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Death of the Skyscrapers

The World Trade Center towers symbolized American capitalism to the world


A ship passes in front of the World Trade Center july 4, 2000 - CHRIS HONDROS GETTY IMAGES
  • Chris Hondros Getty Images
  • A ship passes in front of the World Trade Center july 4, 2000

When the World Trade Center fell yesterday, New York lost an icon -- which is surely why it was targeted in the first place. The 110-story twin towers had dominated the lower Manhattan skyline since their construction between 1972 and 1977. Their stolid, almost banal geometry -- a marvel of engineering more than architecture -- overshadowed earlier filigreed towers whose more romantic styling evoked the very image of "skyline."

Designed by Minoru Yamasaki & Associates and Emery Roth & Sons, the monoliths were constructed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as part of the World Financial Center. This complex had nearly 10 million square feet of space -- seven times the area of the Empire State Building -- that also included a glass-roofed Winter Garden (which recalled London's 19th-century Crystal Palace), two gateway buildings, and, at 3.5 acres, a plaza larger than the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The complex was the commercial component of Battery Park City, a 92-acre development on the southwestern edge of the island, built on excavated earth from the World Trade Center project.

At the time of its construction, the World Trade Center was decried by many New Yorkers as an arrogant intrusion into the jagged splendor of Gotham City. But as Battery Park City evolved in the 1980s, the towers became the visual anchors of a city within the city. Meanwhile, Battery Park's two-mile-long Esplanade offered magnificent views of the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Viewed from this vantagepoint, the towers were the capitalistic complement to these older and more earthbound icons.

The skyscraper has always symbolized New York City to the world. But the tall building, as a type, was also a symbol of our nation. "For a hundred years now, [the skyscraper] has attracted the attention of the world, and has been the distinctively American contribution to architecture that other nations seek to imitate the moment they can afford to do so," the late Brendan Gill wrote in The New Yorker a decade ago. "In those days when most visitors from abroad arrived by sea, skyscrapers were not simply marvels of engineering, called into being by the high cost of land on a tiny island, but also metaphors, leaping up against the horizon like so many beckoning gateposts to the city. To immigrants staring at them from the pit of steerage in early morning light ... they must have seemed an earthly approximation of those pearly gates which in folklore open, after much labor, to paradisiacal rewards."

When planes superseded ships as the means of entry, the skyscraper reached ever higher, seeming to challenge the wings of man. The World Trade Center was the ultimate challenge as the tallest towers of its time. The very name suggests a hyperbolic level of ambition -- no longer content to embody the pride of the Empire State but to lead the trade of the world. It is a bitter irony that these pearly gates are now gone, leveled by two errant ships of the air that these skyscrapers once breathed so confidently.

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