Depth of Field: The Shared Memory of One World Trade Center


New York is a city of columns. Architecturally, at least, the cityscape gives that impression. Buildings of varying scale, color, physical shape, density, and panache decorate the skyline with a seeming vertical imperviousness. In fact, one could even stipulate that these buildings are working toward a kind of alloyed beauty. “Despair and resilience are recurring motifs in the history of the city that has regularly been battered, doubted, cursed, and loathed, only to battle its way back to glamour,” architecture critic Justin Davidson wrote in the introduction to 2017’s Magnetic City. The Empire State Building. The Chrysler Building. Hearst Tower. The Whitney Museum. Carnegie Hall. The Flatiron Building. The paradox of these impressive structures—saddled as they are with drama and romance and memory—is that their charm is the result of suffering. Flowers from concrete, as they say.

What distinguishes One World Trade Center—or, The Freedom Tower, as it was christened during its early stages of development—from the city’s other famous structures is also what links them. The 104-floor building, the tallest in the United States (it’s 1,774 feet tall), is, too, a story of despair and resilience and glamour, only the allure 1 WTC works toward is not, I would suggest, an aesthetic one. The beauty of the building is found in its allegorical fortitude, its symbolic stature. Most other buildings that dot New York streets are instilled with individual or communal stories—each New Yorker lives in their own version of New York—but 1 WTC is a national one. That does not necessarily make its telling more significant than the city’s other edifices, only that our understanding of 1 WTC registers with a combined potency. In one form or another, we all share in its memory.

Almost every day for the last two years I have entered 1 WTC with a tangled sense of excitement and heaviness. WIRED’s New York offices are located in the building along with all of Condé Nast’s other brands (the building serves as the company’s US headquarters). The question I get most when people realize where my office is located is, “What’s it like?” One time a friend back home very non-jokingly asked what it was like to work in a place where there were so many ghosts. To be honest, I never quite know how to respond. I typically try not to make a big deal of it—quickly changing the focus of the conversation to how the view from the Sky Lobby, on the 64th floor, is one of my favorite in all of the city, or how the tourists outside the building, constantly abuzz with out-of-towner aloofness, are the occasional inconvenience when trying to access the front doors. Even so, the weight of the place is never lost on me.

Depth of Field is senior writer Jason Parham’s weekly dispatch about culture’s most searing current images.

On Wednesday, 18 years since the Twin Towers fell, photographer Spencer Platt captured, with ominous and assertive grace, what rose in their wake. What I particularly like about his photo is how the inaction of the image becomes action the longer we target our gaze. The Freedom Tower careens into the sky, and although it is in fact a baggy gray cloud that garnishes the upper reaches of the building—which, in fact, lends the structure an even more imposing force; like some impermeable fortress conceived by Tony Stark—it registers, to the eye, as smoke, rising and rising from the flame that fateful day. It is the implied narrowing of time that stitches the horror of September 11th with a future that suggests wholesale indestructibility. I doubt that was Platt’s intention. But the correlation is unmistakable. He’s married parallel histories in a single snap: the smoke of the past lingers, but the photo reminds us, we have the strength to rebuild.


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