From the pyramids of ancient Egypt to modern-day skyscrapers, giant buildings have reflected the diverse consciousness of mankind. Recently a succession of supertall buildings are being constructed in the Middle East, China and elsewhere, and we are on the verge of an era when a height of one mile is a reality. Is human civilization hard-wired to yearn for massive structures?
The site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks near the southern tip of Manhattan Island was full of helmeted construction workers and the roar of heavy machinery in mid-March.
Where the two 417-meter-tall towers of the World Trade Center once stood, there were now two huge man-made square pools.
The rest of the memorial square, designed as both a symbol of defiance against the terrorist violence and a memorial to those who died in the 2011 outrage, is gradually taking shape. It will be partially surrounded by five high-rise buildings, including Tower 4, designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.
The square’s lead building, One World Trade Center (1 WTC), had already reached the 95th floor when I visited, its mirror-glass facade reflecting the surrounding structures.
When completed late next year it will have 104 floors and a height of 1,776 feet (541 meters), making it the tallest building in the United States. Its height was chosen to coincide with the year the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence: 1776.
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When the hijacked airplanes hit the twin towers, real estate agent Larry Silverstein, 80, happened to be away from his office on the 88th floor of the North Tower. That saved his life. He is still a World Trade Center lease holder and is one of the key figures in the redevelopment of the site.
"I was raised in New York. This city needs a new tower," he says.
Skyscrapers first began to rise in Manhattan, which is of roughly equivalent size to the inner circle of Tokyo's Yamanote Line loop, at the beginning of the 20th century. Second-generation American Silverstein was born in 1931, the same year that the Empire State Building was completed, and grew up amid the city’s world-famous towers.
The World Trade Center's twin towers were built in the first half of the 1970s.
"Skyscrapers were born from money," says Carol Willis, director of The Skyscraper Museum, next to the World Trade Center. "The purpose of the WTC was to create as many commercial floors in New York as possible."
The towers were designed by Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki, and were initially widely criticized as "useless white elephants" and "ugly boxes.” But, as time went by, New Yorkers gradually came to view them in a different light.
"Everyone thought of the twin towers as a part of New York," says Robert Yaro, president of the local nonprofit organization Regional Plan Association.
Two months after the terrorist attacks, the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City created an independent body to consider possibilities for redeveloping the site. People such as Roland Betts, owner of Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River, took central roles in putting the project together, and an open competition to design a memorial involving renowned architects was held.