September 11, 2021
Thoughts on looking out my bedroom window on 9/11/2021
When I look out my bedroom window, this is what I see. This morning it occurred to me that, of the all the places I’ve lived in New York City (10 by my count…I may be forgetting a couple), this is the only one with a view of the World Trade Center.
20 years ago today, I wasn’t living in NYC at all. I had sold my Manhattan apartment (big mistake) and moved to San Francisco to oversee the startup of Dwell. But I wasn’t there either. I was on a train between Malmo and Stockholm traveling with a group of architecture and design journalists. The guy who was sitting next to me, whose name I’ve forgotten, came back from the bar car with a drink. He said, “The bartender told me that the World Trade Center is on fire and the Pentagon is on fire.” I said, “He must be joking.”
And so it began.
And it’s never exactly ended. The world that was created by 9-11, one in which security measures and methods are constantly upgraded and enhanced, in which we lead with suspicion, is all around us every day. (This level of control, of spaces public and private has, of course, only been heightened by COVID and its many protocols.)
The war that began on 9-11 continues to be fought, but it’s not exactly a war against Al Qaeda or terrorism in general. It’s a war against the unobserved, against allowing things to slip through the cracks, against even innocent acts of trespassing. It’s a war in which we are all participants, not just as potential victims of terrorist acts, but as beings whose actions must be monitored, who are always under surveillance and who are contributing to our voluminous data trails with every routine activity.
There was a certain amount of vagueness, of wiggle room, that existed prior to 9-11. It turns out that the ability to get away with minor transgressions, to go unnoticed, unrecorded, was a luxury. We just didn’t know it at the time. Even those two outrageously tall, boxy structures that used to stand on the site that we still think of as Ground Zero possessed a degree of innocence. They were designed by architects and engineers who didn’t realize they had to bunker-ize the bases of the buildings against truck bombs or provide enough hardened emergency stairways to evacuate the towers in case they were struck by a jetliner. It’s hard to think of any massive Manhattan real estate project, especially one championed by David Rockefeller, as innocent, but oddly the old World Trade Center was. Big, braggadocious, and naive.
I didn’t lose anyone I loved on 9-11. I was fortunate in that respect. I just lost what we all lost, a world where there was room for informal arrangements, off-the-books deals, improvisation, casual trespassing, unobserved behavior, simple existence. And that’s what I see when I look out my bedroom window at the spot where the Twin Towers once stood, when I contemplate the present day World Trade Center. I’m seeing an emblem of a society in which the slack has been fine-tuned out, a society we might even recognize as dystopian if only we had the space and time for perspective.