The Towers Gain a New Perspective


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We must not forget how undistinguished the World Trade Center was. "When completed," the authors of the 2000 edition of the AIA Guide to New York City wrote, "these stolid, banal monoliths came to overshadow Lower Manhattan's cluster of filigreed towers, which had previously been the romantic evocation that symbolized the very concept of 'skyline.'" Ada Louise Huxtable, former architecture critic for The New York Times, described their style as "General Motors Gothic." Her successor, Paul Goldberger, called them "boring, so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha." Wolf von Eckhardt published an article in Harper's calling the World Trade Center a "fearful instrument of urbicide," and "one of the ugliest buildings in the world." They were monuments to money and power, brutish and ugly, and only in the agony of their final hour did they take on nobility from the valor of those who sought to save the people who worked within their walls.


Until some 40 years ago, the lower west side was an industrial neighborhood. Washington Market, a block-square two-story building at Washington St. between Fulton and Vesey Sts., where 175 merchants dealt in meat, poultry, cheese, butter and garden produce delivered by boat, wagon and truck, dominated the local economy. At Cortlandt St., the huge, faintly seedy Hudson Terminal buildings towered above the terminus of the Hudson Tubes, now the PATH line. Printing plants, warehouses and factories jostled delicatessens, bars, cobblers, hardware stores and barbers. Cortlandt St. had so many electronics retailers that some called it "Radio Row."


David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, had plans for lower Manhattan. After Chase built its 60-story tower on Pine St. in 1960?the first new skyscraper in the financial district in a generation?he sought lower Manhattan's redevelopment through a form of central planning reconciling private interest and public power, rather than the largely spontaneous entrepreneurial development that had historically molded the city's economy. His urge for civic uplift dovetailed with the real estate interests of his bank and his family. He founded a civic group, the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, which in 1958 commissioned the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to develop an overall plan for lower Manhattan. It included a World Trade Center, which Rockefeller believed would catalyze regional development. He forwarded the plan to the Port of New York Authority, now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.


Austin Tobin, the Port Authority's executive director from the 1940s into the 1970s, presided over the decline of New York's port into what often seems a virtual harbor, a thing of nostalgia trading on the images of its past as at South Street Seaport. Like a minor Robert Moses, Tobin built highway tunnels, airports and the container port at Elizabeth, NJ. Tobin often quoted Daniel Burnham, a brilliant 19th-century Chicago architect and apostle of centralized urban planning: "Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the blood." Thus, Tobin's pride and the Port Authority's internal culture fueled the ambition to build the world's tallest building. Government power advanced the World Trade Center: the power of the Authority to condemn land and avoid most local environmental laws; of the city to close streets and issue permits; and of the state to transfer its offices into the building to provide it with tenants.


The vision of David Rockefeller and his allies transformed the city's economy from its traditional base as an industrially diverse seaport to one narrowly dependent on finance, insurance and real estate. The World Trade Center, the transformation's monument, was an esthetic debacle: merely the first of the "million-square foot, flat-topped boxes" that, as the AIA Guide notes, "muffle...the constellation of tall, slender, 1920s and 1930s Art Deco office buildings and the flamboyant pinnacles of their earlier, shorter, neo-Classical cousins, the structures that made up the inspired?if unplanned?Lower Manhattan skyline that was once the world-renowned symbol of New York City."


For some four years, a friend daily rode an early ferry to Manhattan. He often reflected on the oddly rootless, alienating quality of the World Trade Center. Last week, he was horrified by his instinctive response to films of the skyline after the fall of the World Trade Center. He found beauty and harmony restored by the towers' absence. They had merely been big buildings, not great buildings such as the Chrysler, Empire State or Woolworth buildings.


To be sure, mere size does not make a building inhumane. Buildings as large as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or St. Paul's Cathedral in London retain humanity in their proportions, perhaps because they were designed to exist in an harmonious relation with the society that created them. In the case of cathedrals, they glorified something greater than man, and at least half of the idea of building their spires ever higher was that the created might reach closer to his Creator.


The World Trade Center, despite its Gothic touches, glorified only power. And, by God, its towers became symbols of power last Tuesday. In the moments between the first and second attacks, one saw the compelling, powerful image of a symbol of power with a great gaping hole. For all our horrified wonderment at the scale, timing and organization of the attack, the buildings were nonetheless destroyed by men who simply stole airplanes?using ingenuity and intelligence to overcome the security systems that, though able to make airplane travel obnoxious, could not prevent a group of people utterly dedicated to the destruction of the society represented by those buildings from their obscene and symbolic act.


Minoru Yamasaki, the Center's architect, had supposedly claimed the towers were engineered to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. His calculations, like his personality, were a little off.


He designed the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was built in 1955 and entirely leveled by implosion in July 1972. One can only note that the local politicians, probably not profound esthetes, seriously held the buildings themselves were alienating: that they somehow actually encouraged criminal behavior. Like the terrorists who last week destroyed his most famous project, Yamasaki apparently viewed, as Eric Darton wrote, "living processes in general, and social life in particular, with a high degree of abstraction," perhaps seeing the people who used his buildings as so many ants.


Yet Yamasaki had a keen business sense. The Port Authority was obsessed by maximizing the rentable square footage of the towers. He did this by discarding the conventional interior support columns: the steel framework used in older buildings, such as that permitting the Empire State Bldg. to survive the crash of a B-25 bomber into its upper floors in 1945. Rather, Yamasaki suspended the towers from their own skins and from the core columns containing the buildings' machinery: air conduits, electric and telecommunications cables, and water pipes. This meant that, last Tuesday, once the buildings' envelopes were violated and the burning jet fuel swiftly melted the steel supports linking the upper floors with the walls, the towers pancaked within 90 minutes because they could no longer support themselves.


The walls consisted of alternating surfaces: 18 inches of metal and 22 inches of glass. This created the towers' least humane quality: their oddly narrow windows, "projecting an image that seems more radiator than building," as John Tauranac wrote, that made them seem windowless at a distance of only a few blocks. Until the sickening moment when the towers began to fall, one could not comprehend the damage because the building was incomprehensible.


Now one can comprehend it. At dawn last Tuesday, the World Trade Center's towers were 110 stories tall. Their remains piled about ten stories high.


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