Last Wednesday evening, Paul Goldberger, author of Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York, spoke with Camilo José Vergara at the Museum of the City of New York, in conjunction with the MCNY exhibition of Vergara’s photographs of the Twin Tower, The Twin Towers and the City: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara, currently on display. Vergara is known for his photographs of some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, returning year after year to shoot the same building or site over time. His method involves an extraordinary amount of patience, commitment and prescience: he began photographing cities in the process of disinvestment and resulting decay in the 1960s and ’70s and has been following them ever since. Traveling again and again to cities throughout the United States — including Detroit, Chicago and Gary, Indiana — his photographs tell the story of a country in flux and the deterioration of the American city in the latter half of the 20th century.
The Twin Towers and the City makes apparent the changes to Vergara’s interest in the towers throughout their life span. When Vergara came to New York City in 1965, the poverty that had insinuated itself into many aspects of urban life had risen to the surface, ready to be photographed. When construction began on the Twin Towers in 1968, Vergara was fascinated by the way they symbolized what he sees as the misplaced priorities of American culture: the desire to build giant, shimmering monuments to capitalism in the face of an ailing city. One photograph in the show, “View of the World Trade Center Under Construction from Duane Street, Manhattan, 1970,” is an especially poignant juxtaposition: in the foreground, a man lies asleep on the sidewalk next to a trash can, surrounded by detritus, while in the background the gleaming, modern towers are busily being constructed, cranes visible at the upper reaches. As the years progressed, Vergara became more focused on documenting the state of degraded living conditions and the dilapidation of the built environment throughout New York City, and he became less concerned with the towers as a symbol. They became part of the scene, visible from every point in the city. That ubiquity recurs throughout the show: the towers are in the background of photographs from every part of the city, as well as New Jersey; as one approached Manhattan from the north, south, east or west. They became a geographical anchor for Vergara’s photographs in much the same way as they did for the city itself.
When a visitor first enters the gallery, the first six photographs she sees are the only in the exhibition with the Twin Towers as the primary focal point. The title of each clinically describes the view, the photographer’s location, and the date shot, beginning with “View of Lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn, October 1979” and followed by the same composition photographed in November 1979; on September 11, 2001; in September 2001; on September 10, 2010 (showing the Tribute in Light); and in May 2011. The photographs serve as an introduction to the show, documenting the changes to the landscape from the towers’ opening through their destruction, but they are the anomalous sequence in the exhibition; the rest of the exhibition functions as a single portrait of the city’s experience with the towers, rather than multiple portraits of those specific buildings. When the Twin Towers were first built, they were criticized for their hugeness, for their a-contextuality, and for their erasure of the existent fabric. Gradually that hatred became acceptance of their inescapable presence on the horizon. Finally, in the face of destruction, they became symbols of loss and, for a time, sacred. During the moment of mourning, Goldberger referred to them as Modernist “martyrs.” It took their destruction for the city, as well as the rest of the country, to love them. The exhibition, ultimately, documents the gradual change in the city’s attitude toward the Twin Towers from hatred in the face of new construction through “martyrdom” with their destruction.
The conversation also tracked decades of shifting attitudes, referencing Vergara’s and Goldberger’s changing relationships to the towers throughout their careers. Vergara opened the evening with the memory that Goldberger had reviewed his first show at Parsons favorably, and this praise had opened the door to more opportunities and exhibitions. In this way, Vergara placed the beginning of two speakers’ careers in time, specifically beginning when the towers were first introduced to the city.
Vergara spoke generally about his own work and process, about the necessity of returning to a space, an address, a building or a neighborhood, multiple times over the course of years of capturing or understanding that space. He touched upon what he saw as the power of sequencing images, how they begin to take on meaning through that sequencing. Goldberger stipulated that the true subject of Vergara’s work was time. Vergara agreed: he had set out to capture images of a ruin, of monuments falling apart, but was totally surprised that New York City ”didn’t go the way of Detroit.”
The loss of the towers was felt not only in the context of New York City, but throughout the rest of the country as well. Goldberger pointed out that, outside of New York, the towers were depicted as entities in and of themselves, often alone, without the surrounding city. They were monuments to the event, with the towers as the symbols of the loss. In contrast, remembrances in the New York metropolitan region often focus on specific people that were lost. While rebuilding on the site itself has been fraught with logistical, political and emotional difficulties, the rest of the city has continued to function; for the rest of the country, the towers remained the symbol, unchanging over time. That differentiation is made explicit by Vergara’s series of photographs depicting murals from around the country slightly separated from the photographs of murals from around New York City.
Discussing the towers as physical entities, Goldberger pointed out their beauty as “minimalist sculptures.” That the facades consisted of more metal than glass allowed for a play of light, shimmering differently throughout the day. Vergara maintained that there was something wonderful in their simplicity, that they became almost a three-figure composition, with the space between bearing as much visual weight as the two towers themselves. He lamented the loss of the slivers of space between the buildings in Lower Manhattan as the neighborhood has been built out and that space has been eaten up over the years. Goldberger pointed out the irony of all the ways that they were criticized at ground level, as being anti-urban, contextless, as a podium disrupting the streets, that they became so much a part of the city at the larger scale, from everywhere but directly below them. Now, ten years later, the biggest change, to Goldberger, is how much we’ve accepted their loss: now the strange pictures are those with the towers in them. The question and answer session at the end of the evening gave the speakers a platform to express fears that the new buildings would not be great, and lament the lost opportunity that rebuilding offered to utilize the lessons learned from the last forty years about how cities work.
What’s most remarkable about Vergara’s work is that he tells the story of the American city in the wake of Modernism not by photographing the big interventions, the large scale monuments to efficiency that completely reshaped cities, but by documenting the untouched neighborhoods. He shows the viewer those neighborhoods that were allowed to devolve without intervention, and therefore tell a story of civic disinvestment, suburbanization, population shifts, economic downturns and urban poverty. If Vergara’s real subject is time, as Golberger suggests, it is through returning to the same site throughout decades that reveals the process by which the built environment adapts or decays. Thus, his most powerful photographs approach an understanding of a large and incomprehensible whole — a city — through the documentation of one aspect, a building or a block, as it ages.
All images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
Jessica Cronstein is a designer and writer interested in the point at which the social, cultural and physical growth of a city intersect. She has just completed her M.Arch at Rice University and lives in New York City.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.