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THE WORLD TRADE CENTER REMEMBERED

posted by Christopher Howard — Sep 09, 2011

The following article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of CAA News.

Ned Kaufman is a consultant specializing in cultural heritage, historical preservation, and public history. He also teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Kaufman lives and works in Yonkers, New York.

The World Trade Center: a view from the Hudson River (photograph by Don Carroll)

A neighbor of mine said, simply, “I miss them.” If the architecture critic Paul Goldberger missed them, he wasn’t admitting it: “gargantuan and banal, blandness blown up to a gigantic size” was the epitaph he carved into the New Yorker’s tombstone for the World Trade Center (WTC) in the magazine’s September 24, 2001, issue. How different are both assessments from the hopeful words of Minoru Yamasaki, the WTC’s principal architect, who didn’t live long enough to miss it. Writing at the time the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey commissioned him to design the complex, he explained that he sought “a beautiful solution of form and silhouette which fits well into Lower Manhattan,” while giving it “the symbolic importance which it deserves and must have.” He saw that the sheer size of the Port Authority’s commission—ten million square feet of office space set on twelve city blocks—set a double challenge. On the one hand, he would have to “scale it to the human being,” to make it “inviting, friendly, and humane.” On the other hand, the WTC wasn’t just a cluster of buildings: “To be symbolic of its great purpose, of the working together in trade of the Nations of the World, it should have a sense of dignity and pride, and still stand for the humanity and democratic purposes in which we in the United States believe.” The WTC has left a confusing legacy, and if, as Goldberger predicts, “architectural criticism of it will cease altogether,” then we will never get to the bottom of it. But I suspect that its legacy lies somewhere in the territory encircled by these three points of view.

It’s always been hard to pin down the WTC’s significance. One reason is that one’s experience of the street-level plaza and the towers always seemed so different. The plaza was never successful—it was bleak—and when the Port Authority started piping in canned music, the fake cheeriness seemed only to underline its sadness. The failure wasn’t entirely the architect’s. Yamasaki had assumed that the plaza would be lined with restaurants; it wasn’t. Then, the Vista Hotel (built later) claustrophobically slammed shut the view out the southwest corner to the Hudson River, and the bridge to the World Financial Center cramped the northwest corner. But the plaza was bad from the start, indeed from before the start. The assumption (which Yamasaki accepted) that the Port Authority’s twelve-block parcel was not merely a site but a precinct—a giant podium to be lifted off the earth and endowed with a special character distinct from its surroundings—outlined an urban-design challenge that would have been difficult, if not impossible, for any architect in the 1960s to meet gracefully. It played to modernism’s weakest suit.

Actually, the question of whether or not the WTC was modernist is not so easily answered. Those who didn’t like the buildings, or didn’t like modernism, used their critique of one to damn the other. But in 1962, as Yamasaki began work on the WTC, the New York Times’s architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote that this architecture was “shattering” the tradition of modernism, opposing its stripped-down, functionalist manner with an “ornamental style and a conscious historicism” that were “deliberately decorative, and among professionals, highly controversial.” Around the plaza, at any rate, the failures were those of modernism—failures of modernist planning, based on a poor understanding of how people use and animate open spaces; and of modernist architecture, of buildings conceived to float in space, rather than decisively to shape it, of a brittle formal language of metal and glass that seemed averse to hold a corner, and of walls reluctant to meet the ground.

Even the towers didn’t meet the ground well. Part of the problem was that it was very hard to say where the ground was. If the towers didn’t seem to stand firmly on the plaza, if from some angles they seemed rather to be inserted through it, that may have been because the plaza didn’t stand firmly on the ground either. It was not floor but roof—the roof of a spreading, formless underground world of numbered levels, parking garages, shopping concourses, plunging escalators, and train platforms. The towers were rooted deep in this basement world.

If you looked up at the towers from the plaza you got a stiff neck. It was a little like looking up at the stage from the first row of the orchestra, where the actors loom above you. In this case, however, the actors were giants and were playing to the back of a house that was the entire New York harbor and indeed the entire region. From up close, at any rate, you could appreciate some of the design decisions that made the towers work from a distance. And these were not the routine moves of modernism. My own reaction to the vaguely Venetian arcades on which the towers stood changed as I grew to know the buildings better, and as they and I aged. Whereas at first they had seemed insipid, unconvincing, I came to find them graceful and oddly delicate. The towers were clad in a metal that, rare among modern buildings, was truly beautiful: it was a special aluminum alloy that Alcoa had developed for Yamasaki, and the impossibly tall colonettes, flowing up out of the arcades to the very tops of the buildings, flashed silver in a way that was somehow soft and unmetallic. These piers contained the innovative structural system that has garnered such public attention in the wake of the WTC’s destruction: they placed most of the towers’ support around their perimeter, rather than spaced throughout the buildings in an even grid. With these piers, in fact, Yamasaki rewrote not only the structural but also the expressive rules of the steel frame. They were eighteen inches wide and projected a full foot in front of the windows, which were only four inches wider than the piers. The effect was quite different from that of the standard modernist “glass box.” Seen from even a moderate angle, the glass disappeared behind the piers, while from a distance the spaces closed up, so that the towers appeared almost solid. Not solid like stone, but almost solid. It was an unusual and beautiful effect.

Yamasaki was one of a few architects, including Philip Johnson and Edward Durrell Stone, who in the 1960s were departing from the modernist orthodoxy of the curtain wall to create walls of visual weight and real substance. The WTC may have been subtler than many contemporary experiments, which often ran to slabs of stone or crude piles of oversized brick. What it undubitably had was scale. You could see the towers from across the Hudson River in Jersey City, from the harbor, from high places in the Bronx and Westchester County, from the Jersey Meadowlands, from the train tracks somewhere around New Brunswick, and from the far edges of Brooklyn and Queens. Beyond a certain distance, the treatment of the skin probably didn’t matter much; it was the towers’ sheer height, and of course their famous twinness, that projected them across the distant landscape. But from the middle distance, the combination of size, shape, proportion, and surface achieved a remarkable transformation. During two years of living close to the Hudson River in Jersey City, I got to know the towers pretty well, in all of their moods. When crossing the river by ferry or bridge in the morning one slipped into the huge shadows they cast across the water and through the blaze of sun that sprang between them. Late in a spring evening the glow of sunset seemed to rest in them long after the water had become black and the rest of the city resolved into points of light. To the sailor out in the harbor, the towers, one occulting the other, registered an endlessly fascinating play of light and weather. A simple detail—the chamfered corners and roof lines—meant a great deal from this perspective. The corners became strips of light stretching more than a quarter-mile into the sky. And whether you were close enough to perceive the individual floors or far enough away so that the faces of the buildings flattened in the atmospheric haze, the chamfers forced you to accept the towers three-dimensionally, as huge objects. “Sculptural” is the word art historians might choose to describe this effect. Of course the disposition of the two towers, not lined up face-to-face but angled corner-to-corner, was very much a sculptural move. The key, however, was scale. The towers were so big and projected their bigness with such profound simplicity that they seemed to exist in the realm of sky and wind, rather than that of architecture. New York’s harbor is a vast area, filled with air and light and the reflections of moving water, overarched by an immense sky. The towers, sited on the promontory of lower Manhattan, registered the moods of light and weather in a way that only things of great size and immeasurable scale can do—things that are there with a bigness too big to grasp. When you looked at the towers you saw not just buildings but the imprint of the place itself, the sky coming down to earth, the impress of sun, sea, and wind sweeping across a continent. A shadow cast by one of the towers was not just bigger, but qualitatively different from those of ordinary buildings—it didn’t belong to architecture at all; it was a phenomenon of nature. The Washington Monument (another large prismatic object rising into a bowl of sky) offers a similar experience. So does, under certain circumstances, the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. I can’t think of another building that creates this feeling, certainly not in New York. That quality is what I will miss above all else about the towers.

Many people will, of course, miss them just because … they miss them. A lot of memories are attached to the WTC. I don’t mean those that settled there on September 11. Nor those of the people who worked there every day; those memories are vast and complex. I mean the memories of people who visited or looked at the WTC because it was something special. I doubt if many of these memories are attached to the plaza. Again, it was the towers that really worked. In addition to extreme height, they were equipped with memory generators. One was the observation deck. Actually, the views were somewhat disappointing. You were kept well away from the edge, so that you couldn’t look straight down and see the absurdly tiny cars and people and savor the inverted perspective of buildings impossibly tapering toward their bases. As you looked out, the deck seemed almost too high. But going there was an experience, and was most likely shared with friends, a parent, or a child. A Colorado parent remembers her visits there: “Seated before the touchingly beautiful view of the harbor in the evening, we would talk over the day’s events with the daughter who knew her way around. It was there we learned Katy was in love. It was there, after the graduation ceremony, that we saluted her PhD.” Though Katy’s mother found it “odd” to say that she’d “lost a personal, public landmark,” it wasn’t odd at all. It was in the nature of the place. Probably many of the deck’s visitors now regret losing a personal spot—“I can’t go back there anymore.” Windows on the World, the famous 107th-floor restaurant, was another memory generator. The food, as people used to say, was better than it needed to be, because the place itself was the draw. It was not ordinary, certainly not the sort of restaurant you went to just because you were hungry. Most went there, I think, to create a special experience—a memorable experience—with friends or family. Those who had the good fortune to dine there acquired an intimately personal stake in a skyline that could seem profoundly indifferent.

New York’s skyline has been rearranged many, many times, but usually it has been yanked upward. Even when quite large buildings have come down, it was done in order to put up even bigger ones. So the towers’ sudden disappearance is unprecedented and confronts us with a question we were not prepared to think about: What is the next stage of lower Manhattan’s skyline? Is this the end of grand development? Or is this a prelude to something yet unimagined? As we look for that now-shifting, hard-to-locate place in the sky where the towers used to be, it’s helpful to remember that their contribution to the skyline was not always or universally admired. When they were new, many people felt that the Twin Towers dwarfed the older skyline to the north and east; they were isolated and, with their feet practically in the river, seemed to unbalance the entire island. If by last September we no longer felt that way, it may have been in part because we had gotten used to the effect, but also because the skyline had adjusted to the towers. To the west, Battery Park City and the World Financial Center were built on landfill scraped out of the WTC’s foundations; large as they are, they furnished (in the phrase of the World Financial Center’s designer, Cesar Pelli) foothills to the WTC’s mountain range. To the south and toward the East River, the slender towers of the old skyline had been gradually hidden behind a ring of big, boxy buildings—neither “tower” nor “skyscraper” adequately registers their utter stolidity. Now the WTC is gone, but the adjustments are still there—most unhappily so. The World Financial Center seems unfocused and weak, while the “boxes” around the other side of the financial district are just plain ugly. They hide the slender spires of the neighborhood as completely as ever, but now without the redeeming lift of Trade Center 1 and 2. What is to be done?

That, of course, is the question everyone is asking. Proposals for the site have already been floated. Presented for the most part in sound bites, they have, not surprisingly, been one-liners: new office buildings, a replica of the towers, a peace park, ruins, a monument with names of the lost. It’s clear that the site could be redeveloped as office space. Or it could be designed as a memorial. What seems less clear is whether any one of these could ever fulfill both its commercial and its mnemonic potential. Can a functioning part of the city be successfully freighted with the burden of memory, sorrow, and national resolve that people want from the site? As if that weren’t challenge enough, a more difficult question has emerged: How to get beyond the purely personal dimensions of the tragedy of September 11—the sad, agonizing, pathetic, heartbreaking stories that have filled the papers for weeks, piling up into a mound as high and more unscalable than the towers themselves. I do not mean to suggest that we should ignore the individual tragedies, but rather that we must also account for the larger significance to the community of what took place that day, and what is still to come. Community is more than sentiments of empathy for the bereaved, more than neighbors holding hands. September 11 was more, and different, than the sum of five or six or seven thousand individual tragedies. And the WTC was more than a place where people worked, ate, and died. Or was it?

What did the towers stand for, anyway? Since their destruction, we’ve heard often enough that they stood for capitalism, free enterprise, business, or, perhaps, what their designer called “the humanity and democratic purposes in which we in the United States believe.” But the complex’s purposes were more specific. First, of course, it was intended to salvage the real-estate investments of some very influential people. More grandly, in Yamasaki’s words, it was meant to serve and symbolize “the working together in trade of the Nations of the World.” That, after all, is why it was called the World Trade Center. I wonder if its destroyers heard and understood the literal meaning of these words, which we New Yorkers had long ago demoted to a mere sound—Wurltraydsen’r. Had the complex become, unbeknownst to us, a symbol not merely of world trade but of free trade, of the globalism of Seattle and Genoa? Its destroyers, at any rate, seem to have remembered something else that we New Yorkers had largely forgotten. The WTC was not an expression of free enterprise: It was built by Big Government, was roundly criticized for that, and in market terms could not have been called a good investment. It was never, in this sense, practical, and its ideology was not that of the free market. In symbol and substance, it was government projecting a design. That has been easy to forget during these past thirty years of contempt for government and of fawning praise for market capitalism. But in its destruction the WTC put government back at the center of our consciousness: it is to government that injured people and businesses have reflexively turned for help—each level of government looking expectantly to the next—and it is government at the highest level that is now redesigning lives and deaths through decisions that affect us at every level—military deployments, homeland security, and much more.

Symbols are important. They can get us killed. But they are also, in some sense, imaginary, made up by us. For most people who worked in or visited them, the towers were probably never symbols of anything in particular. When they came down on September 11, then they became symbols. But when, a week later, my neighbor said, “I miss them,” she meant the buildings, not the symbols. I miss them too.

Notes

The quotation from Paul Goldberger is taken from the New Yorker, September 24, 2001; those from Minoru Yamasaki and Ada Louise Huxtable are from Anthony Robins’s The World Trade Center (Englewood, FL: Pineapple Press, 1987) and that from Katy’s mother, Marion Stewart, is from High Country News, September 24, 2001.

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