At first I had no doubt. The towers should be rebuilt. That was that. When it happened, the week it happened... the day it happened. There was simply no question in my mind that the towers should be built right back as they were. It was almost shocking to me that anything else would be considered. Former mayor Ed Koch was almost evangelical in support of rebuilding them exactly as they had been. If I had any notion of changing them at all, it would only have been to build them taller.

Reality set in. Like many New York landmarks, the Twin Towers were not just a monument or a city attraction; they were functional office buildings. They had purpose.

I thought a lot about what this meant.

New York is built on commerce. We are capitalist. In our twenty-first century world, capitalism has won. The World Trade Center was the most powerful symbol of that triumph. Western style democratic capitalism has won out over the other possible alternative means of organizing humanity. Those who attacked us on September 11th attacked that symbol.

Now the buildings are gone.

The fact that the towers are gone does not destroy their purpose. When the Rockefellers first built the World Trade Center towers (through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) the idea was that companies from abroad would be encouraged to come open an office in America. There would be a centralized place for them to do business with one another and this would encourage free trade among nations. A center for world trade, or a World Trade Center.

A strong argument can be made that the very success of the principals that these buildings represented has made their own need obsolete. Today much of Manhattan could be called a World Trade Center. When even China has joined the WTO, Europe has a common currency, Russia has chosen a market economy; the globalization of trade is just one more fact of modern life.

The towers may be gone, but the ideals they represented are stronger than ever.

Fortunately the ideals they represented were much more successful than the buildings themselves. They were built speculatively. With so much square footage, it was always difficult to find enough tenants to fill the space. Only with the state of New York subsidizing the venture through the rental of 50 floors (or 25% of the lease-able space) were they able to be profitable. To make matters worse, there is currently a glut of office space in lower Manhattan. Most of the former tenants of the towers have signed long-term leases elsewhere. Any attempt to replace the full square footage in any redevelopment plan would likely be disastrous.

Nearly all of the first round of redevelopment proposals that appeared after the tragedy were somehow derivative of the twin monolith silhouette. Some were quite bad ideas. I won't dwell on them. More distance was needed. One thing we must understand is that we are not memorializing the buildings, but the people whose lives were tragically taken on that September morning.

What is even less inspiring are the practical proposals that are now coming out: four shorter towers instead of two taller ones, a low rise office park, a shopping mall.

Yes, the city lost a lot of office space... it lost a tourist attraction, a global symbol, a public observation deck, yes, it even lost the shopping mall underneath the plaza and the train station underneath that. We need something that can replace much of this and still respectfully memorialize the loss. But we need something that will be much more than simply the sum of its parts.

New York is desperately in need of a big idea. The World Trade Center was a VERY big idea, in both purpose and execution.

Like New York itself, the new "idea" must reach for the skies.

To do anything less would be to concede defeat.

copyright © 2002-2003 Chris Grayson