ARCHITECTURE AS ETERNAL DELIGHT:
Reflections on the Attack of the World Trade Center
by Jean Gardner
The airplanes that attacked the Twin Towers on September 11
unleashed forces of nature whose awesome magnitude is rarely
experienced in modern cities. I am speaking about the natural energy
of fire and gravity. The impact of the airplanes hitting the
buildings ignited the firepower of fossil fuel. The intense flames
quickly reached steel-melting temperatures. As the structural beams
weakened, gravity overwhelmed the molten structures, pulling them
down into the streets of New York City. Everybody and everything in
their way pulverized.
Before the eyes of a shocked world, the Al-Qaeda strike used the
natural forces of fire and gravity to transform into murderous
weapons two of the proudest technological achievements of the United
States—the skyscraper and the airplane. The first skyscrapers ever
built rose from the ashes of the great Chicago fire of 1871. Just as
each succeeding generation of skyscrapers has been extolled as
impervious to fire, the creators of the first modern tall buildings
in Chicago were convinced that they were fireproof. By 2002, tall
buildings in the United States have grown to over 1,400 feet. The
first power-driven craft to succeed in defying gravity took to the
air in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Today, planes are logging
40,000 flights a day within the United States. The forces of nature
had seemingly been bent to human desire. We had controlled fire and
gravity. Modern civilization had tamed the untamable.
The creators of the skyscraper and the airplane controlled
natural forces in order to make life easier and better. The suicide
bombers used these inventions to incinerate thousands of innocent
people. Their act unleashed fear and aggression on a worldwide
scale. Now the clearing of their destruction is finished. The
unforgiving search for bodies is over. Many think we are ready to
reconstruct both the site of the World Trade Center and ourselves.
But, given the magnitude of the blow to U.S. pride and security,
thoughtful people are pausing to consider before we rebuild. Is
there not something that we can learn from this horrific act of
hatred—a hatred, which is itself a force of nature? The heat of
such hatred is as fierce as the intense desert sun at noon, its
coldness as numbing as a midwinter night in the high mountains. It
is this hatred that reimagined our own creations as weapons.
Despite the rage directed at us, some insist we continue to do
what we have always done—only bigger and better. After all that
has happened is this really a time for business as usual, for
blindly continuing to convert the forces of nature into capital?
Fortunately, there are some people who see that the past has not led
us to the more humane world we expected. Shrouded in the wisdom
gained from crippling grief, they suggest that we have the chance
for a different future—one in which the freedom we are defending
is not synonymous with living without constraints. Instead, they see
freedom as the responsibility to ask why this happened to the
richest and strongest nation in the world. It is possible that the
gravity of this historical moment itself can convert the destructive
energy released on September 11 into the wisdom needed to build more
Cities as Sustainable Habitats
The first cities arose some six thousand years ago in the very
part of the world where today we are concentrating our war efforts.
Archaeology gives us a picture of the overall form of these
settlements. Cities originally were walled, defensive settlements,
as in the case of Sumerian city-states. Ancient texts describe
specific benefits gained from living within these protective walls.
There were wells for drawing clean water, markets for trading fresh
foods and goods, shelters protecting from the vagaries of the local
climate, and people with whom to mark sorrowful and joyous
In the West, cities also birthed democracy in which every citizen
had a voice. According to the Greek planner Dioxiades, over the
course of a year in fifth-century Athens its democratically elected
leader Pericles could talk with all his constituents just by
regularly walking the streets of his city. In Medieval Europe, when
peasants were leaving the land to find work in urban settlements,
there was an adage to the effect that “city air makes you free.”
One of the fundamental purposes of cities throughout their long
history is to sustain life—not just physically, but emotionally
and spiritually. In order to sustain life, in order to create a
sense of well-being among the citizens of a particular city, its
inhabitants negotiate with nature on a continuous basis. Design
translates these negotiations into urban forms, which in turn
influences the behavior of city inhabitants, which in turn feeds
into future design practices. These negotiations over time create a
feedback loop between urban dwellers and the rest of nature. The
result is the countless types of urban settlement patterns and the
multiple possibilities for sustaining life that each type
To sustain life in cities, humans negotiate with three different
but interrelated systems: the nature of human beings, the nature of
the material world, and the forces of nature. For instance, with
regard to human nature, in a particular city, can women walk the
streets alone as we see them doing in the nineteenth-century
Impressionist paintings of Baron Haussmann’s wide, straight
Parisian boulevards? Or, as in nineteenth-century Istanbul, do we
see streets that twist and turn, taking us to courtyard cul-de-sacs
where women are often cloistered, as we see in paintings by
Jean-Leon Gerome? Each of these urban forms— straight boulevards
or twisting streets—represents different perceptions of human
nature that manifest as distinctive urban designs.
People living in cities also negotiate with the material world of
nature, the world of trees, rocks, and other animals that provide
materials to build with. If we looked into a city’s garbage heaps,
what would we find? Years and years of discarded building materials?
Heaps of inflammable synthetic materials whose smoke is so toxic it
kills? Or do we see efforts to reuse and adapt “waste” for new
The third negotiation is with the forces of nature, such as fire,
gravity, wind, and water. In the days following the catastrophic
attack, when air travel was dramatically reduced, carbon dioxide
levels in the atmosphere, which create the greenhouse effect,
dropped by 25 percent. When New York’s mayor Rudolph Giuliani
restricted auto traffic in certain parts of Manhattan, again carbon
dioxide levels dropped. These facts give us critical information
about our relationship to the forces of nature. Through our routine
activities, we are disrupting the climate, which distributes the
energy of the sun around the earth, in unintended, disruptive ways.
The obliteration of the World Trade Center challenges modern
architecture’s negotiations with all three of the interrelated
systems mentioned above: the nature of human beings, the nature of
the material world, and the forces of nature. The destruction
illumines the consequences of our actions: our cities are becoming
Enflaming Human Nature by Aesthetizing Religious Forms
Commentators on the bombing of the World Trade Center argue that
both Osama bin Laden and the lead suicide pilot Mohammed Atta
believed that the World Trade Center represented an affront to
Islam, particularly believers in fundamentalist Wahhabism.1
Thirty-three-year-old Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian architectural
engineer and urban planner, flew the first plane into the World
Trade Center. According to Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern
Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns
Hopkins University, Atta personally experienced the impact of
modernity on traditional Egyptian culture:
Atta. . .was born of his country’s struggle to reconcile
modernity with tradition. . . .There had come to Egypt great
ruptures in the years when the younger Atta came into his own. A drab, austere society had suddenly been
plunged into a more competitive, glamorized world in the 1970s and
1980s. The old pieties of Egypt were at war with new temptations. .
. .Atta’s generation. . . were placed perilously close to modernity, but they could not
partake of it.2
Between 1985 and 1990, Atta studied architecture at the
University of Cairo.3 In 1992, unable to find work in
Egypt, he went to Germany to study urban planning and preservation
at Hamburg’s Technical University.4 He wrote his thesis
on the conflict between Modernity and Islam evident in the renewal
of the old quarter of the Muslim city of Aleppo, Syria, reputed to
be the oldest continuously inhabited city.5 According to
Matthias Frinken, a partner in the Hamburg planning office,
Plankontor, where Atta worked: “He was very critical of
capitalistic, Western-development schemes. . . .He was critical of
big hotels and office buildings.”6 A Time magazine writer reported
that Atta “bemoaned Western influence—specifically, the rise of
skyscrapers—in Arab cities.”7
The two destroyed monoliths at the World Trade Center were icons
of just the kind of skyscrapers that are currently being built in
Arab cities. These huge structures replace local, traditional urban
patterns of living and working, which are closely tied to religious
beliefs and practices.8 The holy men of all three
monotheistic religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—all
believe God destroyed Babylon because He “took it [the building of
the Towers] as a challenge to Himself.”9
Osama bin Laden shared Mohammed Atta’s view of the World Trade
Center as an icon of sacrilegious Western power. In an interview on
November 9, 2001 with the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, bin
Laden said: “The September 11 attacks were not targeted at women
and children. The real targets were America’s icons of military
and economic power.”10
Bin Laden had ample opportunity to know modern architecture well.
He grew up in a prosperous family of builders, earning a degree in
civil engineering in 1979.11 The family success began
when Osama’s father won the trust of the Saudi King, Abdel Aziz
ibn Saud, who reigned from 1932 to 1953.12 By the late
1960s, when Osama was still a young boy, the family business had
helped, “to rebuild the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem—the site to
which the Prophet was transported in his Night Journey from Mecca. .
. .The family company also renovated the holy places of Mecca and Medina, so the bin Ladens can
claim with justifiable pride that they have reconstructed Islam’s
three holiest sites.”13
According to Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam,
Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, in 1990 when the Saudi
royal family invited half a million American troops into Saudi
Arabia, Osama bin Laden was “outraged by the proximity of American
soldiers, some of them women in unIslamic dress, to the holiest
sites of Islam.”14 In February 1998, bin Laden issued a
manifesto denouncing the United States “for occupying the lands of
Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula.” He
declared, “to kill the Americans. . .is an individual duty for
every Muslim. . .in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the
holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip.”15
Perhaps as disturbing to Islamic extremists as U.S. soldiers
occupying the sacred Muslim sites could also be the fact that the
World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki, was a leading
practitioner of an architectural style that merged modernism with
Islamic influences. Yamasaki became a favorite architect of the
Saudi royal family, having designed the 1961 Dhahran Airport for
them. One year later, he received the World Trade Center commission.
In A Life in Architecture Yamasaki noted the influence of
Islamic architecture on the World Trade Center. He described the
central plaza as “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets
and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.”
According to Manhattan architect Laurie Kerr,
Yamasaki replicated the plan of Mecca’s courtyard by creating a
vast delineated square, isolated from the city’s bustle by low
colonnaded structures and capped by two enormous, perfectly square
tower-minarets. . . .Yamasaki’s courtyard mimicked Mecca’s assemblage of holy sites—[with]
the Qa’ba [a cube] containing the sacred stone. . . .
At the base of the towers, Yamasaki used implied pointed arches—derived
from the characteristically pointed arches of Islam. . . .Above
soared the pure geometry of the towers, swathed in a shimmering skin, which doubled
as a structural web—a giant truss. Here Yamasaki was following the
Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in dense
filigree. . .
The shimmering filigree is the mark of the holy. According to
Oleg Grabar, the great American scholar of Islamic art and
architecture, the dense filigree of complex geometries alludes to a
higher spiritual reality in Islam, and the shimmering quality of
Islamic patterning relates to the veil that wraps the Qa’ba at Mecca. After the attack, Grabar spoke of how
these towers related to the architecture of Islam, where “the
entire surface is meaningful” and “every part is both construction and ornament.”16
Based on the above analysis, Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta’s
hatred for the West can be said to include an abhorrence for modern
architecture and its disrespect for traditional design. Additional
support for this claim is an essay about hatred of the West by
scholar Avishai Margalit and writer Ian Buruma. They explain that
“Occidentalism, which played such a large part in the attacks of
September 11,” invariably involves “a deep hatred of the city.”
Margalit and Buruma argue that the presence of the modern city is
constantly felt even in remote areas of the Islamic world through
advertising, television, pop music, and videos. The modern city,
representing all that shimmers just out of reach, all the glittering
arrogance and harlotry of the West, has found its icon in the
Manhattan skyline, reproduced in millions of posters, photographs,
and images, plastered all over the world. You cannot escape it. . .
.It excites longing, envy, and sometimes blinding rage.17
Clearly, one critical deficiency of modern architecture is an
understanding of human nature within societies where spiritual
leaders govern. These societies use an architectural language in
which religion, rather than aesthetic or legal norms, regulates the
significance of building forms and details. It is entirely possible
that the modern insensitive replication of meaningful religious
architectural and urban design contributed to the hatred that fueled
the desire to attack the World Trade Towers.
Reducing the Nature of Materials by Quantifying the Physical
In the weeks and months since the fall of the buildings, the
process of grieving has been marred by serious questions about the
culpability of the building materials, structural system, and floor
layout of the two monoliths.
John Seabrook, in the November 2001 issue of The New Yorker,
argued that “the attack on the towers. . .highlights several
potential weaknesses in the way that many modern high-rises are
constructed.” His summary of those weaknesses follows:
The perimeter structures of most high-rises erected since the
1960s resemble tubes. Inside, a massive hollow core made of steel
and/or concrete contains many of the services: elevators,
stairwells, and bathrooms. Because the core and perimeter columns
carry so much of the load, the designers could eliminate interior
columns, with the result that there is more open floor space for the
tenants. . . .Engineers reduced, or eliminated, the use of concrete [although it is more fire-resistant than steel] in supporting the
structure [of these high-rises].
The floors in most of the high-rise buildings erected since the
sixties are much lighter in weight than the floors in the older
buildings. . . .
In typical high-rise office floor, three or four inches of
concrete covers a corrugated-steel deck, whose weight is supported.
. .in the case of the Twin Towers, by long “trusses”—lightweight strips of steel that
are braced by cross- hatched webs of square of cylindrical bars,
creating a hollow space below each floor surface. This space allows
builders to install heating and cooling ducts within the floors,
rather than in a drop ceiling below them [the floors]—an
innovation that means the developer can increase the number of
floors in the entire building.18
But these innovations, which builders welcomed, had potentially
deadly consequences that firefighters foresaw:
In 1976, the New York City Fire Commissioner, John O’Hagan,
published “High Rise/Fire and Life Safety,” in which he called
attention to the serious fire-safety issues in most high-rise
buildings constructed since 1970, referring to such buildings as “semi-combustible.”
The questionable performance of the fire protection used in these
buildings, combined with the greater expanse of lightweight,
unsupported floors, O’Hagan said, created the potential for collapse of the
individual floors and of the entire structure. He also pointed out
that the open spaces favored by modern developers allowed fires to
spread faster than the compartmentalized spaces of the earlier
buildings, and that the synthetic furnishings in modern buildings
created more heat and smoke than materials made out of wood and
Regardless of O’Hagan’s warning, the changes to skyscraper
building practices that Seabrook describes “led to a high-rise
boom in New York City during the sixties and seventies. The World
Trade Towers, conceived in 1963 and opened in the early seventies,
were the most famous products of that era.” Underlying the modern
approach to materials, layout, and structural system of the World
Trade Center is an attitude toward the nature of materials
dramatically described by the poet Gerard de Naval:
Free Thinker! Do you think that you are the only thinker
earth in which life blazes inside all things?
. . .when you gather to plan, the universe is not there.
Look carefully in an animal at a spirit alive,
every flower is a
soul opening out into nature;
a mystery touching love is asleep
Astonishing! Everything is intelligent!
In that blind wall, look out for the eyes that pierce you; . . .
Often a holy thing is living hidden in a dark creature. . .
like an eye which is born covered by its lids,
a pure spirit is
growing strong under the bark of stones!
What would new structures for the World Trade Center site look
like if they expressed the spirit that lives hidden in stone and the
mystery asleep in metal rather than limiting natural materials to
solely measurable phenomenon?
Ecology contains within it a secret, over and above its
scientific and political meaning for architecture. The secret is
that the rhythm and sound, the feel and smell of a building can
carry our consciousness beyond the solely quantifiable into another
realm where we can experience with Rainer Maria Rilke that:
To praise is the whole thing. A man who can praise
us like ore out of the silences
of rock. . . .
Have you ever experienced the way stone can praise, the way
architecture can “come at you like ore out of the silences of
rock?” Look carefully at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in
New York City to see if “a pure spirit is growing strong under the
bark of stones.” The challenge today is not only to design such a
living architecture, as Santiago Calatrava and John Todd have done
for the completion of St. John the Divine, but to have the courage
to build it.
Restricting our Participation in the Universe by Substituting
Naming for Experiencing the Forces of Nature
Control of fire and gravity contributed to the creation of the
skyscraper and the airplane, to the World Trade Center Towers and
the Boeing 767s used in the raid. These extraordinary devices are
testaments to the belief that there are no constraints on what
modern human beings are capable of doing.
Unheard is the warning embedded in the tale of Prometheus. Zeus
chained and tortured Prometheus because he stole fire from the Gods
to give to humankind. After reading the published interviews with
New York City Fire Department personnel as they vainly attempted to
extinguish the fierce fires and rescue the trapped people from the
two 110-story towers, can anyone doubt the inability of modern
technology to control the destructive power of fire? Lt. William
Ryan recalled that because communication was so poor, many fire-
fighters didn’t know which tower was which. He also told a stunned
interviewer that in the chaos he himself didn’t realize until
about 3 o’clock in the afternoon that the Twin Towers were gone,
hours after they had imploded. The south tower collapsed at 9:59 in
the morning and the north at 10:28.20
Unheeded, as well, is the precautionary counsel about the human
relation to gravity implicit in ancient stories like that of Icarus
who flew too close to the sun, melting his wax wings. Efforts to
keep astronauts in outer space for prolonged periods have produced
unexpected results: the weakening of bone density leading to
osteoporosis. According to architect Marc Cohen of NASA’s Advanced
Projects Branch, humans cannot stay in space longer than a year
because of increased bone porosity and other damage done to human
organs without the effects of gravity.21
Why has modern culture forgotten the human capacity, which other
societies practice, that enables them to relate to nature in ways
other than through control? Visiting Ground Zero, architect and
critic Michael Sorkin could not help worrying whether his habit of
aesthetizing experience was standing in the way of his taking in the
full enormity of the wreckage of the two mangled death- traps. “Visiting
the site of the disaster in its immediate aftermath, I struggled to
take in the somber beauty of twisted steel surrounded by the smell
of death—the pulverized rubble that seemed too small to contain
all of what was there before. I worried that something in me also
had to die, some capacity for enjoyment, if only that shopworn
Has the habit of aesthetizing, of naming even the most horrible
of experiences, blinded us to the “awe” in the awfulness of the
forces of nature? Has the belief that the forces of nature, such as
energy, are solely catalogable entities convinced us that naming is
synonymous with the wisdom that is gained from experience?
Modern descriptions of energy use the word to mean a measurable
entity identifiable in the language of science. In Webster’s
dictionary, the word “energy” refers to the work that a physical
system is capable of doing in changing from its actual state to a
specified reference state. In the mid-nineteenth century the laws of
thermodynamics codified these physical changes. Before that time in
the West, the word energy denoted more than a quantifiable entity.
It also referred to non-physical phenomenon, work that can’t be
quantified, such as opus dei, the liturgical work of God that
monks performed in the Western tradition. Many cultures recognize
this more inclusive meaning of energy: Incan, Ancient Egyptian,
Hopi. Words such as chi in Chinese and prana in
Sanskrit denote in English both physical and non-physical energy.
There are voices in modern Western culture reminding us of these
more complex experiences of energy. William Blake in the Marriage
of Heaven and Hell writes “Energy is the only life. . . /
Energy is Eternal Delight.”
Based on the possibility that energy is more than a measurable
phenomenon, I would like to recover a broader, more inclusive
definition for it. Energy is the medium that binds us one to another
and to all members of the Earth community. It is a primary force of
nature—of life. Energy is the connecting tissue of life, merging
us into the cosmos with the air we breathe, the water we drink, the
food we eat, the thoughts we think, the feelings we experience, and
the constructed world we have created for ourselves.
I would like to recognize that a truly ethical, life-sustaining
architecture is not only energy-efficient in the sense of using
fewer kilowatts per hour or having renewable energy sources, but
that a sustainable architecture is also an “eternal delight”—that
which attunes us to the universe through binding experience. When
our cities are truly life sustaining, they will help us, as Wallace
Stevens writes, to:
become an ignorant man again
and see the sun again with an
and see it clearly in the idea of it.
This is the ethical challenge of sustainable design today: to
have a low impact on the Earth while powerfully impacting and
uniting communities. A truly sustainable architecture sings to us as
poetry does, expressing, as Gerard de Naval said, the “mystery. .
. asleep inside metal,” awakening us to experience the universe
and to the possibility that architecture can be an “Eternal
1. See “The Beginning and Spreading of Wahhabism,” Part Two,
translated, for the most part, from Ayyub Sabri Pasha’s Turkish
work Mir’at al-Haramain: 5 volumes, Matba’a-i Bahriyye,
Istanbul, 1301–1306; “Bin Laden Adheres to Austere Form of Islam”
By Neil MacFarquhar, International Edition of the New York Times,
October 7, 2001. “Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism,” By Col B.S.
Burmeister, The South African Defense College, Thaba Tshwane outside
Pretoria, South Africa: “Islamic Extremism: Wahhabism,” on
About, the Human Network with Austin Cline.
2. Fouad Ajami, “Nowhere Man,” New York Times Magazine, October
7, 2001. For 20 years Ajami headed Egypt’s security service.
3. John Hooper, “The Terrorist: The shy, caring, deadly fanatic,”
The Observer, September 23, 2001.
4. Ibid., see also Atta’s homepage where he uses the name, Mohamed
5. John Hooper, “Mystery Man: The ‘nice’ town planner who
killed thousands,” Sidney Morning Herald, September 16, 2001.
6. Hooper, “The Terrorist,” op. cit.
7. Time Magazine (online), “Atta’s Odyssey.” October 8, 2001
Vol. 158 No. 16.
8. Janet Abu-Lughod, “The Islamic City—Historic Myth, Islamic
Essence and Contemporary Relevance,” International Journal of
Middle Eastern Studies, February 1987.
9. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, “Occidentalism,” The New
York Review of Books, January 17, 2001, p. 4.
10. Hamid Mir, “Osama claims he has nukes: If U.S. uses N-arms it
will get same response,”Interview published in Dawn, November 10,
11. Pankaj Mishra, “The Afghan Tragedy,” The New York Review of
Books, January 17, 2002.
12. Ibid., 44.
13. Peter L. Bergen, Holy Wars, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of
Osama bin Laden. New York: The Free Press, 2001, pp.44–45.
14. Mishra, op. cit., p. 45.
15. Ibid., 46.
16. Laurie Kerr, “The Mosque to Commerce,” Slate.com, December
17. Buruma and Margalit, “Occidentalism,” The New York Review of
Books, January 17, 2001, p. 4.
18. John Seabrook, “The Tower Builder,” The New Yorker,
November, 19, 2001, p. 64.
20. Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer, “9/11 in Firefighters’ Words:
Surreal Chaos and Hazy Heroics,” The New York Times, January 31,
21. Conversation with Marc Cohen, January 23, 2002 at Ames Research
Center, Moffett Field, CA.
22. Michael Sorkin, “Collateral Damage. Assessing the cultural and
architectural aftermath of September 11th,” talk given at Cooper
Union, September 25, 2001. Other concerned citizens are raising
similar questions. Harry Belafonte, discussing the World Trade
Center disaster, recalled Martin Luther King’s question after
learning about the four young girls killed in a church fire in
Alabama, “Why do they hate us so much?” World Music Café,
National Public Radio, Thanksgiving, November 2001.
This essay was first presented at the “Ethics and
Architecture” conference on April 6, 2002, at the Cathedral of St.
John the Divine in New York City co-sponsored by CrossCurrents.