Context & Memory

Alexander Cooper, FAIA

There was a curiosity about the World Trade Center towers—the further away you were, the better they were. Generally the buildings we admire most reveal their more endearing qualities the closer you get. Medieval castles, Gothic churches, Renaissance palazzos—each become more special the nearer you are. The towers, however, on closer inspection, became chilly and vulgar. The plaza was sterile, the lobbies scaleless and the architectural detailing simplistic. Nonetheless, we loved them. I believe it is because when we saw them from greater distances, from Newark, from the George Washington Bridge, or from an airplane, they provided a sense of definition, of place and of pride.

The key to the design of the towers was its twoness. Only one would have been insufferable. Three, four, or seven of them would have been obscene. But two—perfect. The minimalist artist Roni Horn has written about and demonstrated the power of paired owls.

When our eyes try to compress two identical images into a single pattern, the visual condensation is remarkably powerful. As twins, the World Trade Center towers became majestic. There were moments, however, when the two towers became one. The offset of the towers, to allow views in all directions, meant that from certain vantage points (from 17 degrees west of the north and 17 degrees east of the south) the towers merged into a single form. This was distinctly true from the auto ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel entering New York. When one of the towers disappeared, we felt unsettled and deprived. Now that both have disappeared, our ability to reimagine them has been lost as well.

May 2002