Americana Collapse

The life and death of the World Trade Center


An interview with the World Trade Center's biographer

Angus Kress Gillespie shifts between the past and present tense when he speaks of the World Trade Center, as if he can't quite accept the structure's demise. A professor of American Studies at Rutgers, Gillespie spent years studying the history, cultural significance, and daily life of the World Trade Center, a project that culminated in his 1999 book, Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center. "For better or worse, I felt the groups of terrorists and I were on the same wavelength," says Gillespie, recalling the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. "We both felt it was an important building, although our approaches were a bit different." Now that the World Trade Center's life--and the lives of thousands of its occupants--is ended, its importance in the American imagination will only grow. REASON's national correspondent Michael W. Lynch caught up with Gillespie (no relation to REASON editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie) by phone on Wednesday.

REASON: What is the symbolic value of the World Trade Center?

Gillespie: The World Trade Center, located in downtown Manhattan in close proximity to Wall Street, represents American capitalism and hence the entire American way of life. It's provocative to a terrorist because our value system depends on a number of shared assumptions: the fluidity of capital, the mobility of labor, a secular value system in which anything can be bought and sold. While we're comfortable with those shared assumptions, they're not popular in the non-Christian world, which might see us as not just secular, but selfish and godless. The twin towers are not only in proximity to Wall Street, but they seem almost arrogantly high, inviting themselves to be knocked down.

REASON: That's the symbolism for non-Americans. Do you feel the World Trade Center has the same cultural significance in American consciousness?

Gillespie: Not quite. Domestically it works a little differently. When the World Trade Center was first built in the late '60s and early '70s, it was a lightning rod for criticism from all quarters. The architectural establishment slammed it as banal and bland. The steel industry was upset because 25 percent of the steel came from Japan. The landlords were upset because they saw it as government interference in private markets because the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which ran the project, is a quasi-governmental establishment. The environmentalists were upset when the World Trade Center first came on line because it was pumping something like 170,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson River on a daily basis. The building was also criticized for causing congestion by having 50,000 people on the sidewalk in that neighborhood on a daily basis. The Port Authority was criticized for the extravagant decor in the World Trade Center club: They had gold fixtures in the bathrooms, pink marble on the walls, silk ceilings. Some of the most celebrated criticisms were there were four chairs that cost $3,500 a piece. Even bird lovers were upset because the towers were in the flyway. Birds would get disoriented, slam into the buildings, and fall dead into the courtyard. It was kind of a public relations disaster when it opened.

REASON: It had a controversial birth. How did it grow up?

Gillespie: The Port Authority did two brilliant things to turn the public relations problem around. When confronted with a tall building, our instinct is to reach the top. The Port Authority gave people not one, but two ways to do that: A luxury restaurant for the wealthy and an observation deck suitable for Joe Sixpack to bring the wife and kids for under $10 for the entire family. It was accessible for every taste. Not only that, but in the 1970s there were three spectacular daredevil events that drew favorable attention to the twin towers. There was the tightrope walk by Philippe Petit in 1974. Owen J. Quinn parachuted from one of the towers in 1976. George "The Human Fly" Willig scaled the building in 1977. In every case, the Port Authority, which was receiving tons of free publicity, had the wisdom not to vigorously prosecute the perpetrators but instead give them a minimal slap on the wrists. All of those things helped to win over the New Yorkers.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, gradually the old school died off and a new generation came along who had always known the World Trade Center and its twin towers. Even though they are not appreciated by the architectural establishment, they have a subtle beauty all their own. Notice the two towers aren't side by side, they were off set. So perhaps as a static display it's not all that impressive. But say you're on a boat in the Hudson River and you circle around the two towers, there's an interesting interplay between the two shapes. The are spectacularly beautiful, or were, from Jersey City at sunset because the aluminum would reflect the colors of the sunset. So was it beautiful, even if the architectural critics say no. But was it beautiful, yes, if you knew were to look and were appreciating these subtleties.

REASON: As a lover of the buildings, what went through your mind as you watch them collapse?

Gillespie: I didn't watch them collapse. I watched a broadcast from 8:45 to 9:15, and then I had to leave to keep an appointment. I only heard about it afterwards. At the time I left, I assumed the firemen would come, the fire would be put out, the damage would be repaired, and life would go on. I never dreamed they would collapse. I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I think I still am, it's very hard to accept. I never thought it would happen. It took me totally by surprise. It's spectacularly successful as a terrorist act.

REASON: Would you have predicted that airplanes could have taken the towers out?

Gillespie: No. Where I was fooled in all the expert analysis, all the structural engineers seem to agree that the building could have absorbed the airplanes. The problems was that each airplane was fully loaded with aviation fuel, so the plane became an incendiary bomb. What did in the towers was the intense heat from the fires.

REASON: What was lost yesterday with the collapse of the towers?

Gillespie: I would say in terms of business, not that much, $10 or $20 billion. The insurance industry can absorb this hit and the American economy will move along. This is certainly a loss, but it's something the mighty American economic engine can withstand. In terms of politics, it's an insult. It's a poke in the eye, a kick in the shins. It's the gesture of a group with little power against a superpower. It's provocative and insulting, but we'll get over it. Perhaps even we'll find the perpetrators and extract revenge. But the biggest damage is aesthetic, because it's a permanent loss to the skyline of Manhattan. As the author of a book about the World Trade Center and someone who is very fond of the buildings, I would like to see them rebuilt. But as a rational person, I don't see it happening. The deck is stacked against rebuilding.

REASON: How so?

Gillespie: At least three ways. The culture has changed in the last 30 years. There are enormous and legitimate environmental worries about constructing any large building. The EPA now has real teeth. The second problem is that since the building was built we've seen an empowerment of the neighborhoods and the NIMBY factor. Third, there's the demoralization factor. Even if we're able to rebuild it in six months, who would want to rent space in it?