Skyline Timeline: Using Image to Explain the Historical Impact of the World Trade Center Tragedy

On September 10th, 2001, The World Trade Center was a seven building complex in New York Cities’ Financial District, anchored by two 110 foot square steel towers on a 16 acre urban Superblock.  Designed by American architect Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1972, the Twin Towers made an immediate and almost unequivocal mark on the New York skyline.

Manhattan, like many skylines across America, hadn’t changed much since the 1920s. Factors like economic depression, World Wars, and the dramatic shift from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s had put a major hault on building in urban areas. As towers of steel and glass rose to take over the overall elevations of cities all accross the nation, skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building began to look like poorly-aged grandparents. This was the beginning of the era of the Supertall Building, where the race for the loftiest is sometimes determined only by one or two feet, or a radio tower. Things were changing in a big way, with really, really big buildings.

1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973.  Image via Feedreader.
1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973. Image via Feedreader.

Great skylines are like logos for the cities that they serve. Desplayed as a silhouette, the skylines of New York, Seattle, and Chicago look more like great fonts than elevations of urban areas. We are excited by them, particularly when we come from places that lack architectural verticality. Visiting cities in person, there is nothing like heading Downtown and seeing a wall of tall buildings before you; first defined by only a few jagged shapes, and then becoming a busy puzzle of stone, brick, iron, glass and steel. A city skyline stirs the imagination. It represents hope, possibility, and success. It doesn’t matter if you’ve left your home swamp in Wisconsin for a vacation or perminantly. The thrill is the same. You’ve made it here! So you can make it anywhere! It’s up to you, New York, New York!

The World Trade Center was Modernism to a tee. An emphasis on straight lines, shining aluminum alloy on the facade and a nod to Gothic Architecture in the presence of the three pronged forms that rose from the street level, easing the hard lines above. To those that romanticized The Big Apple, the towers of the World Trade Center became the most salient representative of the lightning fast pace of city life, the powerful company and corporation, and the sheer dominance of something made by man being that impossibly tall. Buildings like this can easily command your attention, creating that slack-jawed, bug-eyed effect that Supertalls have on the person looking up at them.

Kermit the Frog, looking up at the World Trade Center Towers in the 'Muppets Take Manhattan'
Kermit the Frog, experiencing architecture in ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’

A visit to the World Trade Center was a part of the standard tourist tour of New York. Visit the statue of Liberty and ponder the importance of our freedom (or perhaps just jam out on how Peter Venkman was a genius for thinking to use Lady Liberty to defeat Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II.) Check out Rockefeller Center and marvel at how it looks bigger on TV. Bathe in the wattage of Times Square. Try and find the Central Perk. Perhaps dine at a Hard Rock Cafe? The World Trade Center became the most ubiquitous buildings in New York, and the image of the Twin Towers taking command over the skyline seemed to come to represent something greater within popular culture, more so than any other American Building during its lifetime.

Buildings make a great garnish.
Buildings make a great garnish.

The deplorable events of September 11th don't need to be rehashed here, but there was a sudden and viceral public reaction to each and every element that was contributing, or thought to be contributing. Islam was a threat. Airports were a threat. Tall buildings were a threat. And now the World Trade Center was gone, along with the lives of thousands of innocent people at the hands of a scary new household word: Terrorism.

Those Al-Qaeda jerks made their point. There was a sudden change to the most famous and important skyline in the world. The effect was visual and tangable. The World Trade Center immediately became a burdened American image. It was cut from movies and VHS covers. It represented our naivete in thinking that we were the center of the universe, and it had to be removed from existance. The Pre-September 11th skyline of New York became difficult to digest and shameful to view. Post-9/11, the absence of such a substantial piece of the dense fabric of place; both in New York and across the country, became a visual representation for the tangable emptyness that was felt everywhere. The World Trade Center had been reduced to a graveyard of rubble and twisted steel surrounded by dust and smoke. And then when the air cleared, this happened:

And this:

And then this:

The image of the Pre-September 11th World Trade Center became a potent symbol of Americana, screenprinted on t-shirts and floated over images of the American flag. The twin towers were no longer the object of Kermit the Frog’s gaze, or Carrie Bradshaw’s wanton urban optimism. They were like two muscled arms, with two clenched fists, poised defensively in front of America’s face, ready to fight.

No building that tall had ever failed before, let alone by human hands. A piece of architecture had been used as a weapon of mass destruction against American ideals. Well-designed buildings shelter us, they make us think, they inspire us. But immediately after 9/11, anything tall, significant, historic or influential in the United States was considered a potential target, leaving people all over the country looking up and thinking that every architectural landmark was a potential loaded gun. What if the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles was hijacked? What if the Sears Tower in Chicago was hijacked? The Rennissance Building in Detroit? The Bank of America Plaza in Dallas? The Palazzo in Las Vegas?

Security measures at observation decks and revolving restaurants were tightned. Architectural Engineers began planning Supertalls not to withstand changes in temperature or wind resistance, but to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. Fireproofing standards within stairwells and elevators were thrown out and completely reworked to preserve human life against floor space. At the former site of the Twin Towers, this challenge was amplified by the need for any new structure to carry the tremendous weight of what happened through supurb, world-class design.

One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower, is slated to open sometime in 2014. Perhaps the message of building on the site where a horrible American tragedy took place will be best articulated in the symbolic 1,776 feet of the 104 story tower, or the mangled artifacts in the museum. Put simply, the clearest message is the fact that people will continue to do exactly what they did at this site on September 10th, 2001; work in an office in Lower Manhattan and be American as fuck.

We not only began to think about seeing tall buildings differently, we began to design them differently. But what do we do with the past? From architectural fragments to firetrucks, important physical artifacts have been preserved. Ideas as far as how to commemorate tragic events in history have been evolving and improving for decades, and the World Trade Center is histories’ newest and most important challenge.

World Trade Center souvenier coffee cups, pressed pennies with an embossed image of the Twin Towers, Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Yamasaki renderings, Architectural Digest images of the gleaming lobby in 1973; they all tell a story of a past that was very real, and very abruptly interrupted by a heartbreaking event. This material, the pre 9-11 skyline view and all of the ephemera has a significant role in documenting September 11th in a way that is holistic, teachable and tangable. History is a conversation over time, and and twelve years later, this conversation is beginning. So what will we say?

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