Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the Twin Towers.

Of course, the greatest loss of 9/11 were the lives of the people that were cruelly cut short by the actions of madmen.

But for just a moment I'd like to talk about the Twin Towers.

The towers were conceived in the early 60's and it shows: they blasted the street grid of lower Manhattan, swept away an entire neighborhood in the name of progress and (and at the risk of being flamed) ended up as a cool, detached failure at the tip of the island. It was a triumph of modern architecture, but not an inviting design.

Originally conceived as 88 stories, they added the extra 22 to get the required square footage they felt they needed. Another feature of the building was that unlike other skyscrapers, the outer skin was structural: it bore 40% of the buildings weight load, made the building almost impervious to cross-winds and allowed vast completely open floorplans with no columns between the elevator core and the skin. It was said that Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the WTC was actually afraid of heights; it was his idea to have the outside columns spaced at about 20 inches to have reassuringly thick metal between between the glass for workers who might balk at the vertiginous heights. The mullions narrowed from 3 to 1 at the top and bottom of the towers to allow ingress to the lobbies and views from the observations platform and Windows on the World.

Another innovation were the elevators. Part of the problem with super-tall buildings is that so many elevators need to be in service to get to the high floors. Skyscrapers like the Empire State Building didn't have this problem since they were subject to New York City's setback laws which required that the building became slimmer as it became taller. Fewer elevators were needed to get to the smaller higher floors. A project as mammoth as the WTC would need a solution or too much expensive floor space would be devoted to elevator shafts that produce no income.

The solution was the "skylobby". First used at the John Hancock Center in Chicago, for WTC express elevators went to the top, the 78th, the 44th and the lobby while local elevators went to the floors in between. The local elevators could be stacked making the elevator core much smaller.

The towers were set in a rather sterile plaza that before Battery Park City was erected (on landfill from the WTC site) was right on the East River. Much like Yamasaki's twin Century Plaza Towers in Century City that still stand today, it was beautiful as sculpture, but in real life barren and so windswept on some days getting to the lobby was a challenge.

I went there several times when I was a New Yorker, if only to take the PATH train and hit a couple of the shops in the promenade. Sadly, I never went to the observation deck or had a drink at Windows on the World, thinking that there would always be time to do so.

Maybe that's the ultimate takeaway from this. There might not be time tomorrow. Whether it's to visit something in the town in which you live or even to tell someone that you love how much your life has been enriched by knowing them, don't wait. Things can be gone in an instant. Don't wait to love life.

Photo: Village Voice

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