The World Trade Center
Arquitectura Viva 79 - 80, July - October 2001, pages 80 - 83.

As an archetype of the contemporary American skyscraper, the World Trade Center was the product of two conflicting but mutually dependent principles: on the one hand, a frugal Protestant pragmatism, in which the maximization of profit is the only value; and on the other, a spirit of extravagant competition that provokes feats of reckless over-reaching (the same conflicting impulses that are the motor of capitalist economic expansion in general).  The towers, it could be said, were the result of the collision between Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption of the leisure class,” but in which the material debaucheries of the 19th century as described by Veblen were sublimated under a colossalism of scale and number, thus assuaging the troubled Puritan conscience of the speculator. The promoters of the World Trade Center could boast for example that its daily electrical consumption equaled that of the city of Albany, with a population of 100,000, but in the original installations there were only four light switches for each 3,700 m2 floor.

In his History of Modern Architecture, Leonardo Benevolo identifies the originating principle of the rational modern skyscraper, in which the footprint of a site is repeated as many times as technically possible in order to produce the greatest return on the cost of the land. According to this principle, the logical limit to the height of a building is not its structural capacity, but the point at which the space required to service extra floors (chiefly the vertical circulation) exceeds the added rentable space that they produce. (In this respect the World Trade Center towers were a model of efficiency, with services consuming only 25% of each floor.)

While 19th century Chicago provides the model for the rational skyscraper, the image of the skyscraper as a product of feverish competition, conspicuous consumption and high-stakes gambling finds its maximum expression in the Art Deco-period towers of New York, with their costly decorative programs and elaborate details, their nickel-sliver elevator doors, chrome spires and thick masonry skins. This extraordinary group of buildings, almost entirely designed by little-known commercial firms, from the Empire, the Chrysler and Rockefeller Center in midtown to Wall Street’s cluster of spires, were conceived in the 1920s boom but not completed until the 1930s. Their extravagance was thus only seen through the gritty black-and-white veils of the Depression, the Second World War, and the dusty neglect of the postwar flight from the city, provoked by racial conflict and Cold War fear.

The World Trade Center was born in an era still in recoil from these excesses. From this perspective, the reductive modernist functionalism of the postwar American office building can be seen as an act of remorse and contrition. Few buildings stand out in the vast production of speculative curtain-wall boxes of the late fifties to the seventies, when the norm was not the Seagram Building but Charles Luckman’s Two Penn Plaza of 1968, which replaced what was seen by many at the time as the shameless and tawdry opulence of McKim Mead and White’s Pennsylvania Station.

The World Trade Center is both a product of its time and an anomaly. In aesthetic terms, it is simply an extension of the squat boxes of the 1960s, in which the neo-Gothic verticality pioneered in Cass Gilbert’s 1913 Woolworth Building is reduced to the subtle conservative texture of a pinstripe business suit.

The unprecedented scale of the project is due to the fact that its promoters were not private investors but local public authorities using state-backed public bonds. Much of the impetus for the project came from the Governor of New York at the time, Nelson Rockefeller, an ambitious builder who left his mark in monumental public projects throughout the state, in the tradition of New York’s master builder Robert Moses.

But the overbearing size of the towers also betrays a certain sense of desperation. It seems to have been intended as a bold stroke meant to re-assert Wall Street’s fading hegemony. The financial district had seen no new growth since the Depression, and was losing protagonism to midtown and new suburban centers. The Trade Center project was launched to complement the efforts of Nelson’s brother David, President of the Chase Manhattan Bank, who spearheaded a business movement to revive the area with a 60-story tower designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill and opened in 1960.

The Trade Center was in fact enormously impractical. Costs rose from $350 to over $800 million during the course of construction. Nor had its planners seriously considered the impact of placing over 900,000 m2 of office space on the market, the equivalent of several years of growth in demand. When completed at the height of the oil crisis, the Center failed to attract tenants, and had to be filled with state offices in order to keep the project from bankruptcy. Like its 1920s predecessors and Pelli’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the project signaled the exhaustion of an expansive business cycle.

The Trade Center was built at a time when the very idea of the traditional city seemed obsolete and threatening, as planners like Moses cut highways through crowded city streets and replaced declining urban neighborhoods with ranks of public housing towers. The Center’s design reflected this distrust. The towers were inaccessible from the empty ornamental plaza, which overlooked the underground lobbies from a mezzanine level. Users entered the buildings from the underground shopping concourse, from its subway stations, parking garages, and dark, unmarked portals on side streets, and the elevators whisked them up to heights from which the spectacle of the city could be observed from a safe distance.

The power and grace of the World Trade Center towers were due entirely to their unprecedented scale. In their impact on the skyline, in the tremendous impact of their height when seen at close range, with their full 417 meters rising in a straight wall from the pavement, and in the dizzying sense of disassociation from the ground experienced on their upper floors, they could serve as a textbook illustration of Edmund Burke’s definition of the romantic sublime, with its undercurrents of terror, physical risk and vulnerability. Like all tall buildings, they moved in the wind, their tops swaying more than four meters on gusty days, provoking sea-sickness in many on upper floors. In this respect, the skyscraper is closely related to the transatlantic ship, another man-made leviathan whose majestic scale and force are built around a tremendous vulnerability, a defiance of the laws of nature. On September 11th, as I watched the mast of the north tower sinking upright amid a rising cloud of dust and smoke, I was forcefully reminded of the sinking of the Titanic, of the image of the stern of the ship rising into the air and then slipping below the surface of the foaming sea.