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 life-supporting cities.

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 occasions.

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 represents.

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 purposes?

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 uninhabitable.

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 World

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 natural fibres.19

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
 on this 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 inside metal.

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. . . 
and 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 
comes toward 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 sublime.”22

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 ignorant eye 
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 Delight!”


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 El-Amir,  
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, 2001.  
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,”, December 28, 2001.  
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.  
19. Ibid.  
20. Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer, “9/11 in Firefighters’ Words: Surreal Chaos and Hazy Heroics,” The New York Times, January 31, 2002.  
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.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2002, Vol. 52,  No 3.