In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a source of political contention and financial worry. In the late 1970s, it was a symbol of metropolitan glamor (it was the Emerald City in The Wiz, after all!). In the 1980s and 1990s, it stood for commercial success and tourist fascination. In the early 21st century, it became Ground Zero. And now, for most people, the World Trade Center is back to being the World Trade Center once again, proof that determination can – just as in the 60s and 70s – overcome political strife. Things may never be right in Lower Manhattan again, but things can be good.
With the new WTC 1 tower recently topped out and nearly ready to occupy, it’s tempting to want to put the Twins out of your mind for a moment. To dwell on something new, now, and positive so you won’t cry. That’s how I felt for a while, at least. It didn’t take me long, though, to realize that it’s okay to miss the old WTC. The towers were my first glimpse of Manhattan when I visited New York City in 1993, and though the subtle beauty of the structures was initially lost in their size, that size was enough to make them instantly fascinating. Whether you thought they were beautiful or not really didn’t matter; their enormity commanded attention and respect. And so it went for me.
Later in that trip I became a tourist in the sky – one of thousands that visited the observation deck at the top of WTC 2 from the later 1970s to September, 2001. It was then that I understood why the Twins were more than just big, ugly postmodern skyscrapers. In fact, they had character! Just as with people, sometimes you have to get close to things to understand them. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the towers were Gothic. They had arched windows wrapped around each lobby and matching tracery decorating the uppermost stories. They were shiny, too, sheathed in long lines of sparkling aluminum cladding.
Within minutes of my arrival, I realized that the seemingly boring 1970s duoliths were actually delightfully quirky. They were, after all, the 1963 brainchildren of brilliant midcentury modern architect Minoru Yamasaki. While he may have struggled to keep the World Trade Center project relatable given its massive space requirements, he nonetheless succeeded in his attempt to imbue the project with at least two of his three cardinal qualities of design: surprise, delight, and serenity. To these can also be added his interest in creating a sense of excitement, which the towers achieved in spades due to their sheer size and magical views. In a 1959 interview, Yamasaki said:
“I feel that this quality of surprise, the man-made instilling of delight is a terribly important consideration and one that we must think very deeply about to bring about the kind of environment which would be exciting for us. So, in a sense, more than just these qualities I think that the thing I’ve thought about most in architecture in the past years is that architecture should be based on human experience, on the need for delight, sometimes for excitement. But whatever it is that the human being should somehow form an environment in which people can find a delightful, wonderful way of life.”
Then there were the people. I noticed temporary tents and pavilions outside, housing various building services that were disabled during the basement bombing a few months before. None of them seemed to interrupt the flow of life at the Trade Center, though. Some employees we met even joked about it. I guess that’s something you do to convince yourself that things are back to normal. And by all accounts, things seemed to be headed in that direction. Workers were drifting in and out of their offices, shoppers and diners hung around on Austin Tobin Plaza and in the mall, and hundreds of tourists, just like me, were excited to witness the view from the top.
I was there with a small group of 4-H members. We were on the second leg of our World Focus conference trip, but there were many others, too…families, visitors from abroad, and dozens upon dozens of Boy Scouts visiting the east coast for their 1993 Jamboree. I remember smiling at the Scouts, remembering that my brother would be on that very same observation deck in just a couple of days later.
That is how I like to remember the place. For all the horror associated with the World Trade Center site, there has been joy and mundanity. Vacation adventures like mine. Proposals and weddings at Windows on the World. Parties. Career triumphs. Climbing and tightrope stunts (see the “Man on Wire” trailer above). Plus the reassuring numbness of the daily grind – it was and is, after all, a workplace. And then there’s the compelling drama of pre 9/11 history and politics; from the Port Authority’s herculean efforts to build and fill hundreds of thousands of square feet with happy tenants to Yamasaki’s notorious architectural conundrum: how to accommodate the oppositional demands of usable, accessible architecture and the Port Authority’s gargantuan office space requirements. It is all proof that the original World Trade Center is more than just a painful memory.
World Trade Center resources to make you think, make you cry, and make you smile (maybe in that order):
- The Sonic Memorial Project – Interviews, lectures, environmental audio, and more related to the World Trade Center. My favorites include the August, 2001 observation deck audio tour and various projects contributed by artists in residence at the towers.
- September 11 Digital Archive – A compendium of digital items chronicling the history of the World Trade Center, 9/11, and life beyond.
- The Smithsonian “Bearing Witness to History” Collection – A heartbreaking assemblage of wreckage, personal effects, and other found items from Ground Zero.
- New Glimpses of the Twin Towers’ Past – Archival material from the World Trade Center’s early years (and before!) are presented together, for the first time, in Anthony W. Robins’ reprinted The World Trade Center: Classics of American Architecture. Pre-2001.
- Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center – Angus Kress Gillespie’s American Studies-based examination of the Trade Center’s significance in American culture. Pre-2001.