When the World Trade Center was inaugurated in the dark and decadent 1970s, Ada Louise Huxtable slated Minoru Yamasaki’s overripe and formally almost heretical International Style as ‘General Motors Gothic’, a kind of relic from the days when New York was still the city of superlatives. When New York went bankrupt in 1976, the twin towers were enlisted for the climactic scenes of Dino Delaurentiis’s King Kong remake. They were morphed into another film set for Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s dance sequences in The Wiz, the disco sequel of The Wizard of Oz. In the 1980s, the ensemble was progressively masked by Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center pastiche. As an attempt to visually hide the unloved implant on the Hudson, Pelli’s reparation on behalf of urban design was as naive as Reaganomics.
Conceived on the scale of the New York sky, this alien body transgressed the basic rules of Manhattan. The World Trade Center vacillated between the hybrid density of the ‘Culture of Congestion’ and the urban abstraction of the late-modernist plaza, a concept which harked back to Walter K. Harrison and Mies van der Rohe. Rising like blind end-posts for Manhattan Island, the Twin Towers cast their shadows over the Financial District. They were not the prestigious headquarters of a single company, but the outcome of an attempt by the landowner (the Port Authority) to squeeze the maximum possible advantage out of one super-block. However, this fascinating ‘zero-identity’ made it possible to read the twin towers, more than any other Manhattan skyscrapers, as vertical megastructure – a neutral vessel housing thousands of different tenants. It was no coincidence that Andy Warhol chose to hold his interview with the anaemic Catherine Deneuve on the 110th floor of the northern tower, in that insipid luxury restaurant called ‘Windows on the World’.
Ironically, the erasure of the centre of an abstract power serves to localize it in one specific place. September 11, 2001 was not the first time Yamasaki’s name was linked to such a pivotal point in history. The memorable day in 1973 when Yamasaki’s sociopolitically ‘unmanageable’ Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis was blown up, yielded its own cinematographic imagery. Later, the scene of the collapsing Zeilenbau was labelled a critical departure point for the morphological counter-strategies of postmodernism. Pruitt-Igoe was architecture’s definitive capitulation as the bulwark of all good intentions, the neighbourhood’s blasting incurring humility and a new iconography. The act was just as ‘pure’ as the work of the pilots in Manhattan.
The implosion has Virilian dimensions; the attempt to give a meaningful response to the incomprehensible fails just as totally by architectural means as by military ones. The inexorably brutal nature of this act of destruction calls for reflections which must clearly be of a wider scope than physical reconstruction, as immediately promised by Mayor Giuliani. New York developer tycoons, but also form-destroyers of the likes of Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi are similarly demanding early rebuilding of the World Trade Center, its programme enhanced by a memorial. Urban patriotism? Apparently, belief in architectural symbols can be taken for granted again.
André Bideau is editor of the Swiss magazine Werk, Bauen+Wohnen