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Hommage a Speer

By Michael J. Smith on Saturday September 11, 2010 11:04 AM

Yesterday evening I happened to be sitting on a rather pleasant roof terrace -- not my own, alas -- down in the Village, with a glass of Lambrusco in hand (whaddya expect, it's the Village).

The sky was heavily overcast with dark turbulent clouds, and as darkness gathered I happened to glance downtown to see a sinister glow emanating from the thick ceiling, as if there were something big on fire about two thousand feet up. Too bright for the moon, and the lurid brassy color was all wrong, and the moon wasn't in that part of the sky at that hour anyway. Quite alarming. A vast meteorite, heading straight toward me and thus apparently unmoving? A blimp disaster? Some new surveillance platform just parked above Manhattan, to keep an eye in the sky on all of us, and perhaps display Nike or Ipad ads for good measure?

I finally figured it out. They were gearing up for the annual civic liturgy of Ninelevenism, with the inevitable searchlights outlining the former towers, like the titanic thuggish ghosts of Nelson and David Rockefeller, a spectral Gog and Magog looming above our hapless island in death as they did in life:

(Outof-towners may not be aware that the hideously ugly Twin Towers were familiarly referred to by many of us as Nelson and David, in honor of the brothers from the Rockefeller crime family who were largely responsible for foisting them upon us. )

This particular decorative technique was, of course, invented by Albert Speer:

... which seems quite perfect, somehow.

Lots of people seem to find this spectacle ethereal, poetic, elegiac, delicate, etc. I don't. I find it intensely creepy. Partly no doubt this is because of the Speer connection, but not entirely.

Let's start with the searchlights. What are searchlights for? Spotting escaped inmates scurrying across the free-fire zone around a prison. Shooting down airplanes that are on their way to bomb us. Part of the iconography, in other words, of incarceration and embattlement.

Then there's the abstract geometry. The ghost buildings are supposed to commemorate actual buildings -- things made of physical matter, things which have to take account of physical weight and mass if they're not to fall down, as we do in our corporeal bodies.

Now one of the nastiest things about the actual towers, while they were standing, was precisely that vulgar-modernist refusal to acknowledge gravity and weight in their architectural iconography: the third floor looked just like the ninety-third. As if you could defy allometry and scale a milk carton up to Brodingnagian dimensions.

But the ghost buildings take this vulgarity a big step farther. They are made of photons, which don't notice gravity to any extent that we can readily observe. So the spook towers don't even have to resort to the secret subterfuges and hidden corsets that Yamasaki provided beneath Nelson and David's stolid outer garments. There's a kind of bargain-basement heaven-stormingness about the virtual skyscrapers, as if we had finally built the Tower of Babel -- built two for the price of one, in fact -- but done it on the cheap and on the cheat.

It's rude to shine a flashlight in somebody's face. Whether or not you believe that anybody dwells in the heavens, the sky itself is surely entitled to at least that much respect. Projecting a brummagem simulation of two of the ugliest buildings ever built all the way into the Empyrean is the act of an interplanetary polluter.

But I guess this is the kind of dissociated cheap hubris that comes from being Top Country for the moment. We commemorate a humiliating defeat by making something insubstantial Stand Tall, while all us actual physical human beings cower under the guns of our own police.

Comments (14)


a quest for signifigant moments
has a history as long as history itself
of institutional
manipulations and perversions

after all spectacles are a matter of taste

a tin ear doesn't help

and since spectacle
draws out our sapient faculties
not scientific
the yankee laputa
is not all that strong on sapience
father S

"poor speer "



You sound like an out-of-towner yourself. I grew up in NYC, and saw the towers rise. No one, not a single person I've ever met, called the towers Nelson and David. But then again, I wasn't hanging out with Lambrusco-sipping merit babies in the Village.


Google is your friend -- or would be, if they'd stop all that Javascript foolishness:


Scroll down to the last graf.


Guys, what's a merit baby (as in "lambrusco-sipping merit babies")? It it a casual slur or does it signify a meaningful phenomenon?



the development of the towers
is a rocky brothers affair ...no ??

beyond that what is the objection
so what if you missed the naming after bit

mjs has lived in maim-hattan since the mid 70's

long enough ???

"I wasn't hanging out with Lambrusco-sipping merit babies in the Village."

where were you then ??

working the brokklyn sewers with ed norton ??

running after the statan island ferry ??

ball boy at forest hills ???

beating off in poe park ???

nyc is not just manhattan
be more specific
and give a time line


I shoulda been a merit baby, but I turned into a demerit baby. But as for the Lambrusco -- line 'em up and keep 'em coming.

"Merit baby" is a term of art 'round here. I should add it to the Bestiary. Meanwhile, for an ostensive definition, see here.


Lifelong Brooklyn, though not a sewer-worker. Live downtown. Born Brooklyn Hospital in the early 60s. Evidently not an "insider," as described by the Times link. That explains it. I defer to Manhattan insider MJS. I'm just a lowly outer-borough stiff.

@dd. "Merit baby" is the term that the merit babies who write for SMBIVA use to castigate their fellow merit babies. I'll leave it to the merit babies to elaborate.

SMBIVA is one of the most thought-provoking political blogs I read, even if it unwittingly oozes privilege, classism, and elitism.


I apologize on the Times' behalf for the term "insider", which certainly doesn't apply to me. I have no idea what sort of "insiders" they were thinking of.

I'm trying to remember what the settings were where I used to hear this Nelson & David joke. I think perhaps it was originally among architects and urban-planner types, though I'm pretty sure I've also heard community organizer types say it.


i thought they were advertising the casino.


"SMBIVA is one of the most thought-provoking political blogs I read, even if it unwittingly oozes privilege, classism, and elitism."

Is 'wittingly' ever used? Or is it like 'couth'?

Anyhow, Geoff, you left out 'looksism'.


I say "wittingly". Also "couth".

But I've never understood what "classism" is supposed to mean.


Also "boobsism." (Pro-boobsism, of course; I seem to recall that you hallucinated a "busty" teacher on a website graphic once.)

Great post, Batman.

+1 'one of the most thought-provoking political blogs I read'


Emma, I swear, she really was busty. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Better, actually. But they changed the image on me. It's a vast conspiracy.


Ever wonder what those assembled Nazi crowds did for pit stops? Did all that marble and granite conceal thousands of toilets? And what was the etiquette involved in absenting oneself from the assigned pigeonhole for a mad, 500-yard dash to the loo as 100,000 fellow Nazis looked on? Maybe a strong, calm bladder was a prerequisite for party membership.

I hate crowds.

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