15 March 2003

Air and angles

Towers in imagination

To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers
by Philippe Petit
American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center
by William Langewiesche

babelThese two books tell the before and after of a catastrophe. Philippe Petit narrates the almost unbelievable story of how, one morning in 1974, he walked back and forth for an hour across a tightrope illegally rigged between the summits of the World Trade Center. American Ground, meanwhile, is an account of the politics and logistics of the massive clean-up operation after the twin towers’ fall. From walking in the air holding conversations with birds, to tunnelling through the rubble finding charred body parts: such is the change wrought by a handful of fanatics.

The tower of Babel is the ghost that haunts all tall buildings. “Come, let us build ourselves a city,” say the leaders of men in the book of Genesis, “and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” If I let them do this, thinks God, there’s nothing they won’t stop at, and so the tower is struck down, and the confusion of language begins.

The hubristic architecture of Biblical man was not a skinny tower pointing straight up, but a ziggurat, a roughly conical tower very wide at its base that proceeded skywards in narrowing steps. Yet its destruction retains an awful resonance. Pieter Brueghel’s “Little” Tower of Babel of 1563 shows the enormous, unfinished edifice tinted in the red of fire and heat, while to the right a dark thundercloud begins to embrace the building’s circumference. It is easy, now, to read Brueghel’s cloud as smoke, billowing from the side of the structure as if a passenger aircraft has just crashed into it.

Raising a tower to the sky means storing an enormous amount of destructive potential in one place. Whether by the hand of God, earthquake, fire, terrorist pilot or mere entropy, what goes up must come down, sooner or later. Langewiesche’s book opens with a telling statement of this inevitability: “For 30 years the twin towers had stood above the streets as all tall buildings do, as a bomb of sorts, a repository for the prodigious energy originally required to raise so much weight so high.”

In part this must account for the beauty and impressiveness — call it sublimity — of very high buildings. Another factor would be the way our optical cognition evolved, in the plains of Africa, to give us a field of vision that is much wider than it is tall. Early humans needed to scan the horizon for food and predators, but had no reason to expect much to happen on the vertical plane beyond the height of a tree. Thus a narrow structure pointing straight upwards is an impressive affront to the natural order of things. Indeed, when Philippe Petit first visits the World Trade Center, he leans against its base and tells himself that he is lying down, deliberately reimagining the tower’s inconceivable height as length, a dimension more comprehensible to mere humans.

Petit describes the extraordinary amount of secret planning that went into his famous demonstration of “funambulism” high above New York City. He refers to it many times as a “coup”, and once as “the artistic crime of the century”. Certainly the reclamation of a monument to late capitalism, inhuman in its bulk, as a site for joyous performance counts as a coup. As for crime: the deception and social engineering that he and his friends practised are just those that would accompany an actual act of terrorism – sneaking up stairs, avoiding security guards, befriending someone on the inside, making false IDs, hiring trucks for phony deliveries.

At one point Petit even calls up an airline “to find out the maximum permissible length for a cylindrical package to be checked as baggage on a flight to New York”. He was trying to find out how to ship his balancing rod from Paris; nowadays he wouldn’t simply be given the brush-off by an irritated clerk, but would find his door knocked down in the middle of the night by the FBI.

Like all skyscrapers, the World Trade Center towers offered a contrast between air and brute solidity, the invasion of the ether by man-hewn substance. Langewiesche’s book notes the counterintuitive fact that “the twin towers had been as much as 90% air and 10% structure” – and yet this 10%, once deconstructed at Ground Zero, constitutes 1.5 million tons of debris. In Langewiesche’s prose there is a religious tinge to this fall: a structure of heavenly order is now, ruined, a hell. He calls a construction worker’s shack “a doorway to the underworld” and speaks of the “dungeon light” in subterranean passageways through the debris. Mechanical excavators work in the rubble “like a dance of dinosaurs in a volcanic land of steel”.

Petit, meanwhile, shows us that the seemingly weightless magic of tightrope walking at altitude depends just as much on metal and engineering, on balancing large forces so as to provide the illusion of forcelessness. He and his friends worry at length about the design of the complicated spider’s web of cables and supporting lines, connected with countless marlin-spikes, shackles and pins, all of which must be brought to the top of the towers without anyone noticing. The walk cable is stretched to a tension of 3.5 tons. If the towers sway too much in the wind, it will simply explode, and he will fall. The problem of how to get the cable across the top of the towers in the first place is solved with an idea of roguish romanticism: an arrow attached to a length of fishing line will be shot from one roof to the other.

Once this is done, and the walk finally begins, Petit is freed from considerations of matter. “My destiny no longer has me conquering the highest towers in the world, but rather the void they protect,” he explains. As people gather in amazement 1,368 feet below, he ambles back and forth across the wire, lies down in the middle, and offers different styles of walk for the edification of his beloved audience. “Next crossing, I present the ‘promenade’, balancing the pole on my shoulder like a pitchfork, one arm dangling, as if returning to the farmhouse after a long day’s work in the field.” Lastly, he actually runs across the cable, into the waiting arms of the police. The dangerous cable is loosened. “Soon it hangs loose and pitiful. It is so sad, the sky is about to weep.”

The poetic-philosophical bent of Petit’s prose might find disfavour among some readers, but this is a man who has walked across a tightrope between two skyscrapers without a safety net: he has earned the right to soar in whatever style he chooses. An afterword explains his reaction to September 11. “My towers were under attack, then destroyed… After a while, with rebellion in my blood, I wrote: ‘As an artist, my mission is to create,’ and went back to writing.”

And so Petit has created a book full of air and grace; while Langewiesche’s work tells the tale of the all-too-solid rubble. The story of this conversation between void and matter will continue. Daniel Liebeskind’s design for the new towers at Ground Zero seems an attempt at synthesis: their jagged latticework no longer offers a blank, unresisting wall to the wind and elements but clasps them in a structured embrace, a monument to human fragility.