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America's search for 'closure' at Ground Zero cannot be hurried

people

Just before Christmas 2002, when the shortlisted schemes for New York's World Trade Center site were first made public, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a speech in which he linked the project to the rebuild - ing of Lower Manhattan. He talked about a great monument, a huge investment in mass transit, new office buildings, a hotel, a museum, tree-lined avenues, new parks and housing, and the long-awaited rail link to Kennedy and La Guardia air - ports. Asked where the money for all this building was going to come from when there was already millions of square feet of vacant office space in Lower Manhattan - the largest office overhang since the 1930s depression - Bloomberg proposed turning the area into a federal tax haven to attract foreign multinational corpora - tions.

That was well over a year ago. Now the federal tax haven is no longer spoken of and the international competition to masterplan the World Trade Center site is over, with Daniel Libeskind declared the winner. Yet still the disconcerting lack of agreement about what is to be built and when rumbles on into a dog's breakfast of lawsuits unap - peased by the great architectural event to come. Instead, everyone involved seems dissatisfied with the failure of the project to achieve 'closure' for the 11 September episode as a whole.

'Closure' is an American concept that can be applied to lawsuits, projects and individuals alike. It means a proportional response from one side or the other in any contest that permits withdrawal or termination. Thus if the slow progress of the WTC redevelopment is making architects, developers, politicians and ordinary peo - ple restless, it is because prolonged asymmetries always threaten unprogrammed events and the sort of imbalance that makes 'closure' even more unlikely.

Today even the most optimistic projection puts the completion of the Libeskind masterplan, and 'closure' with it, 12 years away. This, three years since the destruction of the twin towers and still with no 'pro - portional response' in sight, most Americans see as bad news. It is their pol - icy to deal summarily with disasters and to bring about 'closure' come what may.

Unfortunately architecture is inimical to haste.

The best example of a successful American closure achieved in circumstances broadly similar to those of 11 September is afforded by the Japanese air attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Taken by surprise, the Americans lost an entire fleet of battleships, leaving the Japanese navy in de facto control of the whole Pacific Ocean. But the Americans recovered quickly, striking back less than four months later with a surprise air attack on Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama by 16 B25 bombers flown from an aircraft carrier 800 miles from the Japanese coast. Though little more than a gesture - no provision was made for receiving the aircraft in China where they arrived after dark - this counterattack gave a taste of American flexibility, speed and determination, and achieved 'closure' at the time.

The contrast with 11 September and its lack of any proportional counter attack - because no commensurate enemy has ever been found - illuminates the extent to which the continuing architectural uncertainties of Lower Manhattan are better understood as aspects of the monstrous national wound inflicted by the terrorists.

Twenty-four years ago President Jimmy Carter failed to win a second term because he had been unable to end the Iran - ian siege of the US Embassy in Tehran, a national humiliation that influences Amer - ican foreign policy to this day. A precedent that George W Bush, no doubt, has in mind, but one that might also be of interest to one or two of the growing number of world architects working on the Ground Zero site.

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