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Ground Zero retreats before architecture of surrender--if it's ever realized.

Monuments of Defeat
9/11’s Hole, Baghdad’s Fill

Two monuments, two related meanings, two slurs on their surroundings-one from its absence in Lower Manhattan, the other from its overbearing presence on the Baghdad skyline. When has architecture spoken louder of the promise and failure of the American example, half-way through the “war on terror’s” first decade?

First, take ground zero in Manhattan. In four months, it’ll be five years since the attacks of Sept. 11. Back then, the rebuilding of ground zero appeared fated to be a reflex of American resilience. It wasn’t a matter of what would be built or how it would commemorate that day, but of how fast the 16-acre site and its hole would become a living part of New York again.

It took six years to get all seven buildings of the original World Trade Center built between 1966 and 1972, including the two signature towers, each rising more than 1,300 feet and 110 stories. We’ll be lucky if Freedom Tower’s 1,776-foot spire rises high enough to make a dent on the skyline before decade’s end. Politics, cronyism, bickering and a pile-on effect of what should be there (and what shouldn’t) have kept the hole what it has been since the last truckload of 1.2 million tons of debris was removed-a bedraggled construction site with nothing more than fits and starts to justify it.

The architects did their part. The memorial competition alone drew 5,201 submissions from 63 countries, and went to Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s “Reflecting Absence”-two square, waterfall-rimmed reflecting pools where the footprints of the two towers used to be. But a memorial initially budgeted at $500 million has turned into a $1 billion monstrosity that no one is willing to build at that price. So the memorial sits on a drawing table, its lengthening absence turning into an insult to the memory it was meant to honor.

The rest of the project’s cost will almost certainly exceed $10 billion. A cornerstone was laid on July 4, 2004, and 7 World Trade Center, a 52-story building, was completed. But Freedom Tower itself, if it’s ever built, is a skinny surrender of a building, considering its small square-footage and its mostly make-believe tallness: It’s only 70 stories high. What’s above the 70 th floor spires on, empty but for lattice work that looks meek and counterfeit compared with the two old towers’ bulk. And the financial plan put in place in April to afford the multi-tower complex is again in doubt now that insurers are balking on paying $4.6 billion of their obligations.

In those few years, the World Trade Center site has gone from a symbol of American power (when the towers stood) to solemn proof of American grit (while the site was being cleared) to . . . what? We’re still waiting, although as a symbol of America losing its way, ground zero is it for now.

Meanwhile, seven time zones away, another massive construction project is having none of those problems. Spread over 104 acres and known locally as “George W.’s Palace,” it’s the 21-building, $600 million complex that will become the American Embassy compound in Baghdad. The Iraqi capital daily goes without electricity for all but four hours a day, water and sewage operate at prewar levels. Only six of 150 health-care facilities promised by the occupation forces have been built.

But at the embassy complex, work is proceeding swiftly and secretly but for the forest of cranes rising on the skyline. It has the distinction of being “the only big U.S. building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget,” the London Times reported. As an added insult to local workers, the White House contracted the job to Kuwaiti companies who, in turn, have trucked in exclusively foreign workers.

According to the Times, the compound eventually will house a staff of 8,000 and “what is rumored to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favorite U.S. chains, tennis courts and a swish American club for evening functions.” It will be as ostentatious a display of power and luxury as any of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, which the old tyrant loved to build in his people’s faces, and at their expense.

The American compound in Baghdad is being built at the expense of American taxpayers. But it is already a monument to American hubris abroad and a sad contrast with what remains at ground zero in Manhattan: We can make war. We can build fortresses. We cannot build peace, abroad or at home.

This piece appears in the May 30, 2006 editions of the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal.

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