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The Janus face of architectural terrorism: Minoru Yamasaki, Mohammad Atta and the World Trade Center

About the author
Eric Darton is the author of Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999).
Nearly ten years ago, in what seems from today’s vantage like a relative age of innocence, I began assembling the materials for a book on New York’s World Trade Center. My strategy concentrated on observing these buildings as artifacts of a moment which, in the developed world, coincided with the transition from industrial to information age values, and in New York specifically between a mixed economy and an emergent monoculture of finance, insurance and real estate. Among other things, the World Trade Center signified a gateway between these eras.

First proposed by the banker David Rockefeller in the late 1950s, the trade towers were planned and built during the 1960s and ’70s by a public agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As they rose at the Hudson’s River edge, the authority’s director Austin Tobin described them as a “vertical port.” Though Tobin’s assertion was disingenuous at best, it is true that the advent of the WTC coincided with the eclipse of New York as the world’s premier port. The excavations for the towers’ foundation literally buried the piers at the southern edge of Manhattan, ending three hundred years of maritime culture there.

Though my research focused on tracing the political and economic trajectories that gave the trade towers their distinct form in a particular time and place, I also found myself steeped in the language and thought patterns of the men who had not merely imagined these buildings, but had shaped their forms and harnessed the will of thousands of others toward bringing them into material existence. The abstract nature of the planners’ and architects’ thinking, their willingness to reduce lived actuality to a set of disembodied quantities struck me powerfully. And so I wrote:

(Extract from Divided We Stand: a biography of New York’s World Trade Center) …You need only to stand for a moment in Austin Tobin Plaza to become immediately and keenly aware of how [architect Minoru] Yamasaki’s abstract sculptural ethos achieved a kind of chilling perfection in his World Trade Center design. Here you find yourself in the presence of two monumental structures whose formal relationship gives us no indication of their purpose or intent. You know they are office buildings, yet their design makes it nearly impossible to imagine that they are full of people. It is at this point that – even without invoking the optical trick of standing at a towers’ corner and looking upward – you realize the trade towers disappear as sites of human habitation and reassert their power at the level of an aesthetic relationship. And it is through recognizing this process that you may become uncomfortably aware of a kindred spirit linking the apparently polar realms of skyscraper terrorist and skyscraper builder.

This analogy between those who seek to destroy the structures the latter thought it rational and desirable to build, becomes possible by shifting focus momentarily to the shared, underlying predicate of their acts. To attempt creation or destruction on such an immense scale requires both bombers and master-builders to view living processes in general, and social life in particular, with a high degree of abstraction. Both must undertake a radical distancing of themselves from the flesh and blood experience of mundane existence “on the ground.” Gaston Bachelard, observed in The Poetics of Space that attaining such a state requires one to manufacture a “daydream”: a reverie in which one observes others as they “move about irrationally ‘like ants’.” Separated from “the restless world” of the here and now, the daydream world offers up the “impression of domination at little cost.”

For Bachelard, the design of the tall building demands, as the price of its extreme verticality, the sacrifice of a “dream cellar.” The skyscraper fails make room for the volatile urges that raised it to be explored, acknowledged and integrated. It remains, in Bachelard’s term, “oneirically incomplete” – robbed of space for the language of the unconscious. Thus our city of towers stands condemned to communicate only one side of the dialogue – it transmits messages of a “purely exterior” value alone.

Through building and inhabiting our towers, we push ourselves toward a break in connection with the stuff of our own humanness. For Bachelard, the skyscrapers’ elevators “do away with the heroism of stair climbing […] everything about (them) is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.” For the terrorist and the skyscraper builder alike, day-to-day existence shrinks to insignificance – reality distills itself to the instrumental use of physical forces in service of an abstract goal. Engulfed by their daydream, they are “no longer aware of the outside universe.”

Architect and terrorist: parallel lives

When these words were published almost two years ago, several reviewers including some who praised my book, took me to task for making such a comparison. Perhaps they found the equation facile, or else were not prepared to allow that the degree of separation between the two mindsets is narrower than we are comfortable with. So on this point in particular, I found myself feeling that I had climbed out on a very long limb where I could expect precious little company.

Then arrived, literally on my doorstep, a hideously literal confirmation of my thesis in the form of an article in the 10 October, 2001 New York Times. The story concerned the transformation of Mohammad Atta from “a shy young man” into the “mastermind” behind the destruction of the World Trade Center. It was Atta, apparently, who led the team of hijackers and himself piloted one of the planes that brought the towers down – though the Times, stuttering through his unhappy Odyssey, could not bring itself to report him a suicide in so many words.

Born in Egypt and graduated from Cairo University in 1980, Atta was awarded a scholarship from Hamburg Technical University, and, upon receiving his architecture degree, went to work for a German urban planning firm, Plankontor. There he “impressed his co-workers with his diligence and the careful elegance of his drafting.” But “instead of becoming an architect or urban planner, Mr. Atta became an Islamic terrorist.”

Based on the Times’s biography, a number of other ready points of connection arise between Atta and the WTC’s chief architect Minoru Yamasaki, familiarly known as Yama. As boys, both were dominated by autocratic fathers, whose professional aspirations for their sons sometimes took the form of devastating psychological cruelty. Both Yama and Atta found themselves alienated within their respective cultures. The son of Japanese immigrants, Yamasaki grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where he endured the vicious racism of the Second World War era. Even in later years, after he had become a successful architect, Yamasaki faced open discrimination when he tried to buy a house in suburban Michigan.

Mr. Atta reportedly felt alienated in Germany, but even more so when he returned to Egypt and found that in Cairo, urban renewal amounted to knocking down poor neighbourhoods in order to, as a German classmate put it, “make a Disneyworld out of it.” And so he fled back to Germany and, reportedly, into the arms of the jihad (see Jim Yardley with Neil MacFarquhar and Paul Zeilbauer, “The Mastermind: a portrait of the terrorist from shy child to single-minded killer”, New York Times, 10 October, 2001).

Daydreams of domination

Whatever the value of such psychological profiling, the parallels between Yamasaki and Atta would seem a kind of “DNA match” between members of the same highly disciplined profession exercising their skills at the highest level to opposing purposes. Bluntly put, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hired Minoru Yamasaki to erect their towers. A generation later, Osama bin Laden (we presume) contracted Atta to unbuild them. Though he cannot be called the trade towers’ client of record, David Rockefeller, self-proclaimed advocate of “catalytic bigness,” found amanuenses in Tobin and, by extension, Yamasaki. We will probably never know the identities of those who stood in the shadows behind bin Laden when he signed on Mohammad Atta.

If examining the nearly forensic interlock between Yamasaki and Atta is in any way useful, it may be in clearing the path toward the apprehension that the verticalizing and leveling of the WTC constituted enactments of polarized daydreams of domination. Whether a master plan entails casting away stones, or gathering stones together, the project rests upon the creation of an abstract, quantitative logic that supposes itself to operate on a higher plane than that inhabited by the human material beneath it. Package fifty thousand people in a ten million square foot office block accounting for weight and windloads and, as Yamasaki did, proclaim it a “symbol of world peace.” Sure, no problem. And on the other end: calculate the structural properties of the target, the projectile’s velocity on impact, the necessary payload of jet fuel. No problem. You just do the mathematics.

Now it seems to me that recognizing the down side of our capacity for certain modes of thinking should not lead us to renounce or suppress them. We might rather, and to our benefit, enfold our abstract and quantitative aspects within a wider awareness – one which permits bold imaginative leaps, yet awakens us from our daydreams when their enactment begins to hypertrophe past the point where we can recognize the human form.

We are creatures of the earth and air, capable of functioning with our heads in the clouds – so long as our feet remain on the ground. Rising toward the stratosphere, though, we feel we have broken free of gravity. When that illusion possesses us, it is not long before our ascent finds its opposite number in the terror of the fall.

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