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The World Trade Center Was Hated Even Before It Was Built

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By the late 1950s Minoru Yamasaki had established himself as a major figure in American architecture. The son of Japanese immigrants in Seattle, Yamasaki overcame endemic racism in both his country and his profession to rise to prominence with a humanistic approach to modern architecture, exemplified in projects including the Lambert Airfield in St. Louis and the McGregor Memorial Conference Center in Detroit.

In 1963, Yamasaki was featured on the cover of Time magazine after he won the commission to design the World Trade Center, but the job would come to mark a turning point in his career. Less than a year before the World Trade Center opened, one of Yamasaki’s first major projects, the massive Pruitt-Igoe Apartments in St. Louis, was slated for demolition in a media event considered by many to mark the end of the modernist experiment in American architecture. The critical rebuke of the World Trade Center and the spectacular demise of the Pruitt-Igoe apartments in St. Louis pushed him to the margins of the profession in the latter half of his life. Today, Yamasaki remains largely unknown despite his enormous influence on the history of American architecture.

Minoru Yamasaki cover of Time Magazine January 18, 1963

The following excerpt from Sandfuture describes the early stages of planning for the World Trade Center in New York, the process through which Yamasaki won the commission in 1962, and the critical reception of the project when it opened in 1973.

The island of Manhattan is built on three strata of course metamorphic bedrock—Manhattan schist, Inwood marble, and Fordham gneiss—that run north to south along the island’s cetacean spine. The bedrock abruptly dips several hundred feet below ground just south of Washington Square before rising again near Chambers Street. These geological contours account for the gap between the skyscrapers clustered in midtown and downtown, because tall buildings must be anchored on solid bedrock rather than on the glacial till that fills the valley between.

In 1955, David Rockefeller was Chase’s executive vice president of planning and development. A gradual exodus of white-collar workers from Wall Street office buildings to midtown landmarks like the Chrysler and Empire State buildings posed a problem for the Rockefeller family and the bank, which had significant real estate holdings in the financial district. On a February morning, real estate developer and family friend William Zeckendorf offered Rockefeller a ride downtown, during which he proposed a plan to bolster the value of the bank’s downtown properties with the construction of a spectacular new headquarters. Zeckendorf called his proposal—which involved an intricate sequence of sales, transfers, acquisitions, and demolitions within a tight tangle of downtown blocks—the “Wall Street Maneuver.”

To execute the maneuver, Rockefeller needed the support of another family friend, Robert Moses, who, in his capacity as the New York City Planning Commissioner, was the only man who could grant permission to permanently remove one block of Cedar Street, above which David would ultimately build One Manhattan Plaza, Gordon Bunshaft’s sleek International Style tower. Moses promised his support (in exchange for Chase’s support of his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway) but warned Rockefeller that the long-term viability of downtown real estate would require a project of even larger proportions. In 1956, on Moses’ recommendation, Rockefeller founded the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association—a consortium of downtown executives—to devise a plan to stop the “slow economic strangulation” of Lower Manhattan. The association asked Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to draw up a preliminary plan for a “World Trade and Financial Center” and hired the consulting firm McKinsey to do a feasibility study. When McKinsey concluded that the proposed project would almost certainly fail, Rockefeller ordered his aides to bury the report and pushed on, emboldened by his brother Nelson’s election as governor.

At a small press conference in January 1960, David Rockefeller formally announced a revised SOM plan for a massive “World Trade Center” near the Fulton Fish Market on the East River, and the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association recommended that the Port Authority do a feasibility study. With an uncharacteristic flourish, Rockefeller coined the term “catalytic bigness” to define the project’s intended public purpose—to be deployed like an economic defibrillator with a shock of sufficient magnitude to alter the course of development in Lower Manhattan forever.

In the manuscript of a book that would be published the following year, Jane Jacobs dismissed the........

© The Daily Beast

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