firm, Voorsanger & Mills, was appointed to archive debris from the collapsed World Trade Centre and the objects he collected include a row of chained-up bicycles, battered fire trucks, splinters from what was once the city's tallest television antenna and the crushed shell of a train which used to run beneath the Centre. "The level of destruction from the collapse of these 110- storey towers was something I'd never witnessed before," he says, quietly.

The Port Authority, which owns the land on which the World Trade Centre was built, was struggling with its options after 11 September. "Some of the leaseholders were saying 'build, build, build' but the public was mostly saying 'stop, stop, stop'," explains Voorsanger. "In response, the governor formed the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to take charge of the site and, two weeks after the attacks, I was approached to form a small committee to save artefacts from the site."

The reason Voorsanger, rather than a curator, was chosen to head the project was that architecture had been such a key component of the site. But although it was hoped the collected material could later be used to construct a memorial, Voorsanger was adamant that they called what they were doing archiving. "A memorial seemed to place too much emphasis on the emotional side of things," he says. "The artefacts we found covered a whole panoply of items, from individual coffee cups to a burning steel facade. As well as forming a picture of everyday life on the site, we wanted to make sure we had a record of the materials used to build each of the towers and that we were documenting their collapse."

So while Ground Zero, as a crime site, was closed off to all but emergency workers and clearance personnel, Voorsanger's committee was granted special access. Searching for finds and marking them down on a map, the archiving team spent about eight weeks on the site.

Fragments of Alexander Calder's abstract sculpture Stabile, which had originally stood in the offices of brokers Cantor Fitzgerald, were found, along with one of Rodin's The Three Shades, albeit broken. (Apparently over $100 million worth of art was lost in the attacks.) And parts of the American Airlines plane which crashed into the north tower were tracked down. But perhaps the most symbolic of all the finds is an enormous section of the north tower's facade, now kept enveloped from the elements in protective white plastic.

Storing all these artifacts is the next big problem. Until a proper warehouse is found, everything the committee has salvaged is being held at various New Jersey scrapyards, on vacant stretches of tarmac at Kennedy Airport and at the sourly named Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island. While the archivists try to decide what to retain - and what the 150 or so museums, artists and academics that have so far put in requests should be given - the FBI sifts through the objects for evidence and the debate goes on as to who actually owns what.

The city, insurers, tenants and the relatives of those killed in the attacks may all have fair claims but, for the time being, all the material belongs to the insurance companies (although they have ceded ownership, in most cases, to the Port Authority). "It's an extremely emotional issue," says Voorsanger, with a sigh, "and it's one that, eventually, lawyers will have to decide. We need to make sure that we're conscientious about this so we'll set up a procedure for dealing with all these requests before we actually release anything."

It is an issue that has become even more significant since it was discovered that 'souvenir' items (such as a pair of dust-caked boots and a "genuine office key") from Ground Zero were being lucratively traded over the internet site ebay.

But one item that Voorsanger isn't even letting out of his office until proper storage is found is a 1969 copy of the New York Times. Its front cover announces both the retirement of Chief Justice Earl Warren and the death of Judy Garland. "When they built the steel perimeter walls, they built in box columns that, when bolted together, had a space in the middle. As a parting shot, the builders would throw in a beer can or something and the spaces became time capsules. It was from one of these that we found the paper," explains Voorsanger.

Like many of those involved in the curating, Voorsanger witnessed the attacks first-hand. And, as he tells me about the artifacts and about the days he spent searching for them on site, his voice thickens with emotion. "At first I went down to Ground Zero every day or every other day, along with other people from my office" he says. "The emergency workers were hostile to us initially - they imagined we were just scavenging. But once they understood what we were trying to do they started helping us, looking out for anything they thought we might want."

For some, the archiving project has helped them to come to terms with what happened. "I was in my office when the towers were struck," confides Voorsanger. "When I saw them collapse, I understood immediately what had happened. Going down to the site afterwards was unbelievably grim - to your right would be firefighters searching for body parts and to your left would be relatives in tears. Everywhere there was so much smoke. There were moments when I'd walk down there and just feel numb but I suppose, at one level, it's made it easier to internalise the level of the destruction. It feels like I've been running an emotional marathon. I haven't crossed the finish line to this day and I still don't know where the end is. How do we resolve this?"

It's a question many are asking. A memorial would seem to be a good start but this is likely to be a long time in the planning. Bowing to public pressure, the LMDC have decided to build an interim memorial, installing the remains of Fritz Koenig's Sphere, the bronze sculpture which was once the centrepiece of the World Trade Center plaza (and one of Voorsanger's finds), on an adjacent site. As for a permanent memorial, Voorsanger says they need to work out what will resonate with people five or 10 years down the line.

The real difficulty stems from how you view the site. "At one end of the spectrum it's a funeral pyre and at the other it's a development site," he explains. "What is done with the site and the archive is going to be a long process but I don't see that as unhealthy. People need to get some distance from these events. When you're thinking about a memorial, for the families it's all about emotional closure, but for future generations the most brilliant thing you can do is ensure that it doesn't bring closure. It revives the events so that, years later, people will still understand what happened here."

With an eight-and-a-half-acre site to design around, there are infinite ways of resolving these questions. Voorsanger believes there are three things the Port Authority should remember when it starts drawing up plans.

"Firstly, we have to honour the people who died. Then, I'd also hope we could achieve a design solution that's totally brilliant. And, thirdly, we need to heal the skyline. The towers were an iconic part of that and I'm not sure how to do it, but I think it needs to be done."

RHIANNON BATTEN. "Picking up the pieces." The Scotsman. 2002. HighBeam Research. (October 3, 2010). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-12975311.html

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