World Trade Center from Empire State Building, 1998 (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
A few months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I had the opportunity to interview the celebrated architect Cesar Pelli, whose firm designed (among many other buildings) the World Financial Center, surrounding the World Trade Center.
Although Pelli professed understandable shock and horror at the destruction, when I asked him how he saw the New York skyline with the twin towers gone, his answer shocked me, even if it made a certain amount of sense:
"An interesting change has taken place," Pelli said in the ensuing Salon interview. "Up until September 11, the World Trade Center towers completely dominated the composition. Now that they're gone, you realize that this is still a composition of very large buildings. They just don't seem so tiny anymore. In some ways, all of those other buildings have gained a great deal by being restored to their previous relationship to each other and the city. So I have real mixed emotions. Of course it was a terrible act that caused their disappearance. But beyond that, I have to say I believe downtown Manhattan looks handsomer and more humane than it did before."
Certainly both then and now, Pelli knew more about architecture than I could ever hope to. And yet I couldn't dismiss a voice growing louder and louder in my mind, saying: "Bullshit!"
Last night as the world learned that Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, had been killed, I thought of the World Trade Center. It goes without saying, of course, that the real tragedy on that morning was the nearly 3,000 people killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Yet as an ex-New Yorker, I resented Pelli's assertion that the skyline was better off.
Throughout their nearly 30-year history, the World Trade Center towers drew a mix of responses from architects and the general populace. As the tallest buildings in a city of tall buildings, they stood out. They came to represent no only America's economic might, but also the sometimes blunt nature of modern architecture. The towers stood on a superblock, for example, that disrupted the integrity of New York's street grid. Critic Lewis Mumford described it and other new skyscrapers as "just glass-and-metal filing cabinets", and an "example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city."
Yet I'd argue that both Pelli and Mumford were wrong. Mumford failed to see the World Trade Center towers' minimalist aesthetics as a juxtaposition against the detail of great buildings nearby like the Woolworth Building. Besides, the buildings were constructed in a time of great minimalist art; a blanker canvass does not denote missing artistry. That the WTC was more Donald Judd than Louis Sullivan were part of their genius. The towers were like a negative space that made one see the positive space with fresh eyes. Pelli also missed how the very height of the twin towers acted as a unifying force for the otherwise chaotic conglomeration of buidings. As novelist Don Delillo wrote in his landmark novel Underworld, the towers were a "…curtained sheer, of reflecting glass and anodized aluminum." Tall as the buildings were, they were a reflection of all that surrounded: a kind of mirror onto which our hopes and fears were projected. After all, that's why Al Qaeda selected them for attack.
Incidentally, this is also where I think the World Trade Center is, at least tangentially, relevant to a conversation about Portland Architeture. Several weeks ago I took a visitor from India on a tour of downtown. Upon coming to the Wells Fargo Tower, the city's tallest building, she asked why a work from 40 years ago was still unmatched in height. I told her that the Wells Fargo had inspired the city to enact a height limit, amidst fears that the city was being colonized by massive monoliths that didn't fit the local architectural vernacular and blocked views of Mt. Hood. Although a polite woman, I sensed she was stifling laughter. Why would a city restrict buidings to only about 50 stories? Wasn't that an over-reaction to midcentury skyscrapers? I found it hard to disagree. Portland is not a city conditioned geographically, or in terms of population, for 110-story buildings like the WTC. Our design genius lies in our small blocks and pedestrian orientation. But our insistence on the height limit feels to me a tad provincial.
The designer of the World Trade Center, a native of our Pacific Northwest region named Minoru Yamasaki, was born in 1912 in Seattle to first-generation Japanese immigrants. He graduated from Garfield High School and put himself through the University of Washington by working summers in Alaskan fish canneries, graduating in 1934. After receiving a master's in architecture at New York University (which is also, coincidentally, my alma-mater), he narrowly avoided being sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II because of the protestations of the Detroit architecture firm he was working for at the time.
As Jane Hadley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in an article shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Yamasaki favored a modernist style despite his love of traditional Japanese architecture because to him, "it represented serenity and world peace -- a tragic irony in light of Tuesday's destruction by terrorists of his most famous creation. He wanted the World Trade Center to be 'a monument to world peace' and said it should represent 'man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness."
Minoru Yamasaki died of cancer in 1986; he did not live to see the World Trade Center destroyed by Osama Bin Laden's plan. As we prepare to recognize the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and today as we celebrate the killing of Bin Laden, I'd like to see his most prominent work of architecture take on a revised history, something that even the great architecture critics of their day could not see without a few decades of historical context: that these twin towers did not disrupt the urban fabric of New York: they embodied it.
"She found a hidden city above the grid of fever streets," Delillo writes in Underworld. "Ten million bobbing heads that ride above the tideline of taxi stripes , all brainwaved differently, and yes the street bounds in idiosyncrasy, in the human veer, but you have to go to the roof level to see the thing distinct, preserved in masonry and brass. She looked across the crowded sky of ventilators and antennas and suddenly there's a quirk, some unaccountable gesture that isolates itself."
“'I think of it as one, not two,' she said. 'Even though there are clearly two towers. It’s a single entity, isn’t it?'”