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Designer discusses design and impact of MIT's Reflecting Wall

John E. Fernandez
John E. Fernandez
Photo / Donna Coveney

Professor John E. Fernandez of architecture designed the Reflecting Wall outside the MIT Chapel last September as a temporary space for reflection after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Fernandez, who received the S.B. from MIT in 1985, joined the faculty in 1999.

Fernandez, the Class of 1957 Career Development Professor in the Building Technology Program, will be in a conference in Italy when the Reflecting Wall is dismantled on the first anniversary of the attack. Robert J. Sales, associate director of the MIT News Office, interviewed him before he departed.

You were studying the Twin Tower plans the day after the attack. Why?

First, I teach the "Materials and Construction" courses and also have a hand in the structures courses for both the undergraduates and graduate population in the Department of Architecture. As a prime example of a "framed tube" structural morphology, the World Trade Towers have always been a project that I have talked about in class.

Second, after the buildings collapsed, I wanted to know more about how they were designed and constructed. The shock of the collapse, not only from people who knew nothing of buildings, but from structural engineers and architects indicated to me that there would be a need for informed explanation.

As a former New Yorker, I was already quite familiar with the buildings. I lived in New York and practiced as an architect for 10 years after graduation from Princeton with a master of architecture degree in 1989. While living in the city, I had been to the buildings many times. I admired the sheer scale and overwhelming presence of the two towers in lower Manhattan and knew a few things about the buildings. I knew that the towers were the result of the fulfillment of a postwar mandate, articulated by the state of New York, for a trade center in lower Manhattan complete with a convention center and trade mart along with office towers, hotels and other programmatic functions.

I also knew, as many New Yorkers remember, that the towers were named "David and Nelson" after the Rockefeller brothers, the primary financial and political catalysts for the project. I also shared many New Yorkers' ambivalence about the buildings. They had always seemed too large, too simple--almost blank and harsh in their simplicity. And yet, there were very few places in the world that could give you the kind of rush of immensity that those two towers could as one came up out of the Church Street subway station.

Even though I was familiar with the towers, the day of the attacks, I realized that I didn't know enough about the structural morphology and construction of the towers, because I couldn't very well answer questions that were being asked in the department. It was clear that understanding how the towers could have collapsed--the only collapse of a skyscraper in the history of modern tall buildings--required knowing a great deal more about the structural design and detailing of the buildings. Therefore, soon after they came down--within just a couple of hours--I was keenly interested in knowing more about how the towers were designed and constructed.

Furthermore, besides my own interest in learning more about the structure, there were also many, many questions about how the towers collapsed from students and even faculty in the Department of Architecture. Because my specialty is construction and materials, I decided that I would quickly learn as much about the towers as possible so that I could possibly begin to answer some of these questions.

So I went to Rotch and Baker libraries and raided several shelves that addressed the structure and construction of tall buildings. I found one book in particular that gave some good details about the World Trade Towers. With this material I began to piece together a presentation about the towers and their collapse. I wasn't sure when or where I would give the presentation, but within a few days I gave the presentation to my graduate "Materials and Construction" class first and then later to the Department of Architecture as a special lecture.

The notion of progressive collapse, while undoubtedly the mode of failure in the World Trade Center disaster, had not been clearly described by anyone at this point. So to be able to rationalize a progressive collapse sequence, it was necessary to get construction details and structural specifications for the typical floor and wall construction. I was lucky to find some good information in the MIT libraries.

What did you learn that helped with the MIT Reflecting Wall?

As a result of looking for the detailed drawings of the construction of the towers, I had dimensioned drawings of the exterior wall showing the sizing and spacing of the vertical columns and windows. This information would eventually prove invaluable.

When I got a call from the President's Office a couple of days after the collapse, I joined a meeting about a planned "memorial" that was already in progress. I was asked to consult the planning team on issues of construction and materials for the memorial. However, at that point there was no design, so answering construction and materials questions was premature.

I started thinking about a design. While sitting in the meeting, it occurred to me that there could be a way of providing a place of reflection by reproducing a portion of the exterior wall of the tower. The idea seemed appropriate because of the resonance that one would have with the final experience of those caught above the impact point in the towers. For many hundreds in the tower, the final experience they had was clinging desperately to those perimeter columns and leaning out of those narrow windows. Having a portion of that wall would give one an opportunity to commune with those who were killed. The wall could serve for grieving, remembering, reflection or anything else that one brought to it. What had collapsed in New York could be rebuilt in Cambridge, at least as a small and abstracted piece.

Building the wall was also a way of steering clear of the politics of the situation. What was needed was a construction that would address the huge human suffering. At that time, it was clear that events were progressing quickly, with talk of a war against Afghanistan and a search for terrorists. It seemed tricky to capture the tragedy and not take a political position, but focusing on the experience of those who were killed that day seemed like the most important priority.

So, to answer your question, once the committee decided that the wall idea was the right one, I used the drawings that I had to sketch out the overall size and some typical details. The sizes of the perimeter columns and windows in the reflection wall are exactly the dimensions of the original. The horizontal extent of the wall was determined by what could be built quickly. The vertical extent is simply the height of one floor.

At the time, you also said you wished the MIT project had never been built but that it had to be done.

I said this because architects are always looking for ways to get their designs built. In fact, it is literally the most complete fulfillment of the role of the architect to get a design built. Usually the thing that one is designing and building is space for someone to live in or work in, etc. The whole idea of design and building is the first step to new beginnings. These new beginnings are usually optimistic and joyous events--the building of someone's dream house, a new office building for a business.

Clearly this project was different because its need was predicated on a horrible event. Nothing about the events that had precipitated the design and the building were good. In many ways, the events themselves were so overwhelmingly tragic that building anything sometimes seemed so trivial, so inconsequential.

However, it seemed that it had to be done on a variety of levels.

First, the community needed a space in which to continue reflecting on the events of that day. The first few events that had been organized seemed useful to students and staff, but they were one-time gatherings. It seemed that a place that could continuously serve the community was needed.

Second, it seemed necessary to provide a place in which individual reflection was possible. Again, the first few events organized by MIT were large and collective. Having a place in which one could reflect quietly and individually seemed like a real need that should be fulfilled.

On a more philosophical level, it seemed to be a project, like many others around the country, that sprang out of the collective will of a community that wanted to mark an experience that none of us would forget as individuals. Since graduating from MIT in 1985, I have felt a continuous and tangible link to the MIT community. However, I have never felt as close to a true collective will from MIT as I did in working on the wall.

It also seemed necessary to build because not building anything would leave an undeniable emptiness. Going about one's business without such a marker would be too difficult. In a way, having the wall was a way of externalizing the pain and setting outside of ourselves the most unbearable thoughts.

What motivated you to undertake the project?

Frankly, I think I was lucky because I felt at the time, like many others, that I wanted to do something to help out. I wanted to go to New York, or donate blood on campus, or ... something. When the opportunity arose to be involved in the design and construction of something that would be appropriate for reflection on the events of that day, I was genuinely relieved that finally here was something concrete to do. It was extremely satisfying to be able to offer the expertise to advise on the construction and the design.

Were you pleased with the result? With its reception?

Pleased is not really an emotion that I felt. I was nervous that it accomplish the kinds of ambitious goals that had been articulated. To provide a place of reflection, even remembrance, is not something that someone easily designs. As with many forms of architectural space, after completion of the construction there is nothing more that the architect can do to compel people to feel the way the designer intended them to. With certain kinds of buildings, this is often not such an important question, but with the reflecting wall it was everything. Having the wall serve the community was the primary priority. I'm happy that it has served as long and well as it has.

Have you visited Ground Zero? Why? What were your thoughts?

I went to see it in late September, about two weeks after the attack. "Why" is a complicated question. I think having lived in New York for so long, I felt both a need to see for myself the remains of this place that I had known so well and a responsibility to show myself at Ground Zero--if nothing else, to be part of the crowds that were coming to the place, to show solidarity with New Yorkers and share in the demonstration of utter disbelief. I'm not sure how to describe the feeling, but it almost felt like being drawn into service to heal this place that I had called home for so long.

One thing that many people assume about New Yorkers is that they are out for number one--callous, unfriendly people. What one realizes after living in the city year in and year out is that the life on the street is just as much a part of people's lives as their private lives in their homes or at work. The city is so dense and the need to seek relief from small apartments, crowded subways, hectic work schedules and the pressures of daily life is so great that people on the street often seek pleasure from small, kind interactions with each other. After many years of living in the city, one remembers this atmosphere of small kindnesses, inconsequential generosity.

When the towers came down, it felt like a loved one had been hurt very badly. It just so happens that the loved one was the collective people of New York. I think that's why it seemed so right for people all over the world to call themselves New Yorkers as a way of showing their solidarity for the hurt that the people of New York suffered. I just felt that I was both a part of the hurt and also could help a little bit by being there.

On seeing the site, I had the reaction that many others have. The amount of open space was astounding. I remembered the material that I had gone through in researching the history of the towers and thought what an extraordinary project it must have seemed when it was first being constructed. The remaining fragments of the tower were sobering reminders of the extreme force of the collapse. The entire site was the most awesome evidence of the power of human creativity, not only in the reminder of the initial size and scope of the optimistic World Trade Center project as originally conceived and built, but also in the efficiency and calculated destruction of the attacks. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.

What I've said on this question is true and real, but I think it goes much deeper. I cannot say that I have fully dealt with the consequences of that day, or will for many years to come. I think a lot of New Yorkers feel this way. I was just down in New York this past week and I noticed one thing. People talk about it as if it happened just yesterday. They refer to it with an urgency that demonstrates the fact that it's still very much a part of their daily lives. Soon after the attack, one wondered whether it had changed the city. Now I think it's undeniable that the city has been changed because the people are not the same. I have no doubt that New York will recover, but it hasn't yet.

How will you feel when the MIT memorial comes down?

I'm lucky to have been involved in building the wall. The wall has been one small part of a very long process of grieving. It has done its job and now is a good time for the wall to be taken down. For some in the MIT community, it helped them through a difficult time. I know it helped me.

I will feel sad again. I'll feel the pain of that day when it comes down. During the planning meetings for the marking of the first anniversary of Sept. 11, I was very afraid of the imagery of the wall coming down during the service. I was and still am afraid that taking down the wall will be felt more as a process of destruction rather than a process of renewal. The last thing MIT should do is be host to a ritual of destruction.

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