Leap of faith or bridge too far?

Tuesday 30 Aug 2011

Charles Bancroft reviews The Submission by Amy Waldman

It’s almost September so it must be 9/11 again. Our TVs are once again pumping out those still unbelievable images of the towers’ demise and the ensuing carnage. But this year we have a new twist. Not only is it ten years since the world-changing event but a new novel has stormed into the charts hijacking the anniversary. The timely publishing of The Submission was a masterstroke of PR, reaction was inevitable.

That one of the central characters is an architect adds an extra little frisson for us in the community.

However such is the sensitivity of this book that Waldman (ex New York Times), will no doubt become the subject of much debate over dinner tables during the coming weeks and months.

Presumably inspired by the furore and division caused by the proposal for Park 51 (formerly Cordoba House) near the World Trade Centre site. The highly charged sub-storm clearly illustrating that the tensions and mistrust in the city do not seem to have waned over the years. The fictional world that Waldman paints could well lead her down the ominous path of the Satanic Verses, but this time upsetting both sides. This book will almost certainly have a life of its own, becoming a story in itself.

There is a school of thought that says that only fiction can tell the truth. It’s an interesting notion, but in dealing not with the event itself but the emotional aftermath, Waldman gets a unique opportunity to expose the human frailties of those involved and the complex and unforgiving system that they are all tangled up with. No stone is left unturned as she delves headlong into the very root of America’s post 9/11 angst, its social tensions, its relationship with Islam.

Her story begins with the architectural selection process, the opening chapter being set in the final jury panel session where a winner has to be chosen. This is the foundation of the storyline and of course in the parallel universe of reality, all of this actually happened in 2003 when Michael Arad and Peter Walker were selected in what had become the largest design competition in history, but for Waldman therein lay a problem, the identities of the eight finalists were revealed in stage two of the process. Presumably this step was taken to avoid the very nightmare scenario that she graphically paints for us in The Submission.

She deals with this very simply by making the competition anonymous in stage two. In doing this she asks us to take a giant leap of faith, which may for some of us in architecture may well be a bridge too far. As with any story, when the plot appears contrived, a little something ebbs way.

However, leaving this detail aside, and persevering, we are thrust straight into the machinations of the panel, at this stage, noble design issues, the struggle to find a solution that meets the conflicting requirements of the scheme’s myriad of stakeholders, the families of the deceased, survivors, planners, the Mayor’s office, land owners, community groups and of course budgets. No-one knowing that they were in fact playing a very deadly game of Russian roulette.

We are introduced to the weary members of the panel who had been painstakingly selected to represent each of the groups in the tragedy, and were tasked with approving one design out of the 5201 submitted, it had been an arduous task, arguably one of the most sensitive urban design projects ever conceived. But as they find out, everything is connected, everything has an implication. Back in reality, Daniel Libeskind had already discovered this to his cost with his winning masterplan for the reconstruction of the office space; the project with its emotional and commercial baggage was always going to be a poisoned chalice. The only certainty being that not everyone would be happy with the outcome.

But for our jury, just as the wrangling is over, just as a consensus is reached, the brief wave of relief is washed away with scenes of horror as the envelope containing the name of the designer of the winning scheme.

Mohammed Khan.

Then the story really starts.

Charles Bancroft

See the link below to purchase The Submission from the WAN Bookstore. For the next week we will be offering a 50% discount and free shipping. Enter promotional code SUB11 at the checkout to claim this fantastic offer!

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