Meaning and Nothingness at Ground Zero


Is the question of what to do with Ground Zero in New York actually an issue of materialism versus spirituality? A debate about the site's future held last weekend at the New York Historical Society developed exactly along that divide. Architect Daniel Libeskind made the case for building something on the World Trade Center site. A pair of authors, Sherwin B. Nuland (who is also a doctor) and Leon Wieseltier, argued for, respectively, a meditative garden and nothing at all; both writers found the idea of building anything on the site to be repellent.

The exchange, as reported in The New York Times, was notably angry and remarkably personal. It deserves attention for a couple of reasons. First, it illustrates the deep passions that the World Trade Center site is capable of stirring; this is an argument that will only intensify. Second, the argument is threatening to break along a false division. The material is not necessarily the opposite of the spiritual; the material usually embodies meaning, and that meaning can include the spiritual.

Here's what the debate participants told each other. Architect Libeskind began by arguing that architecture was capable of expressing trauma, and cited his firm's own work as examples. His Jewish Museum in Berlin features walls with broken lines to express the broken line of Jewish life in the city.

Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, responded that "There is something a little grotesque in the interpretation of ground zero as a lucky break for art." Lower Manhattan, he thought, should not be "transformed into a theme park for advanced architectural taste." The challenge of Ground Zero was spiritual, he insisted, and he suggested it be left as a void. Wieseltier invoked Jewish tradition, which he said mourned not through things but through words and ritual.

Libeskind shot back. "It is the specialty of shallow people," he said, "to think that literature can replace true space." People live in places, he said; they don't live in language. That idea was derived from Heidegger, and was "a Nazi notion."

Writer Nuland, who argued for a quiet garden, told Libeskind that he was "offended by the thought that there will be a piece of architecture on that spot." According to Nuland, "architecture is about the architect." Libeskind dismissed Nuland's point. "You have a fascist idea of architecture that comes straight from Ayn Rand," he told him.

Wieseltier closed the debate with an attack on all things material. "There is no single greater danger to the cultural life of this society," he said, "than the rampant teleology of materialism."

Yet is it precisely materialism's teleology that makes it "rampant." Things have meaning; that has been the foundation of cultural life in this and every other Western society since the Renaissance. But the meaning of things is both fluid and subjective, which makes the issue of monuments inevitably difficult. Writer Nuland wants a garden where people can meditate, but gardens do not always translate into meditative places; for many people, even cemeteries are not meditative. Wieseltier wants a void that calls to mind "godfulness and godlessness, certainty and doubt, anger and hope." But is that what such a void will mean to others? It may mean desolation, abandonment, and emptiness. Libeskind speaks of an architecture that can express trauma. But future visitors to Ground Zero may seek renewal and hope.

Debates exactly like this have a long and revealing history. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was also the subject of impassioned debate; its critics derided the final tomb-like design as depressing and inappropriate. Yet, precisely because of its living meaning, the memorial has been embraced by vets and their families, and is one of the most vital sites in a city otherwise crowded with dead monuments. People confer meaning; the best that official designers can do is to allow people a place to create such meaning.