Minoru Yamasaki was an unlucky man. The architect from Detroit designed buildings people didn't like. His first significant project was the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in St. Louis. By 1975 all the buildings that made up Pruitt-Igoe were demolished in what had become the poster-child of a failed social experiment in modern public housing. In Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance film-maker Godfrey Reggio documents the sequence of implosions that brought the buildings down with a haunting score provided by Philip Glass. Ever since Pruitt-Igoe cities have moved away from the housing project model in search of more humanly scaled options. In Chicago over 100 residential high-rise buildings managed by the Chicago Housing Authority have been demolished. To serve poor people in need of a place to live the densely populated apartment blocks have been replaced by scattered site housing. It would seem as though the failures of Pruitt-Igoe are being corrected.
Just a few years before the demise of Pruitt-Igoe another set of Yamasaki designed buildings finished construction in New York City - the World Trade Center. When the World Trade Center towers were completed in 1971 they met with fierce criticism for being completely out of scale in the existing built environment in lower Manhattan. They stood at 110 stories each and were the tallest buildings in the world until the Sears Tower in Chicago topped out a few years later. In 1970 historian and urban architecture critic Lewis Mumford referred to the World Trade Center towers as an "example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city." Others shared his sentiment. In 2001 an architecture student from Egypt would pilot one of the planes that would eventually bring down the World Trade Center towers. While attending university in Hamburg Germany Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11th terrorist attacks, focussed his studies on the social disruption that modern high-rise buildings were having on ancient Middle Eastern cities such as Aleppo in Syria. Throughout history skyscrapers have been seen by many as having a negative impact on the organic development of the urban environment. The 1999 movie Fight Club served as the backdrop to yet another social criticism and the desire to see the destruction of tall buildings. Yamasaki's Century Plaza Towers in Los Angeles are seen imploding in the final frames of the film. It would appear the negative sentiment toward tall buildings has not been kind to Minoru Yamasaki.
What's commonly viewed as an American invention, the skyscraper isn't entirely a western idea. The Yemeni people on the Arabian Peninsula have been building cities with high-rise buildings for thousands of years in cities like Shibam and Sana'a - today UNESCO World Heritage sites. These are probably the earliest examples but the tall buildings we see as symbols of social failure or capitalist excess appear to be American made. That in and of itself hasn't stopped them from being built ever taller - and in places that historically didn't find them attractive. The allusions to the mythical Tower of Babel notwithstanding, visionary developers in cities around the world continue to dream up trophy towers looking ever higher to bring them the attention they are looking for. The current tallest building proposal comes from Saudi Arabia and is being designed by a Chicago architect. It will be built by SBG (Saudi Binladen Group) a construction company owned by a family of Yemeni billionaires. Of these bin Ladens, one of them in this large family - the disowned Osama - didn't like Minoru Yamasaki's buildings either as his terrorist organization funded the attacks that brought his World Trade Center buildings down.
Whether you came to appreciate the architecture of the World Trade Center for its grand statement or you derided them for the symbols many seemed to think they represented, they were but a landmark. The lower Manhattan skyline was changed forever - like a missing anchor at the bow of a ship. Looking at this part of town today it's hard to imagine them ever being there and in many ways sad that they're gone.