Monday, August 31, 2015

The Proud Towers

The eighth and final segment of Ric Burns’ historical documentary on New York City, deals with the construction of the World Trade Center complex in south Manhattan.

It was the brainchild of David Rockefeller, scion of his grandfather John D.’s oil fortune (David turned 100 this year). By the 1950s, Rockefeller was chairman of the Chase Manhattan bank, located in south Manhattan, near the waterfront district that had undergone steep decline after World War II. 

Most commercial interests had migrated to midtown Manhattan, in the vicinity of the Empire State Building. What remained were several hundred retailers and other small businesses, and plenty of empty office-space and once-busy piers that were rotting into New York Bay. 

Rockefeller feared that the Wall Street stock-exchange’s status as world financial centre would be lost if the area went down any further. He proposed construction of a world-trade centre complex, to house all the companies in New York city doing business related to the financial markets. 

The resultant process by which the project actually went ahead, verifies that skyscrapers of the height and “footprint” of the World Trade Center — that structure in particular, but including all tall buildings of more than sixty or seventy storeys — make no sense from a profit-calculus viewpoint. 

James Glanz, a New York Times reporter, is quoted in The Center of the World episode of Burns’ documentary: “The Twin Towers were the moonshot of structural engineering and in skyscraper construction. They were unprecedented in the same way that the Apollo program was, and virtually the same era. And they had similar ambitions. Just in terms of quantity, [the Twin Towers] were the biggest. Ten million square feet of space. Nothing had come remotely close to that number, in terms the amount of real estate in one complex. They were a multi-dimensional exercise in hubris.” 

But, Glanz goes on, “these things were wonders of the world. We shall not see their like again.” 

While the World Trade Center has been axiomatically identified with “corporate capitalism”, in fact it required much government expenditure to get off the ground. 

It was such a bad investment in fact, that David Rockefeller thus had to enlist the services of his brother, Nelson, who assumed the New York state governorship in 1959. 

When the state legislature balked at putting up the funds directly for the world-trade complex, Nelson Rockefeller instead turned to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a semi-autonomous body funded by each state to administer the massive harbour complex on New York bay. 

It is one of many commissions and agencies that were set up by the city government since the nineteenth century, employing professional managers and engineers to administer the highly-complex infrastructure and facilities of what was in effect a city state. 

Putting so much of governance beyond democratic control was a reform policy directed against the patronage-corruption that was endemic in New York city government. 

New Yorkers were, no doubt, better governed by the professional bureaucrats, than by oft-incompetent patronage appointees. But in exchange for “good government”, unelected functionaries assumed vast powers to arrange and direct the lives of millions of people. 

The most powerful, and famed (infamous to many New Yorkers) was Robert Moses, head of various independent corporations which controlled infrastructure spending not only throughout New York City, but the surrounding municipalities and counties, too. 

An entire episode of the New York documentary is devoted to Moses’ vast influence on the very shape of Gotham in the twentieth century. 

Suffice to say in brief, that the most troubling aspect of Moses’ unelected rule, was that many or most of his agencies were self-financing (collecting fees from road-tolls and so on), thereby putting him beyond the control of not only the city, but the state government as well. 

Moses was not in charge of the Port Authority of the two states: but it, too, was self-financing, relying on port fees to keep solvent — and it has its own police force. Still, the organization required financing for the trade-centre project, and while the New York legislature proved amenable to governor Rockefeller later on, the state of New Jersey agreed to fund it only on the condition that the Port Authority take on ownership of the financially-troubled commuter subway line between Newark and New York. 

It was, as observers noted, a queer mandate for the Port Authority to take on, not just ownership of a subway line, but the entire financial-centre project itself, a giant real-estate scheme with no direct involvement in the ports of New York. 

Indeed, the “renewal” plan called for the removal of port facilities, to make way for park space at the foot of the trade-centre. Nevertheless, and in spite of strident opposition chiefly from groups representing the businesses to be expropriated under eminent domain to make way for the trade centre,  others (inspired by the author Jane Jacobs), looking to preserve heritage streetscape, and still others of sober disposition concerned about the vast price-tag of the project, as well as doubtful of the necessity of placing so much office space in lower Manhattan — and area with a surplus of such real-estate already. 

The proprietors of the Empire State building were also opposed, citing the fact that as a government-owned complex, the trade-centre was at an unfair advantage compared to their privately-held concern. Even local television stations lobbied against the twin-tower design (unveiled in 1964), citing probable interference of broadcast signals by the 110-storey skyscrapers. 

Nevertheless, and in spite of the small-businessmen’s all-American call for “free enterprise” to prevail in land use in south Manhattan, the central-planning philosophy prevailed, and century-old buildings were demolished to make way for the ultra-modernism of the World Trade Center. 

Opened between 1972 and ‘74, the complex did as predicted — by its detractors: flood the market with office space, and thereby lower the value of commercial properties in the vicinity (the owners of which, unlike the agency-owned Trade Center, had to pay property taxes). 

Entire floors of the Twin Towers remained unoccupied for decades, and they did not become fully rented out (ironically) until just a few years before the buildings were destroyed. There is a reason why the Empire State Building remained the tallest building in the world for over four decades, until it was surpassed by one of the towers of the WTC (itself relegated to second place a year later by the completion of the Sears Tower in Chicago). 

After its completion in 1931, the Empire State quickly became New York's emblem: but it was not fully leased, either, until 1951, twenty years after it opened. 

Even then, the bulk of its profits came from tourists attending the lookout located near the top (a facility originally designed for docking airships), and this was the case with the World Trade Center as well. 

Take a look at my girlfriend...

But the latter did assume the place of the Empire State building as the chief effigy of New York City (reproduced and parodied countless times (as on Supertramp's Breakfast in America cover, as well as footage in the first seven parts of Burns’ New York, produced before the Trade Center attacks). 

The Sears Tower was, unlike the Trade Center, a private development, constructed by what was then the largest retailer in the world. But it, too, was a white elephant during its first decades, a money-loser with much vacant space, a considerable financial liability for a firm that faced series challenge to, and then loss of market dominance by competitors (such as Wal-Mart) during the 1980s and ‘90s. Sold long ago, and officially known as the Willis tower, the Sears building is the tallest in the U.S., but the WTC was much larger in terms of office space — ten million square feet, almost three hundred storeys (including the various other buildings in the complex), the single largest commercial property in the world. 

Even those (and there are several in the Burns program) who didn’t like the appearance of the twin towers, would have to admit that it was an engineering marvel. Its architects and designers overcame the problem of elevator- and beam-placement inherent in such tall structures, by having its weight supported almost entirely by the frame. 

Thereby, floor-space of the twin towers were not encumbered (as the case with the Empire State building) by load-supporting beams every few yards. On the other hand, the concrete walls were so thick that office-tower windows were relatively small and set back some feet from the interior. 

And, it appears that is why the Twin Towers collapsed so quickly and completely, with the jets smashing through the frame (as is evident on the footage of the event), and the exploded fuel igniting materials inside the building to create a fatal weakening of the steel. Nevertheless, according to commentators in the Burns documentary, the frame-load design of the twin towers was highly influential in subsequent skyscraper construction. It was engineering achievement which was bought at the expense of government largesse, however, with inevitable detrimental consequences for the free-market, at least in the short run. 

For, as the columnist Pete Hamill stated, if the Twin Towers and associated buildings hadn’t been constructed when they did — and given the near-default on debt that New York City nearly experienced during the mid-1970s, just after the completion of the project, they wouldn’t have constructed at a later time.

Hamill had already expressed his disdain for the levelling of old-time neighbourhoods to make way for the Trade Center.  Yet, even he admitted that without the urban-renewal that came with the development, there would have been insufficient office-space in the area near Wall Street to house the thousands of workers directly and indirectly involved in the booming financial services sector of the 1990s. 

If so, the financial heart of New York could well have drifted uptown, as David Rockefeller predicted it would without the Trade Center (on the other hand, a Lower Manhattan without the twin towers and resultant demolitions could well have developed into another bohemian-artist quarter, like nearby Greenwich Village). 

In the event, the Trade Center did inspire a renewed building boom in downtown New York. But significantly, no builder even attempted to go near the height of the WTC. Like the Apollo moonshot, and most other large-scale engineering feats, the Trade Center came about as result of large-scale government spending and subsidy. Whatever the beneficial consequences that ultimately arose for private industry from these expenditures, private investors have been reluctant to spend such sums on engineering projects of even the modest scale of the World Trade Center (as compared even to the Apollo program) for the good reason that they are a poor investment. 

Rocket-ships to the moon, alike with the office-buildings that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, reached ever-greater heights, are plainly totemic in motivation, whatever the extensive rationality that went into their creation. 

Freudian and feminist theory would suggest that skyscrapers (and rockets) are objectified phalluses, and into this category could be included savage totems, as well as the pyramids and ziggurats of the earliest civilized societies (old world and new). 

First Skyscraper.

Perhaps it is more accurate, though less exciting, to consider pyramids, ziggurats, and skyscrapers as well, as monstrous extensions of the egos of the head priests, kings and captain of industry that had them built.  

An episode of Burns’ documentary focuses on the early twentieth-century “skyscraper wars.” Between 1900 and ‘30, one industrialist after another constructed headquarters for their operations, each building holding the record for a year or two, before it was overtaken by another tower. 

At one point during this period, two captains were building towers, each contending to be the world’s highest. It seemed that the one businessman had won out, when the other apparently completed his building short of the record. But then, a spire created in secret, was erected for the structure to take the name of world’s tallest. 

It didn’t last long either, and the Empire State Building was built to one more than a hundred storeys in order to beat out the Chrysler building, completed in 1928 at less than a hundred floors. But it was quickly nicknamed the “Empty State Building" because of the lack of occupants in its early years.  

American capitalists have been pilloried throughout the years for their slavish devotion to the bottom-line.  Yet, a significant and conspicuous part of their heritage - the skyscraper - came about often in spite, rather because of any inherent calculus.  They were, in effect, the gargantuan expression of pride.  

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