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The Center of the World: New York, A Documentary Film | Clip

Carol Willis, Architectural Historian

Architectural historian Carol Willis is the founding director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York City and author of Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. Producer Ric Burns interviewed her during the making of New York: The Center of the World.


Opposition to the World Trade Center
The opposition to the World Trade Center on the West Side site came from a lot of different directions. And one was simply the resident businesses of Radio Row, that was a vibrant wholesaling and retailing district that had been implanted there in the 1920s and had a kind of identity that people thought of when they thought of New York in the Lower West Side.

But I think the more forceful and the more deeply controversial aspects of the development of the World Trade Center had to do with the competition between the private sector's development and response to the need for office space, and the tremendous forces and reserves of revenue that the Port Authority had, in order to give them a kind of unfair advantage in competing in the real estate market. And so there were many people within the New York real estate industry who were opposed to the World Trade Center's ten million square feet of new office space flooding the market, because they legitimately feared that that space would throw out of whack the whole commercial private market in real estate in New York.

Tall Buildings 
In one way, the twin towers were exceptional, and in another, they were completely characteristic of that moment in American architecture in the late 1960s and early 70s, when a kind of value, aesthetic value, of engineering innovation, as well as a kind of minimalism or economy of expression, in terms of structural engineering, seemed to have a value all its own. Architects and engineers working together in collaboration, as Yamasaki worked with the engineer Les Robertson, was a kind of ideal of the marriage of the arts of design and of construction. And one saw that in other buildings of that particular moment -- of course in Chicago in the John Hancock Tower, or in the Sears Tower, which, soon after the Trade Center topped out, was rising to become and take over the title of the world's tallest. But the principle that drove those buildings up and forward was a kind of implicit belief in the perfection of cooperation of architecture and engineering as a kind of aesthetic economy that balanced the kind of economics of the bottom line, that was so important in skyscraper design.

One looks at the other buildings of that period, like the Sears Tower or John Hancock, and you see an American belief in technology, an ambition to build taller, to be better, to use technology to ascend. Whether it was to shoot for the moon and the space walks, or whether it was to raise the human and the radio and television antenna far above that -- to bring that technology to the top was a part of the belief in a sort of American invention and an advancing world where bigger is better, and technology solves problems rather than creates them.

The Public's Opinion of Skyscrapers
I think that in the days before 9/11 in New York, from the 1990s or so on, there was a kind of psychology in the city that was against height, in favor of human scale and urban places, which are of course not antithetical to skyscraper development, but which had a kind of rejection of the hubris of the World Trade Center as a specific example, but in general of the kind of overbearing, shadowing presence of great towers in the human activity of the street and New York. And so skyscrapers had become, I think, a kind of victim to a grassroots community-based response to the kind of idea of neighborhood life and urban interaction that New Yorkers liked to think represented themselves. And this was illustrated and very much advocated by municipal regulation and new zoning laws. So in fact in New York it's very difficult to build a building of great height, of excessive height and of great showmanship, because the kinds of cultural and regulatory restrictions on that kind of ambition are a kind of community consensus.

On Rebuilding at Ground Zero
I think now, post-9/11, that there is a desire to see an image on the skyline which inspires pride, which makes people identify once again with a unique image of New York rather than a banal image of the skyline anywhere. That kind of depreciated identity that lower Manhattan skyline seems to have right now, I think, fills people with a desire maybe not to see the Trade Center specifically revived, but a kind of image of New York retrieved, so that people feel that they possess the place again, that they know where they are. And I wouldn't have expected that to be a part of the New York psyche five or ten years ago, because I think there's been an animus against tall buildings in this last decade. But now I think there's a sense that these buildings belong to us all, instead of belonging to individual investors; that they're part of our collective experience of this city and part of our collective identity. And that's one thing I think we lost when the towers fell, and that we want to reclaim again as a city.

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