October 1, 2001
by Canadian Architect
By the time you read this, a month will have passed since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC) and the Pentagon. Perhaps we are all saturated with media coverage of the events, but to write about anything else in the immediate wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers seems obscenely trivial. In the case of the WTC towers, the shock and horror of so many casualties was compounded by the real-time, live broadcast of the appalling images and the tragic events that culminated in both towers crumbling into dust. At 110 storeys and 415 metres the world’s tallest buildings when completed in 1970 and 1973–since surpassed by the Sears Tower in Chicago (1974) and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (1998)–the Twin Towers, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, had come to symbolize the power and prestige of American corporate and financial culture. Their selection as targets of terror and their rapid collapse–the first tower coming down a scant hour after the initial impact–served as a chilling reminder of how great power and great vulnerability are often two sides of the same coin.
Former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable was quick to dismiss the architectural merits of the Twin Towers, describing the buildings as “monumentally average” and their style as “General Motors Gothic”–an impoverished version of the visionary 1930s skyscrapers of Raymond Hood. But the WTC buildings were significant for their sheer size if not their design, and it was this that made them such powerful symbols on the New York skyline and in the international consciousness. The towers’ great height and the vertical emphasis of their mullion detailing created the illusion of slenderness, but their city block-wide girth was graphically illustrated when each tower swallowed whole the full wing span of a large jetliner, with room to spare.
Photographs of the post-disaster rescue efforts show the still-standing first few storeys of one tower, its aluminum ogive arches looking eerily like the smouldering remains of a ruined cathedral. These images bring to mind Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by a Luftwaffe attack on November 14, 1940. Talk of reconstruction at the WTC site in the days following the towers’ collapse also recalls how the decision to rebuild the cathedral was made on the morning after its destruction. Coventry’s Dean, John Irvine, notes that “Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Dick Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred. This has led to the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.”
The new cathedral was the subject of a design competition won by Sir Basil Spence; the ruins of the original remain hallowed ground. In the aftermath of last month’s tragedy, Dean Irvine’s words about how another community responded to an act of destruction more than half a century and an ocean away may provide some comfort: “To walk from the ruins of the old Cathedral into the splendour of the new is to walk from Good Friday to Easter, from the ravages of human self-destruction to the glorious hope of resurrection. Your heart is filled, your spirit is renewed and you feel that there is hope for the world.” Marco Polo