World Trade Center
Literary and Cultural Reflections

Image of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Photo credit: unknown -- this image arrived in my in box.

Skyscrapers in general, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in particular, symbolize, for many writers, either prideful arrogance, or a new technological beauty. This site attempts to survey what has already been written on this topic.

What are you feeling/thinking right now? E-mail me.

The plane that went down in Pennsylvania and the carnage at the Pentagon often seem to be overlooked in the attention given to New York. My wife's extended family still lives in Pennsylvania. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and my sister works on military contracts that occasionally take her to the Pentagon.  (She didn't go there on the day of the attacks -- thank God.)  A high school friend of mine followed a career path that eventually found her doing forensic research, climbing through the carnage at the Pentagon. She doesn't want to talk much about it.

The World Trade Center

Technology and Culture

The World Trade Center

Minoru Yamasagi [WTC Architect]

  • "[T]he World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness." --Minoru Yamasaki 
  • When asked, "Why two 110-story buildings? Why not one 220-story building?" Minoru Yamasaki replied, "I didn't want to lose the human scale."
  • "The Work of Minoru Yamasaki"

Don DeLillo 
Mao II (1991)
"Eventually the towers will seem human and local and quirky. Give them time."
"I'll go hit my head against the wall. You tell me when to stop."
"You'll wonder what made you mad."
"I already have the World Trade Center."
"And it's already harmless and ageless. Forgotten-looking. And think how much worse."
"What?" she said.
"If there was only one tower instead of two."
"You mean they interact. There is a play of light."
"Wouldn't a single tower be much worse?"
"No, because my big complaint is only partly size. The size is deadly. But having two of them is like a comment, it's like a dialogue, only I don't know what they're saying."
"They're saying, 'Have a nice day.' "
"Someday, go walk those streets," she said. "Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space. All the space is inside. Am I exaggerating?" (39)

Frank Raffa [NY Fire Department]
The Day the World Stood Still
"Around 0840 I'm making my way down 7th Ave when I hear a jet plane overhead. Not a common occurrence in Manhattan but not outside the realm of possibility. I thought to myself that it sounded a little low. (Little did I know I was correct.) Minutes later I started hearing sirens." 
See also: "The Day the World Shook" [1993 bombing]

David Lehman
"The World Trade Center" (1996)
I never liked the World Trade Center.
When it went up I talked it down
As did many other New Yorkers.
The twin towers were ugly monoliths
That lacked the details the ornament the character
Of the Empire State Building and especially
The Chrysler Building, everyone's favorite,
With its scalloped top, so noble.
The World Trade Center was an example of what was wrong
With American architecture,
And it stayed that way for twenty-five years
Until that Friday afternoon in February
When the bomb went off and the buildings became
A great symbol of America, like the Statue
Of Liberty at the end of Hitchcock's Saboteur.
My whole attitude toward the World Trade Center
Changed overnight. I began to like the way
It comes into view as you reach Sixth Avenue
From any side street, the way the tops
Of the towers dissolve into white skies
In the east when you cross the Hudson
Into the city across the George Washington Bridge.

(From "Valentine Place" [Scribner, 1996]. Originally published in "The Paris Review." [source -- text not verified] )

Adam Weiss
"World Trade Center, 1974-2001" [posting to alt.architecture newsgroup]
"Much of the discussion and news of the crash, quite justifiably, surrounds the tremendous tragedy and loss of human life that resulted. But in a group of architects we may also lament the loss of the building. . . . Despite what is written the World Trade Center's Twin Towers were a symbol of lower Manhattan, and moreover a symbol of the financial power of the United States."

Technology and Culture

Genesis 11: [The Tower of Babel]  
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." 5The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (NRSV Bible)

Henry Adams, "The Dynamo and the Virgin", The Education of Henry Adams (1918)
Then he showed his scholar the great hall of dynamos, and explained how little he knew about electricity or force of any kind, even of his own special sun, which spouted heat in inconceivable volume, but which, as far as he knew, might spout less or more, at any time, for all the certainty he felt in it. To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring,—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power,—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive. (ΒΆ3)

Lewis, Sinclair, Chapter 1, Babbitt (1922)

THE towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings. 

The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes--they seemed--for laughter and tranquillity. 

Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne. Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the glare. 

In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with Paris and Peking. Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the Euphrates and across the veldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built--it seemed--for giants.

E. B. White, "Here is New York" ( 1949)

The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture (1953)
"The skyscraper envelope is not ethical, beautiful or permanent. It is a commercial exploit or a mere expedient. It has no higher ideal of unity than commercial success." (164)

Lewis MumfordThe City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961)
"With air conditioning and all-day fluorescent lighting, the internal spaces in the new American skyscraper are little different from what they would be a hundred feet below the surface. No extravagance in mechanical equipment is too great to produce this uniform internal environment: though the technical ingenuity spent on fabricating sealed-in buildings cannot create the equivalent of an organic background for human functions and activities." (New York: Harcourt, 1961. 480-81)

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (quoting Heisenberg)

The man would descend into the well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the results appeared to be very meager. 

Tzu-Gung said, "There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort.... You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well." 

Then anger rose up in the old man's face, and he said, "I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them." (63)

Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (1996)
Opening line:  "Some events are experienced by great numbers of people, diverse in interest, age, race, ethnicity, life style and life chances, gender, language, and place, who temporarily become bound together by a historic moment." 

Dennis G. Jerz, Technology in American Drama: Soul and Society in the Age of the Machine (2003) [buy from Amazon]

  • "It was Cain, the first murderer, an outcast among the post-Edenic outcasts, who later founded the first city (Gen. 4:17).   Augustine’s The City of God used the city as a metaphor, identifying Rome (recently fallen to the barbarians) as a splendid worldly city, and contrasting it with the promise of the New Jerusalem, the theocratic communion. As notions of the sacred and the secular continued to diverge, gradually giving rise to the concept of the separation of Church and State (popularly enshrined as one of America’s most treasured principles, although the phrase appears in no founding document), the concepts of city and citizenship changed as well.  Dougherty uses urbs (the brick-and-mortar mechanized spaces, as in “urban planning”) to refer to the physical city, and civitas (the concept of citizenship, from civis, “citizen”) to refer to the philosophical community –  a distinction which this book sustains even when many other distinctions between technology and art collapse."
  • "In The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferris attacks visions of future cities that are simply taller and busier versions of contemporary ones.  One finds in these works of urban prophecy few reflections on the psychological state of the common urbanite who is expected to live in this idealized urban space.  In general, the inhabitants appear en masse, or as anonymous silhouettes gaping at urban vistas.  The representations of humans belie no problems that cannot be solved through architectural planning... Lamenting that church spires are now regularly dwarfed by apartment buildings, he suggests penthouse cathedrals, with room for apartments and offices beneath.  This striking architectural solution is conservative, in that it preserves traditional notions of human and divine hierarchy, while it is at the same time radically humanist, for it reminds the faithful just who raised God’s churches so high."

See also:

World Trade Disaster Timeline & Photos
Here you'll find a well-done timeline, with many photos (unattributed, but who cares at this point) of the second plane impacting the World Trade Center tower.

Pictures and commentary on the towers, before their destruction: Bluffton;

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