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Maybe It Wasn't All About Us

By Frank Gruber

September 12, 2011 -- I’m writing this yesterday, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and all day I have been thinking not only about the event itself, the memories of it, and its impact on all of us, but also about the reaction to it and how we are still trying to understand it.

As shown in the memorial events and in writings about that day, Americans share a largely consistent grief about 9/11, and seem even more united in the belief that it was a watershed, a “before-and-after” moment. For me this is reflected in the life of my son, who was born in the miraculous year of 1989, when the Cold War ended. A little over a decade later, the optimism of 1989 gave way to horror. He’s become an adult in a world different from the one I expected.

When the Berlin Wall came down many thought that world conflicts would ease and perhaps even cease because of the resolution of that little argument between Western economic theories that turned out to have political ramifications. But it wasn’t “all about us.” There was a rest of the world that had issues independent of the dispute between capitalism and communism, which were both, after all, simply different brands of the same product -- modernity.

In reading about 9/11 in the run-up to yesterday’s anniversary, I broadly saw two interpretations different from each other ideologically, but similar in their America-centric point of view. Right-wing American exceptionalism tells us that the radical Islamic terrorists attacked us because they hate our freedom; left-wing American exceptionalism tells us that they attacked us because they hate the bad things we do in the world.

But they’re united on the “they hate us” part.

I don’t want to claim that I understand what goes on in the minds of those who plot and commit terrorist acts like 9/11, but it seems more likely to me that they do these things in response to the dynamics of their own societies and what they want to accomplish within them than because they want to punish America or teach it a lesson.

Osama bin Laden wanted to prove something to Arabs and other Muslims. His goal was to remake the Arab world to reflect his vision of Islam; to recreate the Caliphate and expel the Infidel.

History has a way of sorting things out. Bin Laden was right that the Arab world was at a turning point in its long history. I suppose he sensed a crucial moment as two centuries of contact with modernity came to a head, but I imagine that as he sat in Abbottabad last spring watching videos from Tunis and Cairo, he was surprised at the turn the Arabs were taking.

It’s almost worth the years it took to catch up to him to think that he died trying to figure out what Facebook was.

We don’t know how the Arab Spring will work out, but as the rebels close in on Kadafi in Libya it’s worth wondering if what we didn’t realize about 9/11 was that it was a last desperate move by history’s losers.

* * *

Santa Monica over the next ten days might be the center of the urban design universe, at least in the U.S. Two of the more prominent landscape architects working today, or at least their firms, will be appearing at public hearings here to discuss two important urban projects.

Wednesday evening the Planning Commission will hold a study session to discuss the planning process for the “Esplanade” that the City will build down Colorado Avenue between the future terminus of the Expo light rail line at Fourth and Colorado and the Pier. To design this crucial project the City has hired Peter Walker Partners, and at the Planning Commission Wednesday the design team will be introduced.

I do not know if Peter Walker himself will be at the hearing, but he is perhaps the most celebrated landscape architect working today in the U.S. His most recent project was the National September 11 Memorial in New York (co-designed with Michael Arad), which was dedicated yesterday. Mr. Walker received that commission for a reason, as he has created many classically elegant modern parks and streetscapes in cities around the world since he began his career 50 years ago.

The Esplanade will be only a few blocks long, but its design will involve a careful balancing of every aspect of street design, since it needs to accommodate pedestrians exiting the trains as well as carry significant traffic flow as an important “border street” of the downtown grid. Aesthetically, it is a challenging site given that a Santa Monica Place parking structure dominates a long stretch of its north side.

The Esplanade will be across the freeway from the new park that landscape architect James Corner and his colleagues have been designing at the Civic Center, and next week Mr. Corner and his team will be in Santa Monica for two important public hearings.

The first will take place Monday evening, September 19, when the Architectural Review Board will consider new designs for the “overlook structures” that are part of the design for the new park. This will be the third time the designers have brought designs for these structures, which will provide elevated viewing platforms to see the ocean from what is a largely flat site, to the ARB. The board has held firm on its desire that the structures both integrate well with their surroundings and use cantilevers to give the structures (and the parks) a more distinct identity.

The following night, September 20, Mr. Corner will take his plans for the new “Town Square” to the Landmarks Commission. If you’re looking for drama, that could be an interesting meeting. As readers will recall, last spring, after the commission had tried to rein in Mr. Corner’s design for the Town Square to conform to the commission’s view about aspects of the site were historically important, the City Council rejected the resulting plans, and told the designers to come back with something more bold.

At the meeting, whatever bold ideas Mr. Corner has come up with may clash with the desires of at least some members of the commission for more historical continuity.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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