When we look back on September 11, 2001, we think mainly of people. We mourn for the victims of the attacks, we empathize with their families, we honor the rescue workers, and we reflect on our own experience. At the same time, we remember all of the technology of that day — the airplanes that the hijackers used as flying bombs, the buildings they damaged and destroyed, and the heavy equipment used in the massive rescue and then clean-up effort. Like countless events throughout history, the attacks of September 11 were a crushing mesh of man and machine.

The most prominent technology on that day, of course, was the World Trade Center complex. After the attack, the WTC’s Twin Towers came to symbolize not only the day itself, but also a collective emotion of people all over the world.

In this article, we remember the Twin Towers for everything they were: a remarkable technological achievement, a representation of an ideal, and, ultimately, a staggering reminder of our own vulnerability. In remembering this proud structure, we ho­nor the spirit in which it was built, and we memorialize the victims of the attacks.


­The original idea for a world trade center in New York is generally credited to David Rockefeller, one of industrialist John D. Rockefeller’s many grandsons. In fact, the idea was proposed soon after World War II, a decade before Rockefeller ever got involved, but he was the one who actually got the ball rolling.

In the 1950s and ’60s, while serving as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, Rockefeller­ was dedicated to revitalizing lower Manhattan. He hoped to energize the area with new construction, in much the same way his father revitalized midtown Manhattan in the 1930s with Rockefeller Center. As part of his plan, David Rockefeller proposed a complex dedicated to international trade, to be constructed at the east end of Wall Street. Rockefeller believed that the trade center, which would include office and hotel space, an exhibit hall, a securities and exchange center and numerous shops, would be just the thing to spur economic growth in the area.

By the 1960s, he certainly had something to gain from the WTC project. He had just put up the expensive 60-story Chase Manhattan Bank tower in the financial district, and wanted to increase the value of the bank’s investment. But he was also driven by the spirit of international unity. A world trade center would bring together people from all over the globe, a noble ideal in the decades following World War II.

With the help of his brother, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York state at the time, David Rockefeller got The Port of New York Authority involved. The Port of New York Authority, now known as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a government institution that heads up public projects in the New York and New Jersey port area. While the Port Authority is a public organization, it functions like a private corporation — it charges its “customers” directly and profits from investments, rather than taking tax money.

Since its creation in 1921, the Port Authority had been concerned mainly with bridges, tunnels, airports and bus transportation. It had never undertaken anything near the scale of the World Trade Center before, but nonetheless, the organization was the most logical choice to head up the project. It had the rare combination of government connections, diverse resources and the power of eminent domain.

Rockefeller commissioned early designs for the WTC in 1958, the Port Authority got involved in 1960, and the initial plans were made public in 1961. Then things slowed down considerably. For years, the Port Authority slogged through fiscal problems, public relations debacles and legal wrangling, not to mention the unpopular task of evicting the hundreds of businesses and homes occupying the building site.

With all the negotiations and logistical conflicts, excavation didn’t actually start until 1966. By that time, the design and scope of the project had changed completely, as we’ll see in the next section.

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