Few discussions about the World Trade Center (most Americans still call them the "twin towers") begin with the complex's difficult start.
Having displaced hundreds of small businesses and constructed during New York City's fiscal crisis, the towers at their dedication in 1973 were largely lacking in private company tenants. Then New York Gov. Nelsen Rockefeller helped save the project by having state agencies and departments lease space in one tower, with the Port Authority leasing space in the other.
In any event, the towers most certainly were not considered "a destination," in the New York sense of the term, when they opened.
Architect Robert A.M. Stern said it best when he said the WTC's plaza "resisted vitality." And New Yorker magazine Architecture Critic Paul Goldberger summed up the towers' early history by saying that the two buildings initially succeeded only as works of abstract art.
The Towers: Minimalist Sculpture, and Guideposts
And yet, despite its lack of tenants, its streetscape that pushed the life of the street away, the towers' shape -- and no doubt their enormous size that created a landmark that would later become an icon and a symbol of much more than modern architecture -- were enough to help the WTC lease at least a few private sector tenants in the complex's early years. The revival of New York City's economy in the late 1970s/early 1980s would add more tenants.
As a teen visiting relatives in the city years ago, this journalist was always struck by the fact that there were two towers. My favorite office building had always been (and remains today) the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan, but the towers always had a special appeal in their sleekness, in the fact that there were two of them, and in their utility.
And concerning utility, as New Yorkers can attest, the towers were wonderful reference points. Driving home from the New Jersey shore: "I wonder how far we are from home? Oh, look I can see the towers - we're probably about 10 minutes away." Or, "Do you know how to get to that new restaurant Downtown? You go past the towers, north about seven blocks and you take a left on Worth Street."
The Towers: 3 Humanizing Events
Further, it was that utility, and three other World Trade Center events, that humanized the towers -- made them "at one" with New Yorkers and with the city of New York.
The first was French highwire artist Philippe Petit, who on Aug. 7, 1974, walked between the towers using a balancing pole. Further, Petit did not merely walk across the wire once: he walked across it EIGHT times, a quarter-mile above Lower Manhattan's sidewalks. At one point even laid down on the wire.
To say Petit was united in spirit with the towers would be an understatement. "They were alive, the towers. They had a spirit," Petit would later say. "Not many people know it."
Petit's hire-wire performance made headlines around the world, and his act helped connect the towers to the public. No longer were the towers two monoliths that pushed city life away: Petit's act made them an integral part of his art form.
The second humanizing event in the towers' history was the opening of the World Trade Center's Observation Deck in the South Tower on the 107th and 110th Floors.
Even people who scoffed at the WTC as folly, as a colossal mistake in overbuilding, conceded that yes, they had visited the Observation Deck. The thinking among many of these critics, many of them grizzled New Yorkers, went along the lines of "Yes, I visited the Observation Deck. I opposed the building of the towers, but they built the darn thing with my taxpayer dollars, so I figured I might as well go see what I paid for and see the view."
And, of course, the views were breathtaking.
Don't misunderstand, the views are wonderful from the Empire State Building, as well, but the towers, positioned near New York Harbor, offered stunning, up-close views of the Statue of Liberty to the west, the Brooklyn Bridge to the east, New York harbor to the south, and to the north, of the majestic Midtown Manhattan skyline -- and it was a kick to be in a building in which you could see the Empire State Building, more or less on an even level, four miles to the north. No question, the Observation Deck erased most of the resistance many New Yorkers' felt about the towers.
The third humanizing event in the towers' history was, of course, the opening of the Windows on the World Restaurant complex in the North Tower on the 106th and 107th floors. It contained a main restaurant, a smaller restaurant, called Wild Blue, and a bar called The Greatest Bar on Earth.
Dinners at Windows on the World were always noteworthy occasions -- they offered similar breathtaking views during the day, and romantic, skyline-lit views at night.
The Towers: Full of Life
In short, the towers, despite their difficult beginning, grew on New Yorkers, and were interwoven into the landmarks and attractions that define New York.
What's more, the economic, social, and cultural renaissance triggered by 1980s growth and then by the technology boom in the 1990s -- the "Roaring '90s" -- would later fill the towers with more than enough private sector tenants. In fact, so many businesses were being formed and/or expanding and the city's economy was so strong that Manhattan, as in other economic booms, once again became short of office space.
Of course, as the United States' economic system would come to dominate much of the world through the start of economic globalization in the second half of the 1990s, the towers became a symbol not only for New York, but also for the United States, for capitalism, for the cosmopolitan/urban life, for modernity itself.
In other words, as the sun rose on that clear blue sky, late-summer day in September, more than a decade ago, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had achieved more than even the complex's original designers had hoped: they had become interwoven commercially, socially, and culturally with New York, the United States, and the modern world. They were filled with the life of the world on that day.
Note: This article first appeared on September 9, 2011.