Originally appeared in The Daily.
The World Trade Center site is now hallowed ground, and to denigrate the architecture of its enormous rectangular towers is vaguely uncouth, as if to denigrate not just the towers but the great city that produced them. But critics were not always so respectful. When the towers went up in the early 1970s, everyone found something to hate. Those who liked shiny glass skyscrapers moaned at these opaque figures now marring the skyline. More classically inclined critics asked whether this was where modern architecture had brought us — to big rectangles, witless and inert, as ugly as they were inhuman. The unkindest cuts came from those who said they were not up to the Big Apple’s standard — “so utterly banal,” wrote the critic Paul Goldberger, “as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha.”
The story of how a set of buildings evoking such scorn came to exist, and how those buildings grew into a beloved part of the skyline, goes back to World War II. In 1946, when the reconstruction of Europe was barely under way, the state Legislature recognized that trans-Atlantic trade would resume soon, and it set up the World Trade Corp. to investigate how to retain New York’s status as the premier hub for commerce, with the West Side of Lower Manhattan its center. Those plans stalled as Midtown Manhattan grew into the city’s financial heart.
But in 1958, two of New York’s most powerful men began conspiring to restore Lower Manhattan to its former glory. David Rockefeller, 43 and soon to be president of Chase Manhattan Bank, and brother Nelson Rockefeller, 50 and soon to be governor of New York, shared a vision of a new set of buildings on the east side of the island, near where the South Street Seaport stands today.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would, under the Rockefeller plan, build the complex at a cost of $355 million. After squabbling (New Jersey, which has half-control of the Port Authority, didn’t want to shell out millions for a project that would disproportionately profit New York), the two states green-lighted the project in early 1962. To keep New Jersey happy, the Port Authority agreed to take over the cash-hemorrhaging Hudson & Manhattan Railroad, which connected New York and New Jersey. The terminus of that line, now rechristened the PATH train, was chosen as the new site of the World Trade Center, on the western part of Lower Manhattan.
Once New Yorkers came to realize the scale of this project, skeptics emerged in bitter opposition. Chief among them were the merchants — mostly sellers of radio parts — whose property the Port Authority proposed to seize through eminent domain. (Also seized were 43 industrial businesses and two pet shops.) On July 13, 1962, they dragged a coffin through the streets, with a dummy inside standing for “Mr. Small Businessman,” forced to close up shop to make way for the Rockefeller project.
Meanwhile, as the legal challenges by Radio Row sellers neared exhaustion, the plans for the towers came into shape. The architect selected, Minoru Yamasaki, was a second-generation Japanese-American, born in Seattle to a piano teacher and a shoe salesman. The commission came as a surprise — when the Port Authority told him the cost of the project, he at first assumed they had mistakenly added an extra zero — but when he set to work in 1965 planning the towers, his aesthetic vision was bold and pure.
A decade before, Yamasaki had visited Venice and was influenced by the Doge’s Palace. The palace’s signature feature is its Gothic arcade, a series of narrow, pointed arches that extends for the whole ground level. For the towers, Yamasaki chose to emulate that effect, echoing the mercantile greatness of the Venetian Republic in the mercantile capital of the present. In each successive design he stripped away ornamentation, until the towers’ facades took their ultimate form: straight lines extending from the points of the Gothic arches, up all the way to a plain, flat top, like the Doge’s Palace (but unlike the ornate crowns of nearly every other major building in New York). At the base of the towers he planned a large plaza, reminiscent equally of Venice’s St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
In 1966, the first wrecking balls smashed the old buildings, and soon after the site was populated by Canadian Mohawk steelworkers, gradually fitting together the pieces of what would soon be the tallest building in the world. The owners of the Empire State Building spluttered with rage, disconcerted at losing that title, and acting as the “Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center,” they put ads in newspapers to suggest that the buildings would potentially be hit by stray airplanes or interfere with television signals in New York. The project continued anyway, and in December 1970, the first tower officially topped out at 1,368 feet.
In addition to the gripes about the towers’ aesthetics, there were economic issues, including massive cost overruns and a lack of demand for office space. Government tenants provided artificial demand for the latter — more than half of the 10 million square feet of floor space was consumed by either government agencies or parking — but those who hated the towers on principle couldn’t be swayed.
Nonetheless, although the towers at first seemed so cold and geometrical, the city warmed to them. The massive traffic to the observation deck meant that in time, most people came to view the city from the World Trade Center perspective, finally seeing New York from a helicopter-like view that previously had been impossible. Not only normal people, but also fanatics were drawn to the towers. In 1974, Philippe Petit pranced a thousand feet above the ground on a wire strung between them, and three years later, George Willig used window-washer grooves in the facade to climb, safely but very illegally, all the way to the top. Willig was released with a fine of $1.10, or a penny per floor; Petit walked for free.
The public found poetry in these daredevils’ defiance of the inhuman scale of the buildings, turning geometrical blocks into the scenes of bravery and art. With the prodding of these visionaries, New Yorkers came to view the towers not as eyesores but as objects of marvel and even affection. For a maligned architect like Yamasaki, there could hardly be a more gratifying outcome.