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A dark day for gleaming visions

Yamasaki's vision tumbled down in New York, but stands triumphant in Seattle. Credit: Cacophony

The indelible images of 9/11 are mostly about wreckage. They are powerfully symbolic: the burning, then collapsed, towers, the piles of debris marked by the thin stelae of gothic panels. It was hard not to come away with the idea that modern civilization itself was under attack, which it was. But the ruins embodied that message so perfectly: our hopes, dreams and people, now a pile of ashes.

Ten years out from the attack, we are remembering the tragedy and its meaning. It is worth pondering the fact that the potency of the ruins of the World Trade Center Towers lay not simply in their destruction, but in the symbolism reflected in their design. Fifty years ago, the building that led directly to the design of the twin towers was being built here in Seattle. It conveyed, and still conveys, a message too, one that was amplified and adapted to the project on lower Manhattan. We know it now as the Pacific Science Center, but in 1962 it became known to millions as the Federal Science Pavilion at Seattle’s Century 21 world’s fair.

It was designed by a Seattle-bred and -educated architect, Minoru Yamasaki, whose mission was to create a showcase for modern science and give hope for a future based on it. The goal was to inspire and educate with its exhibits, but Yamasaki in fact created what many people described as a secular temple. Time magazine called it a modern Xanadu, “the pleasure dome of the Space Age” with its fountains and contemplative air. Tall gothic arches standing in the open grabbed your attention — “space gothic” they were called — and the concrete and white quartz dazzled visitors with — sparkling, numinous quality. James Gilbert, a historian at the University of Maryland who studies the interplay of science and religion, writes that Yamasaki’s pavilion “created a brilliant unity of spiritual — even religious — symbolism….”

Gilbert also points out that the spiritual quality was made more explicit by the pavilion built right in front of its entrance: the Christian Witness Pavilion, with its simple, modern wood sculptural arches and a spire that raised a cross in the face of the Science Pavilion’s secularism. Science might be co-opting gothic church imagery, but God must still be reckoned with. Lemuel Petersen, a member of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and vice president of the ecumenical Protestant pavilion, said that their building was “a reminder to man that God was and is and ever shall be.”

Public response to the Yamasaki pavilion was incredibly positive. Most fair visitors toured the pavilion, and they rated it their favorite at the fair; it has been kept going in its mission ever since. But its popularity irked modern purists. The biggest criticism of Yamasaki’s temple was that it did not conform to the tenets of high modernism and was needlessly decorative. The architect I.M. Pei called it “artistic caprice” and Yale’s Vincent Scully referred to Yamasaki’s overall work as a “twittering aviary.” 

The Christian Witness Pavilion, on the other hand, was a dud, panned for showing an overly modern, symbolic black and white film, Redeemed, that left visitors and the Rev. Billy Graham baffled. Still, Graham didn’t see any direct competition from the Science Pavilion “I think it’s going to send people to the religious exhibits to find answers to what their minds are left with at the Science exhibits,” he said. Perhaps, but few came.

One important man the federal pavilion did impress was Guy Tozzoli. He worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but in 1962 he was on temporary loan to New York’s Robert Moses. Tozzoli had been sent to the Seattle fair to scout it for the upcoming New York World’s Fair of 1964-5, organized by Moses himself. But Tozzoli’s day job was working for the Port and he was eventually put in charge of the Trade Center project, which would need an architect. In their history of the World Trade Center, City in the Sky, James Glanz and Eric Lipton write of Tozzoli’s first impressions of Yamasaki’s 21st-Century pleasure dome:

Here amid an orgy of noise was a marvelously cool and inviting palace, a contructed space with the serenity of a natural sanctuary, but where the aura almost recalled the majesty of the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal.

Guy Tozzoli felt peaceful. He would never quite figure out how to put his feelings about the shapes surrounding him into words, except that he thought they were beautiful. This spot was beautiful.

The result was an invitation, in the spring of 1962, for Yamasaki to become chief architect of the World Trade Center. The man in charge: Tozzoli. It was an enormous project, complicated, with huge towers (the tallest in the world) and far above anything Yamasaki had undertaken before. But he brought his space gothic template to the project (along with other models, including Seattle’s own IBM Building), and he expanded on capturing his futuristic idealism in his designs. He said that the Trade Center should “become a living representation of life which he so passionately seeks of truth and serenity, of hope and joy for all men.” The sleek towers, cathedral-like lobbies, white marble and mirror-like steel, large windows, and gothic arch motifs attempted to capture that sense. 

It is debatable whether he succeeded. The hubris of the structure itself and the relative inexperience of the architect in designing high-rises suggested a kind of over-reach, as did the Trade Center project itself, a real estate play pushed by the Rockefellers for lower Manhattan. Yet both the Federal Science Pavilion and the original World Trade Center were meant to embody a spiritual humanism that also serves commerce and material progress as the path to greater wellbeing. The Trade Center attack by al Qaeda was brutally symbolic in turning America’s strengths against itself. It was an extraordinarily cruel, bloody testament to the success of the towers’ architectural message. They were the antithesis of the old religion and the old world, a repudiation that incorporated powerful Eastern and Western religious symbolism in the service of a secular, democratic, and commercial message about the future.

The question since 9/11 has been, how will our nation recover? That process is ongoing, but we could do far worse than to continue to find ways of conveying Yamasaki’s architectural intent of creating spaces that promote “truth, serenity, of hope and joy for all men.” That requires that we recommit to shaping a civilization that serves those ends.

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