In Memoriam (November 01, 2001)

As architects, we owe a debt to those who operate the buildings we initiate. We will remember the operating crew of the World Trade Center who stayed behind to help evacuate the building. For us, they help measure the magnitude of the event in human terms.

Rarely has a human tragedy been so entwined with architecture. The magnitude of the event for architects working today is evident in these pages. For some of us, however, images on the television screen translated immediately to the drawings on our boards 30 years ago at ARCOP Associates in Montreal. Place Bonaventure had recently cemented ARCOP’s reputation for organizing “the underground city” as an integral part of the Metro system, and the firm was hired to develop the subterranean levels of the World Trade Center–a project so large that it has taken me years of practice to comprehend its scale.

As individual stories of personal tragedy have elucidated the poignancy of human loss, perhaps through stories of the towers’ early history–stories previously told around the drafting table–we can help define the event’s architectural implications. On September 11, I thought I would stop telling these stories, but for some listeners they seem to help. My memories include a huge restaurant cafeteria in continuous operation, its corridors wide enough for forklifts to pass, bringing food to the serving counters, its ceiling space packed with electric bus trays modified to carry dozens of conduits for pop and beer. Huge mechanical equipment was squeezed in above corridor ceilings. Loading docks were constantly supplied with food to meet the lunch hour rush. Subway tunnels were exposed by the excavation and shuddered as the trains passed through. One tunnel had to be relocated to accommodate a structural bearing point. By the time the tunnel had been moved, the steel frame had reached the 40th floor. The pier was poured and a seven-storey column was inserted, packed in ice, expanding as it thawed to bear its structural load. It was a building with such immense servicing requirements that inches mattered and details were precise.

For architects, I think, buildings we have drawn in the past become abstractions; we visit them occasionally, but rarely watch over their operation. Largeness too is an abstraction, until image, scale, and number instantaneously coincide. The magnitude of the World Trade Center was reflected in the magnitude of its destruction. As stories of the building are recast in the past tense, they start to become the stuff of legend and tradition. Many of its stories remain to be told.

Ted Cavanagh is a Professor at the Dalhousie University School of Architecture in Halifax.