The World Trade Center was not at first a beloved work of architecture, but over time it settled into its place on the New York skyline, gaining wide acceptance as an icon of the city. Its destruction on September 11, 2001 greatly intensified that symbolic power, especially as expressed by the image of Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers. But as longtime New Yorkers (or at least longtime Lower Manhattanites) remember, the WTC consisted of more than a pair of skyscrapers. Dating from America’s era of “urban renewal,” with its ambitions of building cities within cities, it also incorporated several shorter office buildings, a hotel, and an underground shopping mall.
In other words, the WTC was a complex — which also happens to be just the adjective to describe the property-rights situation in the wake of its devastation. Talk of the imperative to rebuild began very soon indeed after September 11, but organizing a rise from the ashes was, predictably, easier said than done. As explained in “How the World Trade Center Was Rebuilt,” the video essay above from Youtube channel Neo, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first had to re-acquire the leases from all the different major tenants involved. And then there was the task of negotiating with Larry Silverstein.
Having developed the original 7 World Trade Center building in 1980, Silverstein long had his eye on the whole shebang. He finally managed to sign a 99-year lease-purchase agreement on the complex on July 24, 2001 — surely one of this century’s signal cases of bad timing. But he did jump into the task of rebuilding as soon as possible, completing the new 7 World Trade Center just five years later. According to the story told in the video, it would hardly be an exaggeration to characterize the project of redeveloping the WTC site as a grudge match between Silverstein and the Port Authority, with their dueling visions of the proper way to fill that highly-charged space.
That project continues still today, just over two decades after the terrorist attacks that brought the Twin Towers down. David Childs’ 1776-foot-tall “twisting glass monolith” One World Trade Center opened in 2014, but the much-delayed Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center is still under construction, as is the new 2 World Trade Center. With its recent completion, Santiago Calatrava’s St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church joins his existing World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Topped by a structure called the Oculus, designed (if not flawlessly) to open to the sky once a year on September 11, that striking transit complex also includes an expansive Westfield shopping mall: a juxtaposition of memory and commerce with power of its own as a symbol of twenty-first century America.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.