The Next Page / After the fall, fixing a hole: rebuilding national symbols

The White House. British Parliament. Dresden, Germany. The Old Summer Palace, Beijing ... Historian Joe Coohill shows how these iconic structures got rebuilt (or not) -- and what it says about the unspeedy state of rebuilding at Ground Zero in New York.


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On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we all know the horrors of that day and of the wars that followed it. We all know that, with the exception of the rebuilt Pentagon and construction of a Flight 93 memorial, the cultural and architectural scars of that day remain with us.

And we all wonder why, after 10 years, countless dollars spent and countless promises broken, Ground Zero in Manhattan is barely half-built. 1 World Trade Center (formerly Freedom Tower) is about halfway up. Almost all the other buildings are at ground level. Even the memorial to the victims had to be rushed to completion in time for the 10th anniversary.

Why has this happened?

We can blame bureaucracy, power politics and money politics, and certainly those things have played their ugly part. There's something deeper, however, that explains the slow reconstruction: It's simply too complicated and difficult for a culture to come to terms with architectural trauma, and to recover quickly.

One way to begin to understand why the scars at Ground Zero remain open is to look at what happened in other cases and in other cultures. For, as shocking and unnerving as the destruction of the Twin Towers was for all of us, it wasn't the first time that iconic architecture, soaked in cultural meaning, has been destroyed.

And it isn't the first time that a nation has struggled with the immense cultural difficulties of rebuilding a symbol. It's happened in many parts of the world, even in the early years of the United States.


When the British torched the Yanks' White House

Within a generation of the Revolutionary War, the United States was back at war with Great Britain. The War of 1812 is generally known for two things: Francis Scott Key writing the Star-Spangled Banner during the Battle of Fort McHenry, and the burning of Washington, D.C., by invading British troops.

In addition to other government buildings, the British burned the Capitol and the White House, partly in retaliation for the burning of the parliament buildings of Upper Canada by U.S. troops during the battle of York (modern-day Toronto) in 1813.

It would be comforting to think that the young country united in nationalist common cause to rebuild Washington, but it didn't happen that way. Washington as a site for the nation's capital was still somewhat controversial, and some politicians and opinion-makers argued that the burning was a blessing in disguise. Washington was swampy, humid and inconvieniently distant from New York, Philadelphia and Boston. There were serious calls to abandon it and return the capital to a northeastern site.

Ultimately, of course, D.C. remained the capital, and rebuilding of the White House and the Capitol building began in 1815. Reconstructing the White House was fairly straightforward, but the Capitol was more difficult. It took roughly 10 years to finish, with plenty of squabbles between architects, builders and politicians, fought out privately and in the press, with the same kind of blame-mongering and posturing we have seen over Ground Zero.

The result was a grander building, with more native marble and ornamentation, arguably an expression of the new nation's nationalism. It had fought Britain more or less to a standstill, which, for a former colonial outpost, was not bad going.


After the British Parliament fire, much hand-wringing

Britain suffered a similar loss to an architectural icon in 1834. The Houses of Parliament burned down in an accidental fire.

Just as in the United States, there was serious consideration of moving the site, to de-emphasize the royal nature of what was originally a palace (and retained the name Palace of Westminster).

The architectural and popular press argued feverishly over which style should represent the nation in the new building. Proponents of classical style emphasized a forward-looking, powerful and imperial Britain. The champions of Gothic wished to solidify what they saw as the medieval legacy of British liberty enshrined in Magna Carta.

The neo-Gothic plans New Palace of Westminster won out, but not until after serious hand-wringing about how the nation should be expressed in stone. Again, the process was very lengthy and complicated. The foundation stone wasn't laid until 1840, the House of Lords and the House of Commons didn't occupy their chambers until 1851, and Big Ben didn't ring for the first time until 1859.

Of course, there were plenty of construction problems, but the real reason for the building's 25-year gestation was that it was complicated by the tremendous changes in British political life during that time. Parliament was becoming much more involved in economic and social affairs, and the amount of government business expanded rapidly. Politicians pestered the architects and builders with demands for changes, even as the walls were going up around them.


Dresden, restarted from scratch

Politics had always played a central role in major architectural projects, particularly civic reconstruction on a massive scale. One of the most heart-rending examples of political ideology affecting an architectural landscape was the destruction and rebuilding of the German city of Dresden near the end of World War II.

The city center was all but obliterated by allied bombing in February 1945, and rebuilding started under the East German government after the war.

The first mayor of the new East German Dresden saw a political and social opportunity in the destruction. The loss of life was horrific, he wrote, but the bombing swept away the oppressive nature of Dresden's royal and aristocratic architecture, and leveled bourgeois taste that had kowtowed to it. Some historic buildings were saved, but the majority of the city was rebuilt along a "socialist modern" plan, with soul-less efficiency in mind.

But even under a strong, ideological government, this plan was highly contested. Public opinion more or less demanded that the Opera House and Zwinger Palace be reconstructed (slowly), and the government relented. They used the rebuilding of these icons as anti-Western propaganda, reminding East Germans of the cultural brutality of the American and British bombing.

Again, though, the reconstruction, even under a command economy, took forever. Dresden wasn't fully revitalized until long after German reunification, with the finishing of the glorious Frauenkirche (the Lutheran Church of Our Lady) in 2005.


Why Beijing does not have a new Old Summer Palace

All these cases of reconstruction were ultimately successful (even though they were all, typically, way over budget and behind schedule). The case of destruction of the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860 is a more troubling cultural comparison, however.

The Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, in Chinese) was one of the architectural glories of the world. Started in 1707, it was an 860-acre complex of palaces, gardens, man-made lakes and waterfalls, temples and art galleries, and took 150 years to reach its final form. It was a retreat and summer home for the emperor and his court, the most stunning and expansive Camp David that you can possibly imagine.

It almost perfectly represented imperial China. It was a great feat of landscape architecture, and its buildings were as beautiful and refined as any ever constructed. The art contained in its galleries celebrated Chinese life and Confucian philosophy.

Yet it was built, essentially, by slave labor, and its pleasures were reserved only for the precious few of the imperial court. It could not have symbolized the stark dichotomy of the richness of the Imperial court and the poverty of the Chinese peasantry any more sharply.

It was destroyed by combined British and French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, as punishment for the killing of British treaty envoys to the emperor. Over three days in mid-October, the Yuan Ming Yuan was looted and its buildings torched.

The complex was so large, intricate and well-built that it took 3,500 troops to demolish it.

Imperial China, and Yuan Ming Yuan, never really recovered. By 1911, the emperor's reign had been leeched away by foreign powers. There was no money or political will to rebuild the Palace, despite the great cultural loss bemoaned by what remained of the Chinese elite. Under the Chinese Republic and Communist China, Yuan Ming Yuan became a ghost icon. It could never be recovered to its original splendor, but its destruction was used, like Dresden, as a propaganda against Western beastliness.

It was left as a ruin until the 1980s, when the government preserved it as a national historical site. But rebuilding it in any form, or on any scale, has run into a central cultural question -- just what should be memorialized?

Yuan Ming Yuan has existed as a ruin, and a symbol of the death throes of Imperial China (or the barbarity of the West), for nearly as long as it existed as a palace.

Apart from the staggering cost of returning it to its imperial beauty (even as a smaller-scale, Disney-fied tourist attraction), critics have argued that rebuilding would be like trying to rewrite history by erasing the tragedies.



Does the seemingly interminable process of rebuilding the World Trade Center mean that the United States is on the decline, like Imperial China? Of course not. China's loss of power was the result of many additional factors.

Does it show, like Dresden, an uneasiness with our political and economic future? Probably not. We didn't lose a world war, nor have we been reduced to a satellite state of another power, in the aftermath of 9/11.

At the very least, all these other events show us that rebuilding is very difficult and lengthy. And let us not forget it took nearly 10 years to build the original World Trade Center (and that was without having to deal with the issues of mourning and memory).

One other important common thread runs through each of these histories. Modern cultures are riddled with complications and cultural reconstruction is a messy thing. In some ways, this is an annoyance, but in others, it's a reflection of a kind of cultural strength, one that resists architectural fiat.

After all, most of us don't want the kind of architecture and cityscapes planned and built in Mussolini's Italy. Aesthetically, buildings were severe, and the political processes by which they were conceived and built, whatever their efficiencies, were abhorrent.

It's difficult for almost any culture to reconstruct iconic architecture without a great deal of argument, money and messy bureaucratic problems. No sensible person should celebrate the political grandstanding, corruption, budget-busting and time-wasting that usually accompany such gargantuan projects. But on one level at least, the whole messy process reveals much about ourselves and our country.

With the new World Trade Center, we've had to confront the issue of whether our commercial and capitalist culture trumps memorializing the dead. And if it doesn't, how can both be accommodated and expressed in public architecture?

The glacial pace of rebuilding has shown us the complex workings of a public-private partnership between the state of New York, New York City, the Port Authority, the lease-holders and new tenants of the new site, and the families of the victims of the original tragedy.

It would have been far better, of course, to address these issues without going through a national tragedy, but it did happen.

As maddening as the lengthy rebuilding process is, at least it raises some important cultural concerns for us to think about. It shows that our culture is not monolithic, and that's a good thing, despite the cost and the inefficiency. Give me that over the architecture of fiat and domination any day.

It took 60 years for Dresden to revitalize itself after World War II. Work on Frauenkirch (the Lutheran Church of Our Lady) was completed in 2005.


Joseph Coohill teaches world history at Duquesne University. He is writing a book about the destruction and rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament ( coohillj@duq.edu ).


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