Requiem for an American Icon


To anyone who doubted the power of modern architecture to convey potent cultural messages: think again. The terrorists who obliterated the World Trade Center last week, killing thousands of the people who worked inside its soaring towers, apparently saw the building as a symbol of wealth and hubris. Almost everyone else saw in the 110-story towers more positive and complex meanings. The towers inspired awe and fascination, of course--more postcards of the World Trade Center were sent each year than of any other building in the world--and from the top, tourists could get the most spectacular, stomach-fluttering vistas in New York. The building was also emblematic of our country's deepest aspirations. Skyscrapers are an American invention, and the World Trade Center was among the last to reflect something of the visionary ideals of progress and technology that so defined the last century. How high can we build? How high can we fly? Can we reach the moon?

The towers also embodied the American genius for hucksterism. The idea to make them the world's tallest buildings (which they were briefly after they opened in 1973, until the Sears Tower in Chicago topped them; now Malaysia's Petronas towers are the highest) was the brainstorm of a PR man, not the architect, Minoru Yamasaki of Detroit. (Among Yamasaki's other buildings was the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, detonated by authorities in 1972 as a failure in social planning.) Most New Yorkers didn't warm to the design of the towers, which were deemed both brutal and bland. The structures were gigantic milk cartons with oddly fussy neo-Venetian Gothic arches at the bottom.

Yet Yamasaki and the structural engineer Leslie Robertson made some brilliant, innovative moves. Most modern high-rises have vertical supports throughout the structure and a curtain wall hung on the outside; here the supporting steel columns were lined up on the exterior, close together, with the rest of the supports clustered around the core. That meant the floors had wide spans free of columns, for maximum flexibility in the design of offices. The windows between the steel columns were only 18 inches wide--a comfortable distance, thought Yamasaki, who was afraid of heights.

But Yamasaki's greatest design notion was to create two identical towers. The twin structures, each a perfect square at the base (with five much lower buildings placed around them), are what made the World Trade Center indelible. Best of all was seeing the building from afar: the Twin Towers anchored the skyline at the southern end of Manhattan Island, a counterpoint to the classic older skyscrapers uptown. "When you got any distance from them, they read as solids, as powerful as the Pyramids or Donald Judd sculptures," says Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale architecture school.

Last week Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was quick to say that the World Trade Center must be rebuilt, though he didn't suggest it be replicated. When it was first constructed, Robertson, the engineer, famously said it could withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, the largest aircraft at the time. His nightmare scenario was of an accident, but last week's terrible tragedy may now make planners think about the unthinkable. A new World Trade Center isn't likely to be as tall. Skyscrapers haven't been built in the United States at that scale for decades, according to Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan; about 80 stories is the most efficient for big buildings. And there are those who believe the site should be left vacant. "Is rebuilding a desecration of the site and the memory of the victims," asks architect Deborah Berke, "or a testament to their spirit and ours?" Berke and Willis have a similar idea: rebuild around the site but leave a memorial park. Willis suggests each tower's footprint--about an acre apiece--be planted simply with grass.

The Twin Towers became a landmark New Yorkers took for granted. You could see them from midtown, sparkling in the distance on a sunny day. If you got lost way downtown, where the streets jig and jog off the grid, you could always look up and find the Twin Towers to orient yourself. And they achieved a measure of magic as pop-culture icons. Where King Kong had carried Fay Wray up the Empire State Building in 1933, he took Jessica Lange up the World Trade Center in the 1976 remake. New Yorkers were spellbound when French tightrope walker Philippe Petit crossed the chasm between the two towers in 1974. Maybe it wasn't our favorite building, but it was always there. Now it's not. There's a void in the New York skyline, a hole as big as the one in our hearts.