Manhattan Institute

Three Fires, Three Skylines

If it learns from the mistakes of New York and London, Paris could rebuild impressively.

Three Western global-city skylines are now indelibly marked by fire: New York, whose profile was forever changed on September 11, 2001; London, where the Grenfell Tower still looms over Kensington, wrapped in incongruous white; and, since Monday, Paris, where the view from the Seine is no longer of a regal cathedral but of two still-graceful towers fronting a delicate shell of stone and glass now open to the air. Two of these events have marked a dark era for the West. France faces a tough engineering and architectural task in rebuilding Notre Dame, in full view of the world, but it has a chance to accomplish what the two other cities (and their respective nations) haven’t done: turn rebuilding into a lasting metaphor for hope, not incompetence and cynicism.

Late Monday night in Paris, a clearly shaken French president Emmanuel Macron made a promise: “We’ll rebuild this cathedral all together.” Unknowingly, he echoed then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s words on the night of 9/11: “The skyline will be made whole again.” But, nearly two decades later, it’s hard to call the rebuilding of Ground Zero a resounding success. New York managed to build four office towers, a memorial, a museum, and a retail complex at the destroyed site, but the city made a hash of it, failing to open the marquee tower, One World Trade Center, until more than 13 years after the terror attack. The state and city squandered much of their 9/11 money, spending $4 billion of badly needed infrastructure resources, for example, to build what’s called a train hub but is really a luxury mall.  

The result is a mishmash of glass buildings that don’t particularly stand out on the skyline, as the Twin Towers did; they would fit in anywhere, from Chicago to Dubai. The verdict for the World Trade Center complex is the same as that for Hudson Yards, another intensely planned neighborhood to the north: it could be worse. New York has survived its own incompetence in rebuilding after 9/11, just as it survives lots of other things. But the public goodwill surrounding the project had long faded before it was complete. The uncomfortable truth, too, is that al-Qaida achieved a major goal in altering the city’s iconic skyline forever.

Sixteen years after 9/11, the Grenfell Tower ignited in West London, killing 72 people. Grenfell burned because Britain and London allowed an unaccountable mixture of public-sector and private-sector actors to clad a housing tower with narrow egress in flammable material. Forty-thousand people still live in buildings with the same type of cladding. Nearly two years after the attack, Grenfell stands, a symbol of government indifference and impotence; it won’t come down until at least 2022.

At first glance, Paris doesn’t run any risk of making New York’s and London’s mistakes. The cathedral’s partial collapse miraculously spared human life, and no one has been permanently displaced. Macron, too, has been firm on the goal: “Notre Dame will be rebuilt in five years, more beautiful than before.” That’s rightly ambitious. To achieve this goal, Paris must avoid the lure of starchitects, a trap that New York fell into in 2001. After 9/11, then-Governor George Pataki insisted on drawn-out contests to invite global architectural celebrities to “reimagine” the World Trade Center. Those reimaginings, most notably Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the site and Santiago Calatrava’s winged train hub, turned out to be, practically speaking, unworkable and expensive. There’s no getting around the fact that the new Notre Dame roof will be different from the old; France would face a tough task in replicating the timber structure that burned. But France should resist the inevitable calls for “rethinking” the cathedral’s appearance, inside and out. The world does not need more shiny post-postmodernist monuments. It’s not a good sign that on Wednesday, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a global architectural competition for “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” Without firmness from France on what it wants, contestants eager to make themselves famous will propose ghastly iterations that will alienate the already traumatized, just as happened at Ground Zero.

Macron also faces the reality that just as in America and Britain today, a significant portion of the French public’s mood—left, right, or politically alienated—simmers just below rage on a good day, a situation that did not yet exist in the West in the resolutely hopeful days just after 9/11. Paris appears to have come together after Monday’s fire, yet this communal mourning and resolution is doubtless fragile: the city has now withstood months of sometimes-violent protests, often directed toward symbols of France’s cultural heritage—from the Champs- Élysées to the opera. Macron has done a less-then-stellar job managing the yellow-vest protests; as the public shock of Notre Dame wears off, he will face predictable criticism from factions that question putting money into a cathedral for tourists rather than, say, housing for migrants. Even the news that France’s wealthy families will donate $700 million to Notre Dame’s reconstruction may quickly curdle, seen not as reflexive generosity, but as a sign that the country’s wealthy care more about buildings than they care about people.

Macron said that rebuilding is “what the French expect.” If he shepherds France through the rebuilding process effectively, he’ll launch himself, after an inauspicious start in office, into the pantheon of French heroes. Meantime, the West awaits the restoration of one of its civilizational treasures – and the revival of the optimistic outlook that Western politicians at all levels of government too quickly squandered after 9/11.

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