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The World Trade Centre: The Tragic Story of New York’s Twin Towers

Today we’re discussing two American and world icons that, though famous and beloved in their life, are now known most for their tragic destruction. The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were once the tallest buildings in the world, standing proudly alongside the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building as the most iconic structures in one of the world’s most beloved cities. They were featured in almost 500 films and television shows during their life, but on September 11th, 2001, they were destroyed in the most destructive and deadly terrorist attack in the world’s history. (Let’s get started).


In 1939, New York City and the United States were charging full-speed out of the Great Depression and into a period of industrial and economic growth that would catapult them into superpower status. The city hosted a World Fair that year, headlined by an attraction called The World Trade Center, which celebrated the idea that world peace could be achieved by increased trade and partnership between countries. The vision was unfocused at the time, but one of the exhibit’s organizers, a man named Winthrop Aldrich, latched onto the proposal. In the years following World War Two, with America now the most potent and well-oiled industrial machine the world had ever seen, Aldrich proposed building a World Trade Center complex to navigate the future of global commerce. However, shortly after his proposal, market research determined that modernizing New York’s ports would impact trade more substantially than his building.

Aldrich died soon thereafter, but the idea stuck with his nephew, a man named David Rockefeller, son of the deceased John D. Rockefeller and heir to his fortune. In the early 1960s, David set out to bring his vision to life by building the complex, thus boosting trade and, perhaps, revitalizing a rundown portion of his hometown. Most of the recent growth in New York had been concentrated in Midtown Manhattan, but David wanted to revive the city’s once-thriving downtown. So, he founded the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association and spearheaded plans to build a 250 million dollar World Trade Center there. But, despite his wealth, Rockefeller’s plan would only work if he could find a public partner to finance and organize his grand project. Thankfully, he found just the partner he needed in the New York-New Jersey Port Authority, a local organization becoming even more powerful than himself.

The Port Authority was established in 1921. It controlled all major infrastructure projects within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty, including the countless bridges, tunnels, and other public projects that serve the greater New York City area. In the early 1960s, when Rockefeller’s plans were finally coming to fruition, they had just finished building the Lincoln Tunnel and Washington Bridge, and they were ready for their next monument. So, they signed onto the project, and, after some deliberation, it was determined that they would build the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.


The first step in the building’s construction was to find an architect, and the Port Authority quickly settled on a Japanese-American designer named Minoru Yamazaki. Yamazaki was schooled in the styles of Japanese ornamentalism, but in recent years had grown fond of stark, severe modernist concrete structures, as seen in his work on the Pruit-Igoe housing project in St. Louis in the 1950s. At the time of his selection, his most notable projects were two airport terminals, one at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and the other at Dhahran International Airport in Saudi Arabia. 

Yamazaki immediately became attached to the idea of building two “twin towers” to accommodate the Port Authority’s requirement that the WTC house 100,000 sq m (over 10 million sq ft) of usable office space. In Yamazaki’s own words, a single building of that size may “lose the human scale.” On January 18th, 1964, Yamazaki revealed his design to the world. It called for two square buildings with 63 meter (208 ft) long sides. The plan included an external skeleton of thin pillars running the building’s entire height, leaving only 18 inches between columns for mostly obstructed view. This reflected Yamazaki’s lifelong fear of heights, though the lack of expansive windows became a common gripe for tenants who wanted sweeping panoramas of the New York skyline. However, while these steel and concrete columns spared Yamazaki from a case of vertigo, they also served a crucial purpose. The pillars connected to a series of thick, hollow tubes, which ownthen attached to the building’s strong steel core, providing essential structural support without taking up floor space within the building.

Despite this concession, Yamazaki’s initial plan to build the structures 80 stories high left the total office space about 10 percent short of the target. So, the plans were adjusted for each tower to include 110 floors, a number that remained unsurpassed until the completion of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. With the added floors, the total usable space reached one-million-two-hundred-forty-thousand square meters (13.4 million sq ft), an area so large that the towers were assigned their own postal code.

One of the main obstacles in building such a tall building was the inclusion of elevators. After all, the taller the building, the more elevators are needed to service it, and elevator shafts take up vast amounts of floor space. Yamazaki tackled this problem by incorporating two large “sky lobbies,” where people could switch from large-capacity express elevators to smaller, local elevators. The sky lobbies were located on the 44th and 78th floors and allowed elevator shafts to simultaneously be used for multiple elevators. While initial estimates assumed the project would require hundreds of lifts, each tower would only need 95 elevators to efficiently shuttle tenants between floors.

Following the release of the design, Yamazaki and his team were met with mixed reviews. It was praised by some as the most modern and striking American implementation of the famed architect Le Corbusier’s modern style, though it also incorporated Yamazaki’s love for European Gothic forms. On the other hand, it was often critiqued as bland and without character, even being called a “massive glass and metal filing cabinet.” 


The first step in building the WTC complex was to clear 65,000 square meters (16 acres) of land for a massive pedestrian-only “superblock.” The site was in a neighborhood with a bustling electronics market known as Radio Row. Shop owners at Radio Row were paid three-thousand dollars for their property regardless of their shops’ profitability and value. Demolition began in 1966. 

world trade center
WTC is under construction by derek rose is licensed under CC-BY

Following demolition was the crucial process of building a solid foundation beneath the landfill. Excavators dug 21 meters (70 feet) down to reach bedrock, where the dirt and rock were replaced with something called slurry, a mixture of water and bentonite. Above this mixture, the workers lowered in a 22-ton, seven-story tall steel cage. The cage was filled in with concrete, creating a single foundation large enough to bear both towers. In excavating the foundation, workers removed almost one million cubic meters of landfill, which was then used to extend the western shore of Manhattan, creating an area that became Battery City Park. 

Within that foundation, each of the twin towers would have a base equaling precisely one square acre, or 4,000 square meters. Above-ground construction work began on the North Tower in August 1968, with the South Tower starting in January ’69. The towers were built with about 74 million dollars worth of steel, a relatively low cost for such massive structures. The towers’ framing and floor truss systems were made primarily of prefabricated pieces, allowing construction to move along quickly. 

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing throughout the entire process. In 1970 tugboat workers went on strike, halting the transport of materials to the building sites. The Port Authority attempted to transport materials via helicopter, but this was a massive failure. The first attempt resulted in the copter dropping its load of steel in the Kill Van Kull tidal strait next to Staten Island. Throughout the project, sixty construction workers were killed in various accidents, including a propane explosion in 1970. 

The first tenants moved into the North Tower on December 15th, 1970, about a week before the tower was topped out. The South Tower was then topped out in July of ’71, with the first tenants moving in the following year. After topping out, construction continued on the buildings’ interiors, which required 3,000 miles of electrical wiring, 40,000 doors, and 43,600 windows. Altogether, the project required more than 10,000 workers to complete. 

Upon its total completion in 1972, the North Tower became the tallest building in the world, a title that it only retained for a couple years before Sears Tower in Chicago passed it up by a few meters. The total height was 417 meters (1,368 ft), with a 110-meter telecommunications antenna on top. The South Tower stood just two meters smaller than its slightly taller twin, at 415 meters.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Twin Towers was in April of 1973, with the project’s total cost reaching 900 million dollars, or about 5.2 billion dollars in modern value. However, the Twin Towers were not the only buildings that made up the World Trade Center. Four low-rise buildings were completed in the later 1970s, and a 47-story structure was completed in the 80s. Altogether, the World Trade Center included seven buildings scattered across the 65,000 square meter superblock.

Open for Business

When it first opened, high rents kept many businesses from moving into the World Trade Center towers, but the government stepped in to subsidize costs, and the building was fully rented out by 1979. About 50,000 people worked throughout the complex on a typical workday, coming from about 500 different renting companies. The towers also received over 140,000 visitors each day, many of whom rode the elevator to the uppermost floor for sweeping city views. At the summit of the South Tower was the Top of the World observation deck, which offered unobstructed views for 80 kilometers (50 miles) in every direction. The North Tower’s top floors housed the Windows on the World restaurant, which, though it was never considered a top culinary destination, capitalized on its location to become the highest-grossing restaurant in the United States in its final year in service. 

Even when full of tenants, the World Trade Center complex still split the opinion of many New Yorkers. Most of the criticism focused on the perceivably dull, boxy exterior, but most focused on the “superblock” on which it resided. The most common complaint was that the complex, which required the destruction of several roads that once ran through the area, messed up Manhattan’s complex traffic flow. Despite the mixed opinions, though, the Twin Towers quickly became one of the most emblematic structures in the iconic city, fitting in comfortably beside the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty as symbols of the American financial and cultural capital.

It became a popular location for high-publicity stunts, like when the French acrobat Phillipe Petit performed a high-wire walk between the skyscrapers in 1974, a feat portrayed in numerous films over the last fifteen years. Speaking of films, the Twin Towers became a favorite establishing shot for directors, as they were used in over 400 films in the decades after their completion. Not only did they symbolize the city they called home, but they came to speak to the stereotypical American grandeur, a country keen on flexing their industrial and economic muscles for the world to see.

Unfortunately, this status also quickly catapulted the towers into a target for catastrophe. Besides a good-sized fire in 1975, the first serious threat came in February 1993, when a Rider truck filled with 680 kg (1500 lbs) of explosives detonated in the underground garage beneath the North Tower. The operation was led by a team of terrorists headed by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who aimed to cause structural damage to collapse the North Tower onto the South Tower. The explosion claimed the lives of six people, with another thousand sustaining injuries. The tower, meanwhile, experienced structural damage, particularly on the below-ground floors. The skyscraper was shut down for a couple of weeks as repairs began, which kicked off a new era in the World Trade Center’s life, as thorough security checks became the norm. The next controversy came in 1998 when a Mafia member named Ralph Guarino organized the heist of a Brinks truck delivery to a gold deposit beneath a WTC building, making off with 2 million dollars until he was arrested by the FBI. 

Despite the disasters, the Twin Towers remained highly profitable, and the Port Authority capitalized on this to privatize the entire WTC complex around the turn of the millennium. After a couple years of dealing, the Silverstein group closed a deal to lease the complex for 99 years at a price of just over 3 billion dollars. The deal closed on July 24th, 2001.

September 11th, 2001

At 8:46 AM on the morning of September 11th, 2001, Islamist terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and flew it directly into the North Tower’s northern facade, striking the structure between the 93rd and 99th floors. The first reactions were confusion, panic, and terror. News channels questioned how the plane got so dramatically off course or if something else going on. Their questions were answered when less than twenty minutes later, at 9:03, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower’s southern facade. Not only did the collisions immediately cause irreversible structural damage, but they also destroyed elevator shafts and stairwells, removing any means of escape for the people trapped above the impact spot.

WTC smoking on 9-11
WTC smoking on 9-11 by Michael Foran is licensed under CC-BY

56 minutes after the impact, the South Tower collapsed. The plane’s impact combined with large fires weakened the steel supports that had held up the skyscraper. The North Tower fell thirty minutes later at 10:28 AM. Along with the Twin Towers, the attack led to the collapse of WTC-7.

2,753 people were killed in the horrendous attack, though the number could have been much higher if not for the heroic efforts of the New York Fire Department and other first responders. 340 of those killed were firefighters, but they bravely saved the lives of over 25,000 people who were able to escape the area before the collapse.

The September 11th terrorist attack was the deadliest non-state attack in the history of mankind. The world has never been the same, and that day will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it across the globe.

In April of 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation launched a competition to find a design for a 9/11 memorial at the original twin towers site. The panel received over 5,000 submissions from 63 countries, eventually selecting a plan by an architect named Michael Arad. 

The design featured twin pools, each one sitting in the footprints of the original Twin Towers, with cascading 10-meter waterfalls descending into a central void. Surrounding the pools are bronze parapets bearing the names of all those killed in the attacks. The pools sit in a large plaza filled with 400 oak trees and a single Callery pear tree, which stood in the shadow of the original towers and miraculously survived the catastrophe. According to the architect, the pools represent “absence made visible,” with the water flowing into a void that can never be filled. 

Contrary to the city’s noisy bustle, the memorial is a somber, reflective place, punctuated only by the sound of water crashing below. The monument has become a uniquely sacred and reverent place in New York, a constant reminder of the Twin Towers that once stood proudly above the city.

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