Symbols of dignity and humanity, long before 9/11
For the vast majority of people, images of the World Trade Centre in New York, and in particular its destruction, are permanently etched into their psyche.
While we understand a great deal about why the towers collapsed structurally, and the political motivations behind the attack, curiously very little is known about their architect and architecture.
So who was the architect of New York’s World Trade Centre, and what did his building represent at the time it was built?
Minoru Yamasaki was a second generation Japanese American, born in 1912 in Seattle to Japanese parents. The family moved to Washington DC where Minoru grew up and studied architecture at the University of Washington. He relocated to New York where he enrolled in a Master of Architecture at New York University, before beginning professional practice.
He worked in New York for the firm that designed the Empire State Building, and later relocated to Detroit, where he set up a partnership.
His first significant project was the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing in St Louis, which consisted of a series of thirty three parallel concrete slabs blocks in the planning championed by the German Modernist Hillbershiemer.
It was never fully occupied and a series of social problems led to its decay, with buildings being gradually boarded up. Pruitt-Igoe was dramatically demolished “on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)” in what the architecture critic Charles Jencks has famously quoted as the date of the death of Modern Architecture. Indeed it came to symbolise for many all that was wrong with Modern architecture.
In 1961 Yamasaki left the partnership and set up in his own practice. In 1965 he received the commission to design the World Trade Centre in New York from the New York Port Authority.
He was selected ahead of some of his better known contemporaries such as IM Pei, Phillip Johnson, and Walter Gropius. The design began in 1965, and evolved through numerous iterations. Construction commenced in 1972, with the first building completed in 1976.
The design was resolutely abstract, consisting of two perfect squares in plan, offset from each other across a plaza. At 110 storeys they were the worlds tallest buildings from 1972-1974, although they held the title of the buildings with the most storeys until 2001.
Their design was based on the structural principle of a ‘braced tube’, whereby the lateral stability (stiffness) of the buildings was achieved from the external structural tube, rather than the internal core as is most frequently the case in Australia, which may have prevented their collapse. This external structure was expressed by Yamasaki as a series of closely spaced vertical columns, never more that 18 inches apart. This has in part been attributed to Yamasaki’s ironic fear of heights, and his consequent wish to give occupants a feeling of security.
The fine vertical structural fins and the curved transfer at the base give the building a modern gothic appearance that was associated with many of the Yamasaki’s designs, as well as those of his contemporaries including Edward Durrell Stone, architect of the original Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The World Trade Centre was, like Pruitt-Igoe, a form of urban renewal involving the consolidation of several city blocks to create a ‘superblock’. The design consisted of twin 110 storey towers set in an open plaza, with several smaller surrounding buildings.
This form of modernist urban renewal was strongly rallied against at the time. New York based Jane Jacobs was a leading critic and in 1961 wrote the seminal text “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which was a critique of modernist planning policies and urban renewal, in which she expounded four principles for good urban development.
In summary they were mixed-use, short blocks, buildings of various age and repair, and density. She advocated that “frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the intricate fabric of cross use that they permit among the users of a city neighbourhood”, which could not be in stronger contrast to the as yet unbuilt World Trade Centre design which created a large open plaza raised above the surrounding city fabric, surrounded by similarly designed buildings.
Yamasaki and his contemporaries are often identified with the architectural style known as Late Modernism. This label was applied to architects who operated post World War II after the heroic period of Modern Architecture and the International Style. They used the images, ideas and motifs of modernism without its philosophical and intellectual underpinnings. Charles Jencks described Late Modernism as “tak(ing) the ideas and forms of the Modern Movement to an extreme, exaggerating the structure and technological image of the building.”
The design of the World Trade Centre was heavily criticised at the time by among others the well known historian and critic Lewis Mumford, author of “The City in History”, who called them “just glass and metal filing cabinets”, and denounced them as another “example of gigantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.”
On approaching the World Trade Centres, the soaring verticals and absence of scale made it impossible to tell if they were 30, 50, or 110 storeys. The design was completely devoid of any reference to human scale, as was typical of the Late Modernists. This inhumanity of typical of Late Modernism would lead to one of the most complete reassessments of architecture in the twentieth century, rekindling an interest in historic forms and decorative design, known as Post Modernism.
Ironically for a building that lacks human scale and reference Yamasaki said “The World Trade Centre should because of its importance become a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation his ability to find greatness.”
Most ironic of all Yamasaki said “World Trade means world peace!”. Yamasaki died in 1986 of stomach cancer and thus was spared seeing his iconic buildings destroyed.
Philip Vivian is an architect and urban designer. A Director of Bates Smart, his buildings have received numerous awards, most recently for the high-rise 420 George Street in Sydney. In Brisbane he has designed a building that pending approval will be Australia’s tallest.
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