11 September 2001. An attack against the globe.

10 septembre 2011 par dcolas

Ce texte est la dernière partie d’une contribution présentée à la Convention de l’ASN à New York en avril 2011.

New York : avatars of the globe


Our New York itinerary is composed of four places and five statues.


In Columbus Circle we find two very different statues of globes quite close to each other.


Colombus Circle, view looking north. To the right, the Trump Hotel & Tower


The first is at the foot of the column in honor of Christopher Columbus, topped with a statue of the explorer. The monument was erected in 1892 as part of the city’s 400th anniversary commemoration of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. At the base of the column is an earthly globe similar to those in the pediments of the Palais du Luxembourg  and Vermeer’s painting. But the instead of being studied by a scientist or geographer, it seems to have attracted the attention of a human-scale “youthful” angel.


Angel and globe of the earth at the base of the 1892 monument to Colombus, Columbus circle, New York


The continents shown on the globe the angel is examining could only have been inscribed after the discoveries of Columbus and his successors. The angel may be thought to signal the extraordinary nature of the undertaking, and the whole is of course a celebration of discovery of America.


A few dozen meters away, still on the Circle, at the base of the Trump International Hotel and Tower,[1] we find another earthly globe, this one apparently devoid of any religious or metaphysical content or allusions. It is much greater than the first and made of shining steel; like the reflecting surface of Trump Tower, it draws attention to itself. This globe is in fact a reduced model of an immense sphere—32 meters in diameter—designed by the landscape architect Gilmore David Clarke for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. It is known as the Unisphere.


Though smaller than the original, it can be seen from any point on Columbus Circle. On it we see cut-outs of the continents positioned on a curved grid representing the earth’s latitude and longitude lines. The sphere itself is surrounded by three circles that figure the orbits of two of the world’s first astronauts—the Russian Gagarin, the American Glenn—and the first satellite. Images of the Unisphere can be found on CD packages and in television series, video games, films: In the 1997 film Men in Black, the Unisphere gets destroyed by flying saucer. It’s a sort of pop culture icon.


 Reduced model of the Unisphere globe at Columbus Circle (original at Flushing Meadow)


The Unisphere, then, unlike the globe near by associated with Columbus, does not belong to the world of science but is instead a kind of gaudy ornament. By dematerializing it—representing the oceans by emptiness—air, the artist produced a transparent vision of the world. From some spots we can see a continent  as if from inside the earth. In general, the artist’s way of proceeding results in an “airy,” ventilated earth, an effect intensified by the space orbits around it. The whole works to evoke “the conquest of space”—imagined by some as a continuation of Columbus’s discovery of America—a conquest identified above all as an American one, especially by Americans.


 The Unisphere earth at Columbus Circle, view of the North Pole from Australia


There are other spheres to be seen in Manhattan.


Perhaps the creator of the Unisphere was influenced by the sphere of the heavens on the back of the giant Atlas in Rockefeller Center, dating from 1936. On this statue (located opposite Saint Patrick’s Cathedral), instead of the heavenly constellations seen on the back of the Farnese Atlas (above,  figure 4), we see only circles, such as those on astronomers’ armillary spheres. There are of course no scientific pretensions here. The north is marked, and the signs of the zodiac.


 Lee Lawrie  and René Chambellan, Atlas, 1936, Rockeller Center, 5th Ave.


Once again the earth here is shown in skeleton form as it were. It appears light. In any case Atlas the Titan seems largely up to the task of bearing it; he may be exerting some effort but he is certainly not uncomfortably bent under his load. The esthetics of the statue is very much of the 1930s, and the Atlas seems well suited to Rockefeller Center, which itself seems a strong, simple yet stylized statement of the spirit of enterprise, modernity, material success. The Center’s highest building used to be the RCA radio broadcasting building—radio was of course an essential means of communication at the time the Center was built. Indeed, the circles of Atlas’s globe are so abstract that they might be radio waves themselves. This Atlas figure is modern and strong—an optimistic image to counterbalance the grimness of the time it was built: the Great Depression.


 Atlas, the circles of the universe (with the fleur de lys pointing due north)


Though the Rockefeller Center Atlas is positioned so as to be highly visible, it does not play a real role in the social life of the inhabitants in contrast to the Times Square sphere. As we all know, the Times Square Ball is an integral part of the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations: it is “dropped” down a mast from the top of the One Times Square building a minute before midnight on the 31st of December. The event brings in a massive crowd—a million people on New Year’s 2009. The ball is geodesic—i.e., the surface of the sphere is inlaid with triangles—a potential means of calculating distances and indicating positions on both heavenly and earthly globes. In the overall context of Times Square it appears very small. It is there at all times, but at any time other than December 31st it can hardly be seen for all the giant-screen advertising. Some product advertising in the square uses images of the globe.


 Times Square Ball  (April 2009)


 A globe of the earth used in an ad for a video-camera  corporation,  Times Square (April 2009)


The meaning of the last globe on our itinerary is radically different from those of the others and may even be said to inflect those other meanings. It is a work of art entitled Great Spherical Caryatid by the German sculptor Fritz Koenig; commonly known simply as Sphere. The sculpture used to be located at the foot of the World Trade Center. It was damaged but not destroyed by the September 11th attacks. In spring 2002 it was installed in Battery Park. After 9/11 it ceased to work as a celebration of globalization, becoming instead a commemorative monument to attack victims.


 Fritz Koenig, Sphere, (Große Kugelkaryatide, Great Spherical Caryatid), 1971


Like the Columbus Circle globe, this one is at street level, but on garden lawn surrounded by trees. The original sculpture can still be recognized in what is left of it. A plaque indicates its tragic history and an eternal flame burns in front of it. Passers-by—many of whom are tourists–take photos of the damaged sphere; some stop near it for a moment of meditation. In a hole n the metal curve, pigeons have made their nest.


 Tourists contemplating et photographing Fritz Koenig’s Sphere, Battery Park (April 2009)


 Hole in Koenig’s globe sculpture made by the September 11 attacks, Battery Park (April 2009)


The sphere designed for the World Trade Center bore no geographical indications and its very title—Great Spherical Caryatid—suggests that it was not the earth the artist had in mind, even though its location between the Twin Towers might have led to this interpretation.


The “Sphere” is now dented, battered, full of holes—injured one might say. In addition to being a monument to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it can be read as a image of the failure of a project to bring about the absolute triumph of market trade. A monument to a lost hope, the hope that commerce would triumph over war.


Less than ten years after the collapse of the communist dream of vanquishing capitalism—we remember Lenin busy with his red broom in the first image I showed today—the dream of a world unified by “gentle commerce” has also been broken.







[1] The sculpture actually works as an advertisement  for the hotel, which owns it (see http://www.trumpintl.com/.).  The building, designed by Philip Johnson, provoked significant controversy at the time it went up; cf. the following comment by the New York Times architecture  critic Herbert Muschamp (November 1995): “There’s also the suggestion of historical allegory in the placement of this mirrored object in Columbus Circle: venality led to the European discovery of this continent, and we haven’t outgrown our desire for territorial conquest; only now we call it real estate” (http://www.nytimes.com/1995/11/19/arts/architecture-view-going-for-the-gold-on-columbus-circle.html?pagewanted=1)


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