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Jewish World Review April 11, 2002/ 30 Nisan, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Making Sept. 11 fireproof | When the World Trade Center became towering infernos, collapsing before the eyes of the world, we focused on the human dimension of the loss of life, and then on anger, grief, sorrow and pity - and when and how to fight back.

Anger and grief subside, and now we turn to the practical. Engineers and architects ponder the standards for fireproofing buildings. Why did the towers buckle? How can building materials be made to withstand intense heat?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the America Society of Civil Engineers will complete a report of their investigation into the World Trade Center disaster in about a month, which should provide the technical analysis for ways to improve fire codes and standards.

Artists, pondering aesthetics and urban planning, consider what should be created at Ground Zero that will be both imaginative and commemorative, and we all confront how we'll live with new threats to civilization and the everyday freedoms we've always taken for granted.

In an exhibition called "A New World Trade Center: Design Proposals," now at the National Building Museum in Washington, artists and architects display images that transform the perversions of the terrorists into opportunities to celebrate what one curator calls the sense of American "power, potency and poetry." An architect identifies the creative process as cathartic, aiming to alleviate the pain and suffering with a sense of "rebirth and renewal."

The twin towers were the first modern high rises to collapse in heat and flames. Before Sept. 11, deaths from fire had been in steady decline in the United States. Fire codes and "furnace tests" on building materials are credited with saving lives by determining the kinds of materials that will withstand heat and flames.

Out-of-date tests and materials have not yet been fingered as the cause of the meltdown of the towers, but the methods of testing building materials are under close scrutiny. The low-tech methods for measuring temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees, and what this heat does to building materials, haven't changed much since the early part of the 20th century.

One analyst compares these tests to studying the effectiveness of the drawbridge over a moat at the entrance of a castle. Furnace tests, in fact, haven't been updated to examine how fire affects new synthetic compositions or the bolted and welded connections that give contemporary buildings strength and design. Even before Sept. 11, according to the New York Times, about one in five firemen who die fighting fires die under collapsing brick, mortar and steel.

Artists and architects, for their part, are busily examining poetic and aesthetic approaches for redeveloping Ground Zero against the dark threats of modern terrorism. The show at the National Building Museum, which originated in a gallery in New York City and will be reduced to a book, will represent the United States at the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennial this summer. It's more poetically provocative than practical, and it's unlikely that many, if any, of the concepts can be turned into reality.

Some of the suggestions of the artists, who often live in cocoons of their own making, are a little off the wall, collapsed or not. One king of kitsch suggests the towers be rebuilt in red, white and blue. Another proposal suggests that the skin of a building at Ground Zero weep with mist from a sprinkler system, unending tears to evoke memory when there's no longer anyone around who remembers what happened. Another artist envisions a "secular cathedral," with celebratory spaces where business and cultural gatherings coincide for visitors to enjoy and learn.

The more profound and thoughtful images fuse memory with a longing for a better world, an appeal to the best of our values, along with an awareness that barbaric men can, like sorcerers, debase the wonder of technology and exploit the ignorance of the superstitious, persuading them to become human missiles of destruction. Architect Daniel Libeskind calls for images of global significance that address a new relationship between form and function, fragility and stability, stone and spirit. Easier said than done.

How we protect the memory of 9/11 - by fireproofing new buildings and preserving the proof of the fire at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - should concern us all. The death of 3,000 innocents consecrates hallowed ground.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS