A remarkable biography—and autopsy—of the Twin Towers, controversial, like its subject, from start to finish.
The World Trade Center, according to New York Times science reporter Glanz and metro reporter Lipton, began as a brainstorm by a man once called “the P.T. Barnum of real estate,” William Zeckendorf, who had previously engineered the sale of a former Midtown slaughterhouse to erect the UN complex. That deal had effectively retired the only Midtown site large enough to accommodate a rival to the Rockefeller Center. When David Rockefeller, head of Chase National Bank, went looking for a building site to house his acquisition-swollen firm, he found that he had to stick close to Wall Street. The building he and Zeckendorf began planning in 1955 mutated, by 1961, into what a feasibility study called “A World Trade Center in the Port of New York.” Though at the start many Manhattanites opposed the costly project, by the time the WTC was completed in late 1970, the towers “shouldered their way into the affections of ordinary New Yorkers.” The WTC may have had a strange beauty, Glanz and Lipton write, but the construction was compromised in many ways by shortcuts taken to lighten the massive structure; whereas the Empire State Building, which survived a massive explosion when a B-25 bomber collided with it in 1945, was sheathed in brick and masonry that protected its girders and offered substantial fireproofing, the steel of the Twin Towers “was sprayed with a lightweight, foamy product . . . forming a fluffy coasting that would be hard-pressed even to stay in place—let alone give any fire protection—during a blast or impact or violent conflagration.” And that steel was so thin, the authors write, that when American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower on September 11, 2001, “the light aluminum of the plane’s fuselage and wings simply entered the building almost without slowing down.” The implications seem clear: such shortcuts, made innocently enough in the interest of aesthetics and cost-effectiveness, condemned the WTC to fail and fall.
A confidence-shaker that deserves widespread discussion as a new WTC begins to take shape.