Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the September 19,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Twin Towers: The History

The World Trade Center was conceived in optimism.

This reminder comes from Angus Gillespie, professor of American


at Rutgers, and author of Twin Towers: The Life of New York’s

World Trade Center (Rutgers University Press, 1999). "When

the World Trade Center was first discussed," says Gillespie,


was giving his `We have to send a man to the moon’ speech. It was

a period of great national euphoria. The sky was the limit."

It was in this spirit that the Port Authority set out to build the

tallest building in the world. The twin towers didn’t retain bragging

rights for long. Soon, the Sears Tower in Chicago pushed farther into

the sky, but, says Gillespie, that building "never gripped


imagination." The twin towers, never a hit with architecture


did exert a strong pull on the imagination — both at home and


Located near Wall Street, traditional heart of the nation’s financial

engine, the towers, says Gillespie, still speaking in the present

tense, "stand not just for New York City, but for American


For the American way of life."

Gillespie spent 10 years researching his book. Building managers took

him on a tour of the towers’ six-story basement, and brought him onto

the roof of the north tower. He spent time with any number of World

Trade Center employees. He expects that some of them perished with

the building, but he does not yet know.

Gillespie heard the news of the attack on the twin towers as he sat

at home in New Brunswick with his morning coffee and newspaper.


older son called me as he was driving down Easton Avenue," he

recounts. "He heard it on the radio. I turned on the TV, and saw

the smoke. I thought the firemen would come and the fire would be

put out. I never thought it could collapse."

Here is an excerpt from Gillespie’s book that talks about how the

World Trade Center came to consist of two tall towers and a number

of smaller buildings, and why the tower were constructed as they were:

Pick up almost any serious book on American


and you will look in vain for mention of the World Trade Center. The

few books that do mention the building do so with disparaging


How did it happen that something so important, a universally


symbol of American abundance, came to be disregarded and disrespected

by those who take architecture most seriously? There is a


between elite culture and popular culture because nearly every


to New York City lists the Twin Towers among the city’s top 10


One important key to explaining the contradiction between highbrow

architecture books and lowbrow guidebooks is to take a close took

at the project’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki. In the first place, we

must remember that for his whole life in America, he was an outsider,

a foreigner. In overcoming a life subjected to prejudice, Yamasaki

had developed extraordinary qualities of individualism and


He was an outsider in at least three important ways. In the first

place, he was Japanese, placing him squarely outside the world of

elite WASP architects. Second, he was from the Midwest. His most


years of architectural practice had taken place in Michigan,


to the world of wealthy clients in New York. But most important, there

was a matter of style. Yamasaki was working in an architectural idiom

perhaps best described as the New Formalism, which never caught on.

The New Formalism was an attempt to get away from the International

Style, which had dominated the 1920s and 1930s. What no one knew for

sure at the time was that the next style to become fashionable would

not be the New Formalism but post-modernism, which came to dominate

the 1970s and 1980s.

The clients were impressed with Yamasaki’s grasp of the many


problems such as sun control and the relationship of glass to wall.

So it was in late August, 1962, that Minoru Yamasaki got the job.

It was a bold choice.

Yamasaki was turning away from the flat, glassy buildings of the


Style. His travels led him to embrace tradition and history. He became

fascinated with one of the oldest preoccupations of classical


How do you design a building so as to take maximum advantage of the

change in light experienced from sunrise to sunset? He began to speak

out against the monotony of the facades of the International Style.

At first Yamasaki was not sure how to solve the problem of buildings

with dull faces. An early idea was to come up with some kind of


and precasting of metal to yield more interesting surfaces. It took

some time to come up with a distinguishing treatment for the faces

of his buildings.

Yamasaki’s distancing himself from the International

Style stemmed from his dislike of the "all-glass" building,

which was actually about 60 percent glass. In such buildings, Yamasaki

had intense feeling of acrophobia, especially when standing next to

a large pane of glass in a tall building. Instead of having the secure

feeling of being inside a building, he felt as if he could just tumble

through the glass and fall.

At the same time, he realized that with no windows at all occupants

would have a sense of claustrophobia. The challenge was to provide

people with the pleasure of looking out the windows and enjoying the

view while still having the security of being inside a structure and

enjoying its protection. By the time he designed the World Trade


Yamasaki had worked this problem out to his satisfaction. He gave

the building windows that were shoulder-width and spanned from floor

to ceiling. A person could lean right up against the frame of the

windows and look out and down with no fear of falling. The percentage

of glass in the World Trade Center is 30, about half that of an


Style building.

All in all, Yamasaki worked with more than 100 schemes. Somewhere

between the 20th and 40th attempt, he hit upon the idea of a pair

of towers. He felt that he was on the right track, but he continued

on with another 60 schemes just to be sure. At first the two buildings

were only 80 or 90 stories high. Only later did Yamasaki agree to

push the design to 110 stories. It took 15 months from getting his

commission to presenting a detailed plan to Austin Tobin and the Port

Authority commissioners. Next came the enormous task of designing

the buildings in detail.

In large measure Yamasaki’s design followed logically from engineering

considerations. The exterior walls carry the weight of the structure

as well as providing bracing against the stress and strain of lateral

winds. The entire building perimeter acts as a strong tube. The outer

wall consists of closely spaced vertical columns.

Some critics felt that the view from Yamasaki’s 22-inch windows was

too limiting. Yamasaki responded, "The purpose of buildings is

to have comfortable working areas and not to be observatories where

one stares out the window at the view all day long. The windows are

amply wide and sufficiently close together for both a dramatic outlook

and little sense of claustrophobia.

Once having decided on narrow windows, the next decision had to do

with the choice of exterior wall material. Because the actual weight

of the building was supported by closely spaced vertical steel


the exterior material could be very thin and lightweight since all

it had to do was to keep in heat and keep out cold and dampness. As

long as these "curtain walls" were waterproof, they could

be made of just about any permanent material.

A skyscraper is by definition a tall building. The term

suggests that the building will "scrape the sky." From the

beginning, Yamasaki planned on very tall buildings. However, as we

have already seen in chapter 2, the initial idea for making the World

Trade Center "the tallest in the world" was not Yamasaki’s.

The idea originated with Lee K. Jaffe, in the public relations office

of the Port Authority. Jaffe knew the idea would appeal to her bosses,

Austin Tobin and Guy Tozzoli, because the culture of the agency


a sense of manliness and an almost compulsive competitiveness. The

contest to build the tallest skyscraper in the world was an American

preoccupation for the first three-quarters of the 20th century. For

most of that period, the tallest skyscrapers were found in New York

City, although in the end Chicago took the prize. As we approach the

end of the 20th century, Americans seem to have given up the fight

as the battle has shifted to the Pacific Rim.

For a long time, the Empire State Building was secure in its title

of "the world’s tallest skyscraper." Serious challenges were

not attempted during the Depression and were not possible during World

War II. The Empire State Building became a landmark and a familiar

yardstick against which big things like ocean liners were measured.

There was an office building boom in the 1950s, but nothing


tall was built. "As a result," according to architectural

historian Anthony Robins, "the Empire State held the title for

so long that, unlike its predecessors, it seemed to `have a permanent

claim. The World Trade Center proposal in 1964 came as a rude


The World Trade Center’s bid to surpass the Empire State Building

in height was opposed by the threatened owners of the older landmark.

They put up a good fight and succeeded in delaying the new project

for months. Of course, in the end the World Trade Center won the


measuring 1,368 feet in height. What is amazing to most people is

the intensity of emotion surrounding New York’s battle of the


Devotees of the Empire State Building have never forgiven the Port

Authority for topping the classic midtown skyscraper.

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