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Remarks by Guy Nordenson
Associate Professor, The School of Architecture
Commemorative Assembly, September 11, 2002

A year ago I watched -- as we all did -- the horror of 9/11. As a structural engineer, I was amazed both that the towers resisted the planes' impact and fire for so long, and that in the end they collapsed so completely. I was struck at how difficult it was for my mind to comprehend what was happening and how long it took me to realize that the towers would collapse. Reality can and will overwhelm even the expert.

That afternoon I was able to contact some of my colleagues with whom I had years back founded the Structural Engineers Association of NY (a.k.a. SEAoNY). I wanted to see if we could do something to help. By the 12th, some of them were able to get onto the site and contact City authorities. By Friday the 14th, we had mobilized about 100 engineers to help on a 24/7 basis. We had teams of three to four engineers from around the city and beyond working in the four sectors of the site to advise on safety, demolition or whatever else might be needed.

I first got to the site on Friday the 14th. I was held up for awhile (and the site work suspended) when President Bush came to visit that afternoon. By the time I got on site it was dark. I had an idea. Even then things were rather chaotic. The Mayor's Office of Emergency Management was doing a heroic job of coordination, but they had lost their command center and were working out of a school cafeteria, most of them without sleep for 72 hours.

I realized quickly that no one had a very clear idea for how to systematically inspect the damage to the surrounding buildings, and that I might be able to suggest a strategy. It was simply a matter of putting together a few pieces: a technique that had been used successfully in California for post earthquake damage assessment; a database of building information we had been developing for a research project here at Princeton, sponsored by FEMA; and the SEAoNY engineers. So I spent that night finding people and convincing them to send the idea up of the "chain of command."

It took only 24 hours for it to be approved and we then went to work mobilizing that weekend (with a lot of help from Princeton students), so that teams of four to five engineers could go out and do the preliminary inspections of about 400 buildings that following Monday and Tuesday. By that Friday the 21st, we had completed and sent back up to the "chain of command" our listing of buildings and their degree of damage. Since it turned out 90 percent of the buildings were undamaged, this facilitated the City's relaxation of access restrictions, allowing people to go home.

In the following months I continued working along with my colleagues on site. We rotated shifts every three days, 8 to 8 alternating days and nights, until January.

In November, I took a break and went ahead with a trek I had planned for in Nepal (I was on sabbatical that fall). I took along Tolstoy's "War and Peace." It helped me make some sense of what I had experienced, my feelings and thoughts.

I had witnessed the aftermath of a battle, with all the fog and confusion of war. The attacks had destroyed the order of things at the site and we were all there at the front lines of the reconstruction both of the reality and the history. Out of all this chaos the many stories that were to make its history were swirling. Quoting Tolstoy:

As soon as an event does take place -- whatever it may be -- out of the number of all experiences of the will of different persons, there are always some which, from their meaning and time of utterance, are related to the events as commands

What I saw was this process at its inception -- events I witnessed were in time gathered and interpreted into a narrative structure. This structure of interpretation would more or less reflect the facts as I had seen them take place.

Things got done because someone took it on themselves to make it so. Decisions got made often on very limited factual basis -- there was no time -- based on often intense but usually respectful argument among the workers, firemen, policemen and engineers on hand. It was case after case of what Professor Josh Ober has referred to as "promiscuous democracy." It was for me intensely moving to watch it take place, to see how democracy could take hold from the ground up literally, among people united simply by a commitment to keep everyone safe and recover the remains of their dead.

In my practice I work to build things and ideas. The work is always collaborative because that is how things get built. But there always need to be ideas to guide it, stars to set the course. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote "no ideas but in things" and it is true I think that close attention to reality is necessary for ideas to emerge. On site we argued to conclusions through the study of what was there, but also we needed ideas to organize things. Ideas and things are intermingled in time and space. That is what makes it all so difficult and challenging. It was after all the extreme and insane idealism of Mohammed Atta and his accomplices that destroyed the towers, and today we continue to suffer from the excesses of ideology. Clear observation, clear thinking and forceful deliberation is I believe our best defense and best way forward.

There has been a lot of talk about war and not very much about peace. Our world is suffering: the environmental destruction wrought by greed, the incessant global wars, absurd poverty, and unnecessary disease and death. Tonight, at the close of a day of reflection and sadness for our dead and hurt, I hope we can all turn to the most difficult site of what happened last year, our planet, and give it the clarity of focus, the commitment to democratic and deliberative discourse and decision making and, yes, the careful balance of idealism and realism that it desperately demands.


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