Minoru Yamasaki’s radical towers are perhaps even more powerful symbols of New York City in their absence.
In their absence, the towers of the original World Trade Center remain extraordinarily powerful symbols of the city of New York – and America’s unbridled capitalist ambitionIn the depths of the emotional underworld at Ground Zero, an eerie place of crushed fire engines on plinths and dramatically lit scorched steel columns, is a fascinating site of architectural archaeology.Marching in a mute line around the exhibition halls of the 9/11 Memorial Museum stand the original foundation pads of New York’s iconic “twin towers”, their rusted steel plates still bolted firmly into the Manhattan bedrock. Across the hall, a grid of massive steel bolts emerges from the 20-metre-high slurry wall, the vast concrete barrier that was cast to keep out the waters of the Hudson River and which held firm when the towers collapsed on 11 September 2001, stopping the subway tunnels beneath from flooding.Along with a few charred columns which loom like devil’s forks above the entrance to the museum, this is all that exists of the original World Trade Center. But perhaps even more so in their absence, the twin towers remain one of the most powerful symbols of New York City.
Where the ungainly obelisk of SOM’s One World Trade Center now stands, surrounded by a motley collection of stubby slabs, once rose the two sleekest symbols of America’s unbridled capitalist ambition and technical prowess; the identical twin kings of global finance, dressed in matching silver pinstripe suits.
Designed by Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki, they were the tallest towers in the world when they were completed in 1974, standing as glistening beacons of structural innovation. They employed a radical framed tube structure to carry the load in their facades – thereby doing away with the need for columns inside, freeing up the interior for more office space (and requiring as little as half the material needed for conventional steel-framed construction).
The elevator system was revolutionary, too. Buildings so tall didn’t usually make much economic sense, given the amount of space that had to be given over to lift shafts at the lower floors, the taller you went. So the engineers devised a plan to divide each building into thirds, with elevator “sky lobbies” where people would transfer to local lifts to reach their required floors. The system saved 70% of the space that would have been used in a traditional lift shaft.
None of these innovations, however, turned out to be of much use when the buildings first opened – given that, at the time, there was precious little demand for such office space in Lower Manhattan at all. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – which developed the buildings at the behest of Chase Manhattan Bank’s chairman David Rockefeller – filled much of the north tower with its own offices, while the State of New York ended up occupying 50 floors of the south tower to stop the embarrassment of it standing empty.
Nor was the project received with much warmth by contemporary critics. Lewis Mumford compared the towers to a gigantic pair of filing cabinets, while others said they looked like the boxes that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building came in. Broadcasters raised concerns that the towers would interfere with television reception, while the bird lobby even protested that the buildings posed a grave hazard to migrating fowl….[ ]