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It's a Small World, After All

Nicholas Olsberg reflects on the history of the now rehabilitated Ground Zero site through the story of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center

The World Trade Center − like Rockefeller Center and the United Nations headquarters before it − was the brainchild of a Rockefeller. The idea seems to have emerged some time in 1961, when David Rockefeller of the Chase Bank put forward the notion of a public initiative to reclaim a low-rent commercial sector on Lower Manhattan’s decaying harbour-front with a massive complex of trading offices, hotels, meeting places, exhibition halls, and customs services that might stimulate world trade, advance the fortunes of the region’s ports (including the world’s first intermodal container transfer facility in Newark), and reinforce the role of Manhattan as a centre of international business.

This was a geopolitical project from the start. The World Trade Center was conceived in the year Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, as he and Khrushchev made a triumphant world tour, and as members of Tito, Nasser, Sukarno and Nehru’s non-aligned movement formed their first alliance in Belgrade. Its plan developed in the face of two surging common markets for goods in Europe, a newly booming Japanese export industry, and startling growth in the sale of goods from Comecon countries to the developing world. Indeed − as the Soviet bloc’s extravagant contributions to the international trade fairs of 1961-62 in Sydney, Toronto, Tokyo showed − there seemed for this short moment to be a threat of genuine economic competition from Moscow, not only for the soul and pockets of newly independent states but among the dominions whose preferential ties to Britain and France had been dissolved by the European trade zones. To this 1962’s ‘Kennedy Round’ of mutual reductions in tariffs were a direct response, as were Kennedy’s calls to spur buying power at home by a dramatic reduction in federal income tax, which came in the same week of January 1963 that the first outlines of the World Trade Center plan became public.

As the Kennedy initiatives suggested, a much grander idea was then in play: that ‘peace’ − both in its nobler sense and as shorthand for the supremacy of one or other of the Cold War powers − would be assured not by victory in an arms race but through widening the prosperity and interdependence that came through trade. This was a notion that, along with the cultural internationalism that produced ‘UN Days’ and ‘International Fairs’ at every high school in the nation and that would inflect every feature of New York’s 1964 World’s Fair, had taken root in the late 1950s. As the 8c US stamp from 1959 displays it represented something very close to a national policy. ‘It’s a Small, Small World,’ sang the host of animatronic children from all nations that lined Disney’s boat ride at the World’s Fair, serenading, among others, the members of the UN General Assembly who met that year in extraordinary session in the Fair’s US Pavilion.


A design concept for Disney’s ride ‘It’s a Small World’, the vivid scenography of which was imagined by Mary Blair

Everything about the presentation of the World Trade Center designs, as they were first offered in January 1964, built on this cultural and political current, in a world map of trade routes that graced its opening pages, in the language in which its architect Minoru Yamasaki described it, and above all in the brilliant visual salesmanship with which the delineator Carlos Diniz portrayed it. Diniz’s drawings of the lower level facades and galleries − with their vaulted ceilings, pierced screens and arabesques − dwelt forcefully on Yamasaki’s curious efforts to dress a modern construction system in a fusion of idioms from the mosques of the Arab world and the Taj Mahal, to the cloisters of the Gothic north and the tracery of a Venetian palace. At the same time he peopled its lobbies and plaza with the costumes and ceremonies of many nations. The combined result was no less vivid a rendition of a possible ‘small world’, in which building and social cultures from everywhere converged, than Mary Blair’s great scenography for Disney at the World’s Fair a few months later.

‘World trade means world peace and consequently the World Trade Center … is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace,’ said Yamasaki in introducing it, ‘a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.’ Yamasaki was 49 at the time of the Port Authority commission. He had been born into the Japanese-American community of Seattle, and readily recalled the fierce racial repression and cultural indignity that curtailed his family’s opportunities and coloured all his experience of childhood. He seemed to have managed the transition into a larger world of his own through a prodigious talent in mathematics, which gained him admittance to the architecture school at the University of Washington, and through the crushing labour of five summers in the fish canneries, which allowed him to pay for it.


Carlos Diniz’s depiction of Chinese New Year celebrations in the World Trade Center Plaza promoted it as a small world in which cultures would converge

He fled to New York as soon as he could, finding work successively with the skyscraper masters Shreve, Lamb and Harmon (who bravely protected Yamasaki and his family from wartime internment), Raymond Hood, and Wallace Harrison, before moving to Detroit as the War ended to become chief designer for Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, building his reputation there on a modern addition and plaza for the Federal Reserve. In 1951 he broke away with two partners to work on the St Louis Airport. From this first independent work, adapting the idea of barrel vaults to concrete and based on a study of the lofty concourse of Grand Central Station, Yamasaki began in all his public buildings to fuse iconic and often exotic architectural elements from the past with the techniques and materials of the future, culminating in 1962 with a vast homage to the monuments of Iran in his Pahlavi University campus designs and the merging of those ideas with Gothic tracery in his Science Center for Seattle’s World’s Fair.

The popular response to that overwrought ‘pleasure dome of the Space Age’ was no less enthusiastic than that of the trustees and students who welcomed his bright-faced, colonnaded new buildings at Detroit’s gritty Wayne State University with a standing ovation. By the time of the World Trade Center commission, Yamasaki stood alongside Edward Durell Stone as the signal representatives of a much-touted and newly ‘humane’ approach to Modernism, in which Functionalism was seen to accommodate what Yamasaki himself called ‘the need for ornamentation and texture in our times’. The AIA handed out the requisite honours and awards, but most of the architectural world was not impressed. Vincent Scully called the glass courtyard at Wayne State ‘a twittering aviary’. IM Pei saw the Seattle pavilion as ‘mere artistic caprice … a mass-produced facade in the Gothic idiom but without the Gothic logic’. Gordon Bunshaft agreed with the need to break away from the glass box, but referred to Yamasaki’s recent solutions as those of ‘nothing but a decorator’. And Philip Johnson astutely noted that his facades defied the need to demonstrate structure: ‘Just where you want strength,’ he said, ‘it isn’t there.’ Most damning of all was the comparison to Potemkin villages, in which the dressing gave no clues as to the body behind it.


Rarely drawn from afar due to the worry of portraying a lack of human scale, Diniz shows the towers as sculpture in the landscape, seperated by a haunting void

All these critiques were presented in the cover feature of Time that introduced the architect’s first ideas for this modern colossus. Yamasaki readily and rather remarkably apologised for some haste and mis-steps, but stuck to his ideological guns. Function, economy and order, he said, were no longer enough. ‘My premise is that delight and reflection are ingredients which must be added. Unquestionably there is delight in our best new buildings, but this delight is in structural clarity, in proportion, and in elegant details and materials, and these characteristics offer but a portion of the delight which we have experienced in the buildings of the past. Sunlight and shadow, form, ornament, the element of surprise are little-explored − the experience of moving from a barren street through a narrow opening in a high wall to find a quiet court with a lovely garden and still water; or to tiptoe through the mystery and dimness of a Buddhist temple and come upon a court of raked white gravel dazzling in the sunlight; or to walk a narrow street in Rome and suddenly face an open square with graceful splashing fountains.’ Above all he claimed to be seeking something ‘gentle, friendly’ and uninfected by the sense of distancing and domination that modern monuments evoked. At Chandigarh, he said, ‘I had the feeling of a great pagan temple, where man must enter on his knees. A building should not awe but embrace man. Instead of overwhelming grandeur in architecture, we should have gentility. And we should have the wish mentally and physically to touch our buildings.’

The design proposed two square sheer towers at 110 storeys on one corner of the site, with a set of lower structures of varied height forming a concourse and baffle. The width of the towers presented two now sadly famous engineering problems: accepting wind force and avoiding a mass of interior supports. The structural system developed by the engineers (Skilling, Helle, Christiansen and Robinson) was based on a braced tubular cantilever, in which each wall became a rigid truss joined at the corners. These walls Yamasaki − famously subject to vertigo − covered in glass dressed with continuous narrow window frames that opened into a set of ogeed arches toward the ground. Unease about the ‘human scale’ of the Center’s great height meant that most of the drawings Diniz submitted looking downward were omitted from the presentation, although in a view from the highest floors he carefully showed the ‘humanising’ effect of the narrow windows in diminishing the impact of the vertiginous.

As illustrator, Carlos Diniz was central to overcoming wariness about the project, criticised not only for its overweening scale but for the very idea that a government agency should compete, at that scale, in the highly competitive commercial market for office leases. Diniz, from a Brazilian family in Arizona, was a product of Los Angeles’ Art Center College and of its unique specialisation in automobile design. But he had been ‘possessed’ by drawing since childhood and fell in love with architecture during military service in Venice, whose cityscapes remained a lifelong passion. He spent five years in the design and graphics teams of Victor Gruen Associates before setting up his own studio in 1957, modelling its operations on a design office but devoting its practice entirely to architectural illustration and graphics.

Over the next 40 years, while introducing endlessly inventive new approaches to representation, he remained faithful not only to Wright and Le Corbusier as his modern architects of reference, but above all to the early and overwhelming influence of Gordon Cullen and the pages of The Architectural Review, not simply rendering the streets and plazas of the projects on his books but − most notably in his work with the Rouse company and for Canary Wharf, King’s Cross and County Hall in London − actively developing the ground-level townscapes around them. As a result he worked − sometimes with a finesse unmatched by his clients − on the same boundary between machine aesthetics and traditional patterns of city-making as Yamasaki, representing all the mega-projects in which that architect was involved, from Pahlavi University in Shiraz to the giant new retail, office and civic centres of southern California, whose massing, galleries and concourses were all essential precursors to the World Trade Center design.

View of Plaza

Diniz sought to portray the plaza - a space Ada Louise Huxtable attacked as ‘tarted up’ - as a haven for urban life

Scrupulous attention was paid from the start to the World Trade Center’s public space, both in the design itself and in Diniz’s strategy of promotion, especially for the constantly changing configurations of the open plaza and the galleries and canopied walks surrounding it. An early version, in which the lower buildings formed a continuous band around a closed concourse, speaks both to a stated desire to reintroduce the urban life that had been lost by the demolition of the streets on Radio Row and to the unstated fact that New Yorkers then lived in terror of their city’s parks and squares. Another shows the plaza opening to the waterfront, and all show the articulation of the lower facade in many patterns. By the time the design was concluded, the galleries, canopies and grille had settled into something simpler, with the concourse more closed and anchored to its focal point, and the five ancillary structures largely dispersed. A kind of Piero’s head by Fritz Koenig above a fountain, a pair of pyramids at the entry, a drum of water, and a spiral of low walls and markers were added to the plaza design during construction of the towers. Together they recalled in their universalism the higher purpose Yamasaki saw in the project, in their serenity his paean to the Taj, whose wall he describes as sheltering an oasis of ‘peace and silence’, and in their off-centre patterns his passion for mathematics and for Moorish geometry. As a centering space from which to watch the rainbows of light washing the towers, this concourse came closer than anything else in the project to Yamasaki’s call for mystery, reflection and surprise.

The World Trade Center was a long time coming. Conceived in 1961, the first tower was inaugurated in April 1973 and by the time its primary ancillary buildings were reaching completion in 1979, the whole venture had gone sour. Not only had building costs risen at an exponential rate but market projections failed in the wake of the oil crisis, and the towers were essentially privatised in 1979 in an effort to render it less burdensome. Meanwhile its original role as an agent of peace through commerce, both symbolic and instrumental, had been long forgotten in a climate transformed by the war in Indochina and devastated by urban rebellions in which hundreds died and entire neighbourhoods in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, Newark and Baltimore burned to the ground. Both its scale and its degree of ornament also seemed outmoded. The press greeted it as a ‘dinosaur,’ the ‘Towers of Mammon,’ and the ‘Colossus that Nobody Seems to Love’, with Ada Louise Huxtable famously reviewing it the day after its inauguration in the following words: ‘The towers are pure technology, the lobbies are pure schmaltz, and the impact on New York … is pure speculation … The module is so small, and the 22-inch-wide windows so narrow, that one of the miraculous benefits of the tall building, the panoramic view out, is destroyed … The grill-like metal facade strips are curiously without scale. They taper into the more widely spaced columns of “Gothic trees” at the lower stories, a detail that does not express structure so much as tart it up. The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster. It is General Motors Gothic.’

The popular response was less acid, but as you watched the towers slowly rise, the main offence seemed to lie not in their details but in their solemn and unbalancing distortion of the rising, various and jagged skyline at the tip of the island that had served two generations − in life, in film and in photography − as the symbol of a great city and a land of promise beyond it. Critics had in fact missed the whole point. For throughout the long and patiently observed gestation of design and construction − in which the romantic excess of vaults and arches was largely tamed − the fundamentals had been so settled as to seem perhaps inevitable and unworthy of comment. Yet, while Yamasaki rejected a cluster of standard 30-50 storey towers as being ‘too much like a housing project’, and the construction of a mile-high building as too remote from the ‘human scale’, absolutely nothing in the programme required a solution in which two identical towers would rise close together on a small corner of the site near the wide river. And while much fuss was made of their height, what was really startling was the sheer bulk and simplicity of great rectangular glass and metal columns, set off the grid and utterly contradicting (as Diniz portrayed in an exploded aerial view) the complicated and miscellaneous masonry landscape beneath. Twins in one sense, they were united in another by a haunting void which from almost any viewpoint showed nothing but the sky between.

As Diniz’s drawings also show, the towers, from the middle distances at which they were nearly always seen, were very rarely two buildings in the streetscape, but almost always glimpsed in part. Nothing else in the whole cityscape came into view so often, from so far away, or in so many unexpected, vague, but absolutely recognisable ways: exactly the reflective, mysterious and surprising presence that their architect had called for, massive, solid and never quite there. Add to this the signal symbolic sense of a magnificent but easily assembled structure that the towers represented to such children of Lego, Meccano and Super City as Douglas Coupland (who celebrated them in a wonderfully tameable model of 1999, where the scale was only just but quite perfectly within reach of hands that could build them), and they could stand as the embodiment of a democratic, ownable, unaesthetic, even neutral future world. Unlike remote Brasilía, Albany’s Empire State Plaza, or Los Angeles’ Century City, some echo of this universal super city rose in the near distance at the end of nearly every street canyon in the bottom third of Manhattan. As a result, those who knew New York at all in the years the towers stood there came to love as backdrop what they might not admire as foreground, and, while greatly grieving the human loss that came with their destruction, still, daily and hourly, mourn that visual memory too.


Douglas Coupland alongside his Lego World Trade Center

While Yamasaki’s towers gradually succeeded as sculpture in the landscape, both their commercial and social purpose seemed to languish. The real success story lay next door at Olympia and York’s World Financial Center and Battery Park City, built on landfill from the World Trade Center excavation and largely designed by Cesar Pelli. These aggressively generic historicist projects, their towering interior columns and winter gardens evoking Victorian seaside resorts and Milan’s gallerias, added another 8 million square feet of office space, in a markedly more accessible form, and incorporated the residential, leisure, cultural and retail services that had been gradually minimised at the World Trade Center as its proprietors gradually re-focused the project to maximise rentable office space. With its concourse faltering and its vision of a bustling exchange between nations buried beneath a fortress of corporate financial offices, there did, however, come a strange, sad moment for the World Trade Center in which Yamasaki’s multinational dream and his plea for the democratic gentility it represented came alive.

In the weeks following its destruction, the New York Times carried short obituaries, each of equal length, of every one of the near three thousand who perished there − from kitchen staff from Guatemala to insurance executives from London. Day by day we read this little dictionary of creative and hopeful lives, carried from everywhere to the same point in Manhattan that had been the first sight of refuge for a century, recognising what lay beneath the propaganda to start with, that this is indeed a small world, after all.

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