The Towers We Know, the Towers We Don't
There are endless ways of looking at 9/11. With City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center, James Glanz and Eric Lipton have taken one of the most mundane: a history of the buildings themselves. It may seem like a sterile topic, but the political complexities of assembling the support for the immense office complex, the design complications of lifting that structure higher than any other and most importantly the indelible mark of tragedy make City in the Sky a riveting and important history.
Expanding their successful New York Times Magazine article, the authors begin with the roots of the World Trade Center in the Rockefeller family’s vision and New York City’s never changing ambition for preeminence. Even aided by a governor, the Rockefellers themselves ould never have completed the urban transformation. It took an agency with the power to clear an area of lower Manhattan surrounding Radio Row and the chutzpah to cloak it all as a public endeavor. It took an agency with money, connections and little accountability. It took the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey. In a book that is the history of a building, this agency almost becomes its own character.
The architect, Minoru Yamasaki, at first appeared to be an odd choice for such a high-profile project. None of his past designs even approached the budget or stature of the World Trade Center. In fact, Yamasaki showed his office workers the invitation to apply and reminded them to be careful with all correspondence lest they too embarrass themselves with extra zeroes on the ends of their numbers. His obscurity made him more appealing to the Port Authority, which feared big name architects with equally large egos and demands.
In City in the Sky Yamasaki’s design struggles are conflicts of both art and engineering. A Japanese-American raised on the original skid row, Yamasaki burdened himself with an impossible assignment. The Port Authority demanded 10 million square feet of office space, which could only be obtained by going up. Also, they ordered Yamasaki to make it the “tallest ever” for the publicity. He had to create the largest buildings in history, but did not want them to be overbearing or ornate. He wanted a place of spiritual, not just physical, elevation. But what amount of effort and creativity could transform 220 floors of empty offices into structures of simplicity and peace?
The WTC opened to much criticism and few tenants. The pinstriped rectangles were called “so plain in their design that… they could have been the shipping boxes for the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.” Engineers had conducted secret tests to determine the amount of sway the mind could tolerate undisturbed. Still, many refused to work in the WTC. Others quit when they could not adjust to the height or got freaked out by water in the toilets swishing back and forth as the buildings moved. Lawrence Wein, the owner of the Empire State Building, suggested in a full page ad that the giant buildings could be hit by an errant plane. He didn’t mention that his own building had suffered from just such an accident, but he did include an eerie photograph.
After describing the initial commercial failings of the WTC, City in the Sky skims ahead through the next few years. As the subtitle suggests, the book focuses mainly on the long, difficult construction and then the quick, horrific destruction. The authors briefly cover the gradual acceptance of the towers as “an essential piece of the city’s fabric” and the eventual financial success, which allowed the owners to abandon the always specious idea that the WTC served the public interest. “[T]he words that had nearly stopped the World Trade Center—public purpose—would have sounded, by the 1980s, like something from a buried epoch sprinkled with fossils.”
Several incidents regarding fire safety and terrorism have more ominous reverberations. A disgruntled employee-turned-arsonist demonstrated the towers’ vulnerability to fire. A terrorism expert hired by the WTC reported that the site was both a likely and easy target. The 1993 bombing revealed both the strength of the great towers and the difficulty in evacuating the enormous workforce. The improvements made in the wake of these events would become, like seemingly small elements of the WTC design, matters of life and death on September 11th.
Glanz and Lipton prod through the wreckage without reducing the terrorist attacks to some sort of ghoulish display of physics. The authors reconstruct the events within the WTC complex with testimonies from those who survived and eyewitness accounts from the phone conversations of those who did not. By detailing the physical repercussions of the initial attacks, from the heat and smoke to the stairwells clogged with sheetrock, City in the Sky manages to recreate the visceral horror of that day. Many readers will be unable to put the book down during this section, while others will certainly need to turn away. For many occupants, life and death became a matter of where you were, which way you went and the sometimes unintended consequences of design.
The authors present the structural performance of the towers with a balance of certainty and speculation. For example, the three stairwells in the North Tower were rendered impassable by the plane’s impact. As a result, no one above the 91st floor survived. The reasons for the collapses are less certain. The authors present two theories. According to one hypothesis, the impact blasted away the almost lackadaisical fireproofing of the floor support system. The intense heat of the fire then critically weakened the connection between the exterior walls and the core structure. According to the other theory, the planes destroyed enough of the thicker core columns to collapse the buildings from the inside out. The authors also allow the possibility that by remaining upright as long as they did the buildings performed admirably.
City in the Sky follows the WTC through the draining and difficult rescue and clean-up, all the way to the scrap metal at the Fresh Kills landfill. The WTC was never as beautiful as Yamasaki intended, never as beneficial to the public as the Port Authority claimed. It was called “the first office building of the 21st century,” but it would barely reach those years. It held the title of world’s tallest building for a mere two years. But it is not their enormity or their collection of wealthy tenants, their mark on the skyline or even what some might call their simple elegance that make the towers notable.
For decades Americans will likely encounter various uses of their image. The World Trade Center can mark the fragility of life, the evil of terrorism or yet another loss of innocence. The towers are icons of destruction and pride. They have and will be used as the proverbial bloody shirt, waved to stir up bloodlust. There are, obviously, many more crucial issues surrounding 9/11 but Glanz and Lipton have done a valuable service by providing a history of those buildings that became suddenly important.