"If You Were a Building ...

02 October 2015

… which building would you be?“ was a question fired at OUBEY in an interview he gave during his first and only exhibition in 1992. Deadpan and without the slightest hesitation he shot back: “The World Trade Center in New York“.

OUBEY was never in New York. So his sure-fire response to this extraordinary question had nothing to do with any personal experience that made him feel particularly connected to this building. And yet his affection for the Twin Towers was real and prompted that quick answer. He knew its underlying architectural concept, he knew its construction, its structural engineering and its technical details. And he loved the finished perfection of its aesthetics from the very first day.

In November 2005 I was in New York for the first time in my life. It was a two day trip I’d taken for the sole reason of meeting up with the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister to see if he’d be interested in designing a book about OUBEYs art. I used the short time given me to take the subway to the southernmost tip of Manhattan to see Ground Zero – four years after 9/11. I wanted and I had to see this site where the Twin Towers once reared up so proud and majestic and where now the horror of the destruction was strangely blended with the building works for the fundament of the future Memorial.

Since then I’ve been back there on every trip to New York, the last only a few weeks ago. Standing in Greenwich Street – now open for the first time since 2001 – I got an idea of what it must have been like to stand here in the time before 9 September 2001 and crane your neck up at the towers trying to get a view of their top.

One evening three years ago when zapping the TV channels, I hit on the documentary “Man on Wire”. This film shows how the young Frenchman Philippe Petit, aided and abetted by a group of friends, spent six years of intensive training for what must be surely the most crazy and breathtakingly daring high-wire act of all time – which they really did perform on 7 August 1974 on a high wire suspended between the two top points of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Sheer madness! The whole endeavor was completely illegal and had to be prepared in secret, and it took place in the early morning of that day even though it was pretty foggy. The documentary shots show everything you need to see to quash your sense of incredulity; they’re shaky, blurred, authentic and absolutely spell-binding. With his dare-devil exploit, and inspired by the unparalleled nature of this building which he felt positively urged him on to such a spectacular action, Philippe Petit has given the Twin Towers a unique kind of memorial.

Now in a few days the film “The Walk“, which tells the story of this high-wire act will be on general release. I shall certainly be seeing it. Yet even though Robert Zemecki is an excellent director, this film will never have the emotional impact of the authentic “Man on Wire” documentary. Simply because in Zemecki’s film the Twin Towers only exist in virtual reality.

In the documentary you see them still standing and dominating the spot where today they only exist in memory. This is also a reason why this story has something to do with what OUBEY said in 1992 in response to the question if he could be a building which building would he like to be. When he gave that answer, the Twin Towers were still standing and 9/11 was just as unthinkable as Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk had once been.