The Seattle architect responsible for both the iconic PacSci arches and the Twin Towers was Minoru Yamasaki. His journey towards designing the World Trade Center’s twin towers, which would later become globally renowned, commenced sixty years ago this month. Back then, Yamasaki, a Seattle-trained architect, was working feverishly alongside his engineering team to finalize the design for the twin towers, with plans to unveil them to the public in January 1964.
The inception of these iconic towers traced back to the optimism expressed during Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition in 1962. Yamasaki had gained acclaim for his Federal Science Pavilion, which he crafted for the World’s Fair. This event also witnessed his active involvement as a member of the advisory committee. The pavilion complex has since evolved into the Pacific Science Center, a prominent landmark in the city. Yamasaki left a profound impression on both visitors and the media as a modern architect capable of conceiving structures that epitomized beauty, akin to a 21st-century Alhambra—a place of aesthetic allure and tranquility.
Yamasaki’s journey was marked by his personal experiences, including racism during his upbringing in Seattle’s Japantown on Yesler Hill. He had helped his parents evade the Japanese incarceration on the West Coast during World War II by relocating them to his one-room apartment in New York. Yamasaki also endured grueling working conditions in Alaskan canneries as he worked his way through college while studying architecture at the University of Washington. These experiences instilled in him a belief in architecture’s power to uplift individuals amidst the harsh realities of the modern world.
While the Space Needle emerged as the symbol of the fair, Yamasaki’s pavilion, characterized by its “Space Age Gothic” arches and exterior pools and fountains, stood out as its architectural gem. While some critics may have been dismissive of his work—Vincent Scully once referred to an earlier Yamasaki project as a “twittering aviary”—others, including a representative from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were captivated upon seeing it in person. Following the fair’s conclusion, Yamasaki joined the roster of architects being considered for the prestigious World Trade Center project in Lower Manhattan.
Yamasaki’s Detroit-based firm was ultimately chosen to lead the design team. The project’s objectives were clear yet daunting: construct the world’s tallest buildings while ensuring their aesthetic appeal. Yamasaki, despite never having undertaken such a colossal commission, was brimming with innovative ideas. Collaborating with Seattle engineer John Skilling’s team, they devised a groundbreaking structural approach that would grant the Trade Center towers unprecedented height, each towering over 1,300 feet, while maximizing leasable square footage—each floor provided approximately an acre of space. These towers were unique in that they were supported not by internal pillars but by their external frames.
Skilling had previously worked with Yamasaki on the Science Pavilion’s striking space arches. While working on the World Trade Center’s design, they also conceived the IBM office building (now known as the 1200 Fifth building) at Fifth Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle. At first glance, this structure resembled a miniature version of a Trade Center tower, featuring slender windows and an external structure resembling pinstripes, adorned with gothic arches at its base. When the IBM building was unveiled in 1964, it added a touch of mid-century elegance to a downtown landscape that had been lacking in such sophistication.
However, the Trade Center project was rife with challenges. Height and budget constraints presented limitations and complexities. Ensuring stability against wind and sway in 90-story towers and devising adequate fire protection were among the formidable tasks. Balancing size and elegance appeared paradoxical. During the design phase, Yamasaki was tempted to abandon the project, but he ultimately deemed it a “twice-in-a-lifetime” commission, one that he regarded as the “grandest project ever.”
Despite previous criticism for being overly decorative, Yamasaki adopted a decidedly minimalist approach for the towers, eschewing intricate embellishments. The twin towers were visually unadorned compared to some of New York’s other classic skyscrapers. Their sheer scale would serve as their message, and their soaring height would symbolize global economic ascendance. Yamasaki envisioned them as a “beacon of democracy.”
However, their unprecedented scale was tragically marred by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While it can be acknowledged that the towers’ design and engineering allowed many occupants to escape following the deliberate aircraft crashes, the attacks remain a harrowing chapter in history. The post-9/11 period involved painstaking scrutiny of how the structures failed.
Although Yamasaki passed away in 1986, Leslie Robertson, the tower engineer who worked alongside Skilling, bore witness to the 9/11 attacks. In the aftermath, he lamented, “There are all kinds of terrible things that take place on this planet, that nature brings on us. But this event … was it man against man but it was live on television, and we watched it, and you could reach out and touch it… but there was nothing you could do.”
Even today, the events of 9/11 continue to occupy a prominent place in our political discourse. Some political figures have sought to question the official narrative, hinting at government conspiracies. Rudolph Giuliani, who gained worldwide recognition as New York City’s mayor during 9/11, has faced legal troubles, raising questions about his precipitous fall from grace as “America’s mayor.” Comedian Jon Stewart has passionately advocated for healthcare for 9/11 first responders who have suffered long-term health issues due to toxic exposure at Ground Zero, highlighting the importance of not forgetting the events of that day.
September 11 serves as a poignant reminder to commemorate the people and tragedies of that fateful day, acknowledging the heroism and terrorism that unfolded in multiple acts in New York and beyond. The Twin Towers, once symbols of aspiration and commerce, unexpectedly attracted both adversaries and admirers, a testament to their enduring impact on the collective memory.