There’s a distinct cadence to every disaster, at least in the news. First, of course, is the breaking story with its mishmash of speculation, talking heads, cellphone footage, and shaky helicopter video. Next come the eyewitness accounts and human interest stories. Finally we get the post mortem: How did the disaster happen? Who is responsible? How will we prevent the disaster from happening again? Mixed into these last two phases are a handful of survivors and politicians who utter these words, often verbatim: “We will rebuild.”
Sometimes this makes sense to us. There was never a doubt that we would rebuild the historic Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a world treasure, after all. Other times the impulse to rebuild seems, well, misguided. Occasionally we’ll hear about the family who has lost everything not once but several times to floods, and we can’t help but scratch our heads and wonder why they don’t simply move to higher ground.
There are as many answers to that question as there are people displaced by any given disaster–money, history, lack of alternatives, stubbornness–but the one that seems to universally apply both to trailer parks and global landmarks is this: The symbolic value of place.
As far as we know, humans (with exception to Keith Richards) are alone among animals in the knowledge of our own mortality. We learn at a fairly young age that living things eventually die, and it doesn’t take us too long to make the leap to “I’m a living thing, too.” Arguably everything that people do can be traced to that realization: Art, procreation, politics, medicine, space travel–all are rooted in a desire for immortality. Sometimes this is conscious and sometimes it isn’t, but anything that smells of legacy, of leaving a mark, is on some level an effort to beat the system.
But the system cannot be beaten. You are going to die, and everything that humans have ever created will eventually be erased by nature. Have a great day!
That may be a disturbing thought, but it’s absolutely true. Only the time elapsed varies: Wildfires like those that plagued California throughout 2020 may level an entire town in minutes, but even prehistoric construction like the mighty Stonehenge isn’t immune to the elements. Without the modern intervention of human machinery and concrete reinforced bases, many of those stones that we assume will stand forever would have tipped over long ago.
The same holds true for the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Italy’s famous monument to 12th century bad planning may have tipped over by now if not for the intervention of 20th century engineers who managed to stabilize the structure while still retaining its famous lean. “If they could keep it from falling over, then why couldn’t they just straighten it out?” you may wonder, but probably not. You know that without the lean it’s just the Tower of Pisa, and who cares about that?
The symbolic power of architecture is so strong that when the White House was quite literally falling apart during the Truman administration (Truman’s daughter’s piano sunk through the floor, a chandelier nearly fell on a dinner party) the need for a “new” White House could no longer be overlooked. With exception to the East Wing, which was added roughly 50 years earlier by Teddy Roosevelt, Truman gutted the entire structure. The only things left standing were the exterior walls, and with good reason: Truman recognized the need for “continuity as well as change in this symbol of the presidency.” In other words, the White House as a symbol is equally or more important than the White House as a building.
If you’re old enough to remember watching the World Trade Center fall on September 11, 2001, then you’re probably tracking with me. Just like Notre Dame nearly two decades later, that we would rebuild on that hallowed ground was never in question. Just another skyscraper would hardly capture the enormity of the tragedy that took place, though, and so meaning is embedded throughout the structure that now stands where the Twin Towers once loomed. The new building’s name, the Freedom Tower, explicitly states the message we wanted to send. The structure stands 1,776 feet, evoking the most important year in American history outside of 1965, the year The Andy Griffith Show went color. At 1,362 feet, the height of the building it replaces, one finds the observation deck. Still not enough symbolism? Check out the steel from the World Trade Center, the tree that survived the attack, the reflection pools, and the museum. We’ll see your symbolic act of destruction and raise you a symbolic act of creation.
And so as 2020 comes to a close with the senseless destruction in Nashville, a divisive presidential election, the nationwide toll of COVID-19, and not one but two new Taylor Swift albums, take a little comfort in the knowledge that we will rebuild. We always do.